It's been a tough couple of years, but the Avra Valley Fire District has made a comeback in rebuilding its organization and getting its house in order.

Avra Valley is now running at typical staffing and equipment levels, and although the district operates out of only two stations, it has plans to remedy that situation.

The district's woes began in late 2007, when it was slapped with $366,000 in fines levied by the Industrial Commission of Arizona, which led to layoffs, closing stations and mothballing equipment.

The fines were the result of complaints made about a lack of proper equipment at a 2007 acid spill on Interstate 10. Those complaints led to a review by the Arizona Department of Occupational Safety and Health, which found 47 violations of state workplace safety in the district.

Chief Tom Nix, who took over the department in October of last year, said the fines carved deep fissures in the department.

"We were down to one station with three people per shift, so we had nine people working every day, running one fire suppression unit and one ambulance," Nix said. "Compare that to 23 employees earlier staffing three stations."

Nix said the district had to regain control of its budget, maintain its certificate of necessity and keep morale up in the department.

"We needed two ambulances in service for the size of our district, so we got an emergency certificate of necessity that allowed Southwest Ambulance to help us out," Nix said. "By January we were able to end that certificate and put our own second ambulance in service."

Through fiscal conservatism, reduced overhead and severe budget tightening, the district was able to claw its way back into the black by June of 2008, even developing a $187,000 surplus.

"We knew we could do it, but didn't anticipate that good of an outcome," Nix said.

But that same month the district lost its base hospital, Northwest Medical Center, and had to file for another emergency certificate of necessity. By the end of the month, it had established St. Mary's Hospital as its base hospital and ended its second emergency certificate.

Part of the way back to fiscal solvency for the district lay in the fact that OSHA reduced the amount of fines to $112,000, payable over a two-year period, as well as requiring an investment of $125,000 in spending toward safety and training over that same time frame.

"We redid our entire training program and scheduled required training out for a whole year," Nix said. "That includes all the OSHA-required training, as well as a majority of the NFPA

(National Fire Protection Association) requirements and our own district requirements."

The district also continues to perform annual hazardous materials training, and currently has three firefighters undergoing training to be Hazmat technicians. Once they complete the training, the district will be able to schedule a Hazmat technician on each shift, the chief said.

Patrick Calhoun, a firefighter/ EMT and district public information spokesman, said the district now has 23 full time employees — nine firefighter/paramedics, nine firefighter/EMTs, three captains (also EMTs) and two chiefs.

They operate out of two stations — 191 at Silverbell and Trico roads, and 193 at Estancia and Amber Sunrise roads. Station 192 was closed in 2007 because of mold issues.

Besides the full timers, the district also has 30 reserve personnel — 15 firefighter / paramedics and 15 firefighter / EMTs, who fill in shifts when needed.

"By using our reserves, we're able to save money by cutting down on overtime," Calhoun said.

The district is back up to staffing its full complement of equipment too, Calhoun said. These include three Type 1 fire engines used for structure fires, one Type 3 engine used for urban interface and wildland fires involving structures, one Type 6 brush truck with pump and roll capability, a 4,000-gallon water tender, two advanced life support ambulances and one in reserve, two support vehicles and one command vehicle.

The district also hired an assistant chief — Bret Lane — who is in charge of operations.

"He's also our grant writer," Calhoun said, "and we recently got a $15,000 grant from the 100th Club to purchase turnout gear."

Chief Nix said the 100th Club is an organization that helps fallen firefighters, police officers and their families, but that sometimes grants money to districts needing equipment.

"The grant money we got from them will buy eight complete sets of turnout gear," Nix noted.

Nix said despite the rebuilding process, the district responded to 1,660 calls during 2008 — 290 fire calls and 1,370 medical. Of the fire calls, 24 were for structures, 72 for brush, 3 state land fires, 27 vehicle fires, 12 hazardous materials responses and 182 public assistance runs (snake removal, bee calls and non-fire calls).

The medical calls were made up of 882 transports, 174 refusals to be treated, 190 cancellations and 66 false calls.

Nix sees expansion in the cards for the district in the form of another station.

"We have an agreement with Pulte Homes to put a station at their Red Rock development when they close on a thousand homes," Nix said. "I think they've closed on between 300 and 400 now."

He said when the station was designed, it was projected to cost $1.7 million, but that's a figure he needs to review, given the current economy. The station is designed to hold an engine, a ladder truck, haz mat vehicle and an ambulance. It will have room to sleep 16 personnel.

Assistant Chief Lane sees a positive future ahead for the district.

"Morale among our firefighters is high and they're optimistic in looking toward a better future," he said. "We're committed to providing the best service we can to our residents."

Avra Valley Fire District was formed in 1977. It serves the rural desert and mountain areas of northern Pima and southern Pinal counties near Interstate 10, with coverage area of 265 square miles. There are approximately 10,000 residents within that space. 

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