Payson Man's Career Was No Accident

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In one form or another Charlie Smith a former policeman, fireman, emergency medical technician, and now ambulance company owner has always been helping people, almost always at extremely critical times in their lives.

Clearly, the pattern of Smith's own life is no accident. And its direction was set long ago, he said.

"While I was in high school, I had the opportunity to become an Explorer Scout," he said. "I was one of the first five Explorer Scouts who got to work within the San Diego County Sheriff's Office. We learned about law enforcement, arrest procedures, got to go on patrol with the deputy sheriffs.

"I think that experience actually formed my thought process on how things should be in the world. There are certain people who are there to protect and serve, and there are others who need that protection and service. I just chose the first path.

"Whether it's conscious or unconscious, I don't know," Smith said. "I just followed opportunities as they arose, and always had competent people to help guide me down the correct routes."

Those routes have now led the 45-year-old Arizona native to Payson, where he has purchased Canyon State Ambulance, renamed it Lifestar, and relaunched the operation Sept. 17.

"I've known Bob Belk, the previous owner of Canyon State Ambulance, for probably six years. He gave me a call, said he was thinking of selling the company, and asked if I'd be interested," Smith said. "I said, 'Sure! I've done everything else in the world, I might as well own my own company now.'"

Smith isn't exaggerating about his range of experience.

Born in Yuma, he moved to San Diego at the tender age of six months, and stayed all the way through high school. Upon graduation in 1973, Smith enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard and became one of its very first certified emergency medical technicians. Six month later, he became one of its very first certified paramedics.

At the same time, he was also a federal law enforcement officer in boating safety laws and accident reconstruction.

After exiting the military in 1979, Smith followed his parents to Superior, and attended Gila Pueblo College in Globe, where he received his certification as a state police officer. Over the next several years, he worked as a deputy sheriff for the towns of Kearney, Apache Junction and Casa Grande, followed by a stint with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.

"I got tired of going to court on my days off, and they didn't pay overtime," he said, "so I moved on to my next love and became a volunteer firefighter in Apache Junction."

Meanwhile, he also went to work for an ambulance company in Phoenix ... for 8 months, at least, until the firm went out of business during a difficult period of industry deregulation. But Smith wasn't unemployed for long.

A new company, Southwest Ambulance, had sprouted up and was looking for experienced EMTs. Smith not only qualified, but not-so-gradually rose up through the ranks. Within six months he was a company supervisor, and by 1997, he'd worked his way to the position of state director of operations overseeing 150 ambulances and 5,000 employees.

Again, though, Smith was compelled to move on. He returned to San Diego to kick-start a new paramedic-ambulance company. ... and just eight months ago, he built up "from scratch" Southwest Ambulance in Las Vegas, which now employs about 325 people and is running more than 50 ambulances on the road every day, Smith said.

With a background like that, it's no wonder Smith was confident that moving to Payson and operating his own ambulance company was a natural career progression.

But this guy is hardly a stranger in town. His wife's parents have lived in the Mesa del area for four years and, long before ever setting foot in the Rim country, Smith crossed paths and developed friendships with Payson Fire Chief John Ross, four or five of the town's firefighters, and several other emergency personnel.

"So Payson is not new to me," Smith said with obvious pleasure. "This is like coming home to all the people I know. It's been a very easy transition for me."

Smith also plans on a very easy transition for his company, for which he has already instituted a number of changes and is planning many more. Among them are an increase of the company's fleet of ambulances from three to seven; the hiring of a trained, full-time ambulance mechanic; and the training and certification of all employees as emergency vehicle operators.

Those upgrades are all designed to help improve ambulance service in the 4,753 square Rim country miles Smith's company covers including all points north of Payson to Pine and Strawberry; east to Forest Lakes; six miles south of Sunflower; and all of Lake Roosevelt, Globe, Miami, Claypool, the Tri-City area, San Carlos Lake and Dudleyville.

"All of my employees know my credo: The patient always comes first," Smith said. "The patient gets all the luxuries and comforts and everything we can provide to them, as we get them to the hospital as safely and expeditiously as possible. Flat out. That's our focus."

That's the voice of experience talking.

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