The governing board of the Picture Rocks Fire District has unanimously voted to end all further study and discussions with Northwest Fire District regarding a possible merger or consolidation.

According to a statement released by the board, it "did not feel comfortable with the issue of retaining the ambulance service's Certificate of Necessity (CON) should there be a merger or consolidation."

The statement continued, "The Arizona Department of Health Services issues CONs, which give ambulance services the right to operate in a specified geographical area. Currently, the CON for our area is issued to Picture Rocks Fire District. The laws and rules are not clear as to whether or not the Picture Rocks Fire District CON would be transferable to a merged or consolidated entity."

Further, the statement said, "If the CON was not transferable, Picture Rocks Fire District would forfeit its CON if it merged or consolidated with Northwest Fire District, making it available to other ambulance services. The Governing Board felt this uncertainty made it unwise to proceed any further with merger / consolidation study and discussions regarding both the ambulance and fire services."

A representative from the governing board could not be reached for comment. Picture Rocks Chief Kathy Duff-Stewart said the district's official comments about the issue can be found in the statement, which has been posted on the district's website.

Duff-Stewart said the district covers approximately 30 square miles, encompassing about 3,275 residences (taken from the 2000 Census) and between 8,000 and 10,000 people.

The district is roughly bounded on the north by the town of Marana, on the west by Avra Road, on the south by the Tohono O'odham reservation and on the east by Saguaro National Park West. It responded to 1,200 calls last year, approximately 80 percent of which were emergency medical service calls.

Picture Rocks Fire District has 15 full time firefighter-paramedics or EMTs and 25 reserve firefighter-paramedics or EMTs. The district operates two engines, two water tenders and three ambulances. Its main station is at 1212 W. Picture Rocks Road and a second station on N. Sandario Road is currently being replaced with a new structure, expected to be operational in March, 2010.

The district's tax rate, which is the highest allowed by law, is $3.25 per $100 assessed value.

The Northwest Fire District has nine stations spread out over its 140-plus square miles. A total of 242 full-timers are employed by Northwest Fire District, 205 of them firefighter-paramedics or EMTs.

Northwest responded to nearly 14,000 calls in 2008. The tax rate for Northwest Fire District is $2.26 per $100 assessed value.

Jeff Piechura, Northwest's chief, said his district fully understands the Picture Rocks district's concern relative to protecting its CON for its residents.

"Until such time as we can get some rules and laws adjusted to facilitate the intergovernmental transfer of those certificates, any merger discussions are on hold," he said.

Northwest's fire board last week voted to postpone any discussion of a merger with Picture Rocks, and Piechura noted they hope to be able to resume discussions in the future.

Before that could happen, he said, the Department of Health Services would have to revise and amend rules as they currently relate to CONs. Piechura pointed out the State Auditor General's office issued audits in 1999 and 2001 that indicated the need for rules revision.

Those audits, Piechura said, "indicate the rules as currently written are antiquated, outdated and require significant change to reflect today's emergency medical service needs."

Piechura added that a number of fire departments throughout the state are looking into getting the rules changed, and that he thought working through the governor's office to instigate a DHS review would be the likely method to be successful. Failing that, he said, legislation would need to be approved to make a change.

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