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Prescott Valley Tribune | Prescott Valley, Arizona

home : latest news : regional March 26, 2015

8/14/2013 10:23:00 AM
Community is key to fire services

Cheryl Hartz
News Editor

The best thing community members can do to help their local firefighters, said Central Yavapai Fire District Chief Paul Nies, is to stay informed and render their opinion on their area's needs.

"When fire leadership and elected leadership talk about firefighter safety, we're really risk managers," Nies said. "We try to balance between what we need and the budget."

As an advocate for firefighter safety, Nies knows an unlimited budget would provide unlimited protection, but it's unrealistic, and statistically, unnecessary.

"The question really is how often do firefighters get killed, and statistics are great until 19 people you know die," he said.

"If people want to help they can get involved in their local fire district. Educate themselves, and tell us, 'this is what we want for our community.' Tell us what you're willing to risk: getting a crew somewhere in 20 minutes or an 8-minute response time.

"We're painfully aware of how much you pay in taxes. On the other hand, I don't want to hand out 19 flags."

He referred to new Station 58, staffed part-time.

"It needs to be full-time, but it didn't make it through the budget. That would need a tax increase," Nies said.

He called the fire department "the agency of last resort, if it doesn't involve guns."

And they don't distinguish between and emergency and non-emergency calls.

"We're here 24/7. The general population doesn't know all the job entails. If someone needs some help, say for a leaky water heater, they call us and we figure it out," Battalion Chief Jeff Polacek said.

"Is a snake in the backyard or bees on the porch an emergency? It depends on whether you're 21 or 89 - or allergic to bees," Nies added. "But we have to go. There are people in the community who absolutely depend on the aid we represent."

"A true emergency is what you think it is," Polacek said.

Nies believes the Fire Pal program in schools is important.

"I will defend it as vehemently as I can. It ingrains safety messages in kids in a big way. There's no way to quantify our return on that education," he said.

Non-revenue mutual aid agreements with other agencies in the state - such as CYFD has with the Verde Valley - remain key.

"The nature of the fire service is, I will need help one day," Nies said.

And it goes beyond fires. For example, when a bus driver decided to cross a flooded wash in Kingman, a single department couldn't handle the outcome.

"It's one thing to rescue one or two people, but 25 on a bus eclipses the ability of any organization," Nies said.

Not enough tankers in the air to fight wildland fires is a federal issue, Nies said. Replacing old planes with metal fatigue caused by stressful maneuvers, and finding pilots to handle heavy vessels that drop 11,000 gallons of retardant in seven seconds while flying low and at stall speed over fires, is a tremendous expense. Figure $60,000-$70,000 per mission.

"It comes down to a financial commitment and what value do we get from that," Nies said.

To give firefighters a fighting chance to save your home, Nies said, create defensible space by removing vegetation debris from the ground. A cigarette tossed out a vehicle window into an urban neighborhood can start a fire as easily as in a dry forest.

"After so many years of drought, the fuels haven't recovered," Nies said. "The fuel load is not just 'this tall' and 'this dense,' but one that's been without water for five to 10 years."

"We get unusual fire behavior as a result," Polacek added.

Both chiefs agreed that community support is at an all-time high, but memories tend to fade. Hearing the community's voice is necessary for risk management.

"I can tell you what a reasonable amount of protection is. But budgets get tight. Citizens need to say what's of value. (For example) do you want a Hotshot team?"

People are welcome to attend Fire Board meetings.

"Get more involved in the decision making. Ask questions. Ask yourself, 'Is that OK with me?'" Nies said.

Related Stories:
• Central Yavapai firefighters, staff begin to process tragedy

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