Lightning strikes, medical calls and house fires made for the busiest July in history for the Payson Fire Department.
Fire Chief Marty deMasi said firefighters responded to 282 calls in July — 26 percent more calls than last July.
deMasi credits an increased number of visitors to the Rim Country, holidays and a particularly lightning-rich monsoon season.
While a major fire highlighted the month, the majority of calls for July were for medical aid. Fire calls make up less than 3 percent of responses a year, so Payson firefighters are kept busy, acting more like a paramedic squad.
On average in July, crews responded to six medical calls a day.
On July 22, firefighters got a change of pace when they battled a monstrous house fire on Grapevine Drive in Chaparral Pines.
The lightning-caused fire burned out of control for at least 45 minutes before anyone spotted it and called for help. The homeowners, who were away on vacation at the time, came home to a demolished home.
In the days before and after that house fire, firefighters checked seven other homes for lightning-strike damage.
Since it was discovered late, fire crews could do nothing to save the Chaparral Pines home, but did prevent its spread.
Historically, the PFD takes longer to respond to outlying communities on the east side of Payson, like Chaparral Pines, where the average response time is seven minutes. On nearly 90 percent of all other calls, crews are on scene within five minutes.
deMasi said it is physically impossible for Payson firefighters to arrive any quicker, given the distance from the department’s two fire stations, at 400 W. Main St. and 108 E. Rancho Road.
For this reason, Payson has an automatic aid agreement with Hellsgate Fire Department, which assists with calls.
This agreement will change, however, when Payson’s newest fire station opens this spring.
Construction crews have started building a two-bay station off South Tyler Parkway and State Route 260 to lower response times.
Once the new station is completed, deMasi said he would need to hire at least nine firefighters to maintain the same staffing levels. Ideally, deMasi would like to hire 15 firefighters, but realizes realistically that he will get less due to budget constraints.
Last week, the department suffered a blow when it found out it would not receive a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grant (SAFER), which would have covered the salaries of three firefighters 100 percent for the first year.
“The bad news is we didn’t get it, the good news is they just opened up the 2010 application period,” deMasi said.
Within eight months, deMasi hopes to know if the PFD will receive funds for 2010.
If the town doesn’t get the federal money, deMasi said there are “a variety of schemes we could employ.”
Hiring nine additional firefighters needed to staff a truck around the clock could cost roughly $600,000 annually. Currently, Payson spends about $2.4 million annually for its fire department.
deMasi plans to raise part of the money needed to operate the new station by canceling a $160,000 mutual aid contract with Hellsgate Fire Department. Using that money, deMasi could hire three firefighters.
Currently, the PFD has 12 reserve firefighters and 21 full-time firefighters, some of which have worked years for the fire department in hopes of being hired on full time. With the dream of a third fire station finally in fruition, some of these reserves could find a permanent spot on the force.
While not a permanent solution, deMasi said he could split the staffing up at the two existing stations and put one to two full-time firefighters at the new station along with a reserve firefighter.
deMasi hopes the town will approve additionally funding to staff the station, but realized it is struggle to get funding.
The new fire station is being built with a $1.5 million bond, which was approved by voters in 2003. From the bond, the department has $250,000 left over to buy equipment and possibly a new fire truck.
In 2000, the PFD opened station 12 on Rancho Road due to an increasing call volume.
While calls have increase steadily through the years, so have the number of simultaneous calls.
“It happens all the time where we get three or four calls at once,” he said. “One day we had seven calls in 30 minutes.”
And unlike the police department, which can stack calls based on urgency, the fire department cannot. “This is when automatic/mutual aid comes in,” deMasi said. “However, the response time stretches out with an increase in call numbers.”
Where fire calls are infrequent (making up less than 3 percent of all calls a year) medical calls are the norm. Emergency medical service calls accounted for 67 percent of all calls for July. In normal months, medical calls make up for 72 percent of all calls.
With such a high volume of medical calls, having firefighter/paramedics on staff is crucial. However, on several shifts, only one paramedic was assigned due to staffing constraints. On July 24, Tyler Cline started with the PFD and with his firefighting/paramedic accreditation, should lessen the load on other paramedics, deMasi said.