The Story Of Payson, Arizona

The Story of Payson, Arizona Chapter 40: Volunteer fire department organized

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A firefighter practices a forcible entry drill during a recent training session for Rim Country firefighters. The session took place at the Payson Fire Department’s new training simulator at the town yard. The town’s fire department has grown from a “make-do” company in the early days to a modern, professional firefighting operation.

For many years fighting fires in Payson consisted of the town folk running to the scene and forming bucket brigades. Large fires, like the burning of the Herron Hotel in November 1918, left the populace helpless, except to drape wet blankets over the neighboring structures and watch until the fire burned itself out.

In 1938, Grady Harrison purchased a two-piece set of firefighting equipment to protect his electric power plant. This consisted of a 50-gallon soda-acid tank mounted on wheels so it could be hauled about. Accompanying this was a two-wheeled pull cart wound with 200 feet of high-pressure hose to deliver the soda-acid onto a fire. This equipment was housed in Harrison’s bus barn at the corner of Main and McLane, ready to go when Boardman’s store burned down. Although the primitive equipment was not able to save the store, it did save Bill Haley’s Shell service station next door.

It was 1946 when the gift of a one-ton Chevrolet truck motivated the men of the town to form a volunteer fire department. The 1941 truck had come from Army surplus, and after rebuilding the engine they secured a World War II pump to mount on front bumper. Next a 500-gallon cylindrical tank was purchased and mounted on the back of the truck chassis. The truck was housed in a 12-foot-by-24-foot cinderblock building built on the slope of the hill across from the Ox Bow Inn. Since the battery was usually dead when they needed it, the plan was to roll the truck down hill, put it in high gear and snap the clutch to get it started.

The newly formed volunteers were called out to a fire by three shots from a gun. The fellows would look for the smoke and head that way. A siren was later installed, but as the volunteers moved farther out from the center of town, they could not hear the gunshots or the siren. Then the telephone operator had the task of calling the volunteers. Since there was no map, the directions to the fire might be something like, “It’s down by the house John Brown lived in when he was married to Shirley 10 years ago.”[1]

Of course, as new people moved to town and joined the volunteer unit, they did not know such local history, making directions more difficult.

In 1957 the fire district obtained a second truck, also a Chevy, 1942 model. It had been at the Boy Scout Camp, but when the motor blew up they gave it to the fire department. The volunteers hauled it to town, put in a rebuilt engine, and truck #2 led the “fleet” of two.

In 1963 it was replaced by a new International fire truck. Later, in 1982, it was sold for one dollar to the Whispering Pines Fire District. In the meantime, in 1975, old truck #1 had been sold to the East Verde Fire District, also for one dollar. Later it would be given to the local historical society, and eventually ensconced in a special house beside the Rim Country Museum from where it would still be brought out for special parades down Main Street.

It was in 1975 when Payson’s volunteer fire department hired a chief as its first full-time employee. He was Charles A. Jacobs, replacing the volunteer chief, Charlie Fleck, who had been loyally on duty from the beginning of the department.[2] Jacobs, a mechanic who helped as a volunteer with old engine #1, had been recruited by Fleck and named as the training officer for the volunteers. The state requirements for volunteer firefighters were so stringent that some of the old-timers dropped out, not wanting to go through the training.

Jacobs began shaping this small town volunteer company into a modern professional organization. For one thing, encountering people who were hurt, they realized the need for more first aid training. With a growing population, calls were coming for a widening variety of emergencies. Residents would see on television all that fire companies do elsewhere and began asking, “How come our fire department doesn’t do that?”

Payson’s fire department had come to a crossroads. Chief Jacobs knew they had to quit treating the fire department like a social club and begin thinking of it as a business. He led his department to a decision that they could not restrict themselves to fires; they needed to go with medical services as well. The chief and his men began intensive specialized training. Not only did they need to know what to do when they got to a person, they needed to get there on time. The town had not incorporated until December 1973, and there was no decent map or address system for the area. Jacobs got hold of every subdivision, real estate, and tax assessor map he could find and drew his own map book for the fire department. At least they could now get a cross street for their calls.[3] He began pushing his crew toward a four-minute response.

Next they had to find buildings to house the workers and their equipment. In 1978, a mobile home, the original town hall, was secured and moved to Main Street where it was converted into an office wing. A secretary was hired, and in 1980 a full-time assistant chief came on board to do fire inspections. The demands grew to become more than the three could handle, and in November 1983, the first three full-time firefighters were hired, one professional person for each shift. In 1986, with still more intense training, the crew moved up from Advanced Life Support to the Paramedic level. Payson became the first Arizona community of its size to boast this level of medical service. By the early 1990s two professionals were on each of the three shifts, with a third relief paramedic. Chief Jacobs had built the department to 10 full-time persons. In addition, there were still on-call firefighters who were paid when they were called upon. They carried pagers and were set up in engine companies, one for each engine in service.

Leadership is a special gift bestowed on the few who leave their mark upon all that follows. Chuck Jacobs had that special gift, and brought much good to his fellow citizens. During his 25 years of service, he took firefighting in Payson from a “make-do” company to a modern, professional firefighting operation.

[1] Quoted from former Fire Chief Chuck Jacobs.

[2] Information from here on came from an oral history interview Stan Brown had with Chuck Jacobs in 1993

[3] When the author spoke with him in 1993, the department was still using Jacob’s maps, and he tried to keep them updated.

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