Facing a massive $365,000 hole in its budget next year, the Hellsgate Fire Department is bracing for major changes in how it provides services to residents in its 40-square-mile district.
As early as July 2010, Hellsgate will no longer provide automatic aid to the Payson Fire Department and in May, Battalion Chief Doug Blazer’s job is cut. Further cuts include moving out of an administration building and back into the fire station, halting raises and overtime, selling off one engine and staff vehicle and switching to a squad response.
“We are going through major changes, but we knew it was coming,” said Hellsgate Chief Gary Hatch.
While the cutbacks will dramatically affect the fire department, still made up mostly of volunteers, it will not affect service, Hatch promised.
“We are trying to streamline as much as we can,” he said. “We don’t want to cut services at all. Our biggest issue is to keep everyone working.”
While Hatch is devastated to cut Blazer, he said it was done to save three lower position employees.
Blazer, who has been with Hellsgate part time for seven years and full time 18 months, left his position as a captain in the Valley to be Hellsgate’s battalion chief. The only way to maintain Blazer’s position would be a hefty tax increase, which Hatch does not see coming.
Blazer is now looking for a new job and Hatch will pick up the added burden of covering his responsibilities.
“This puts me back on 24/7 coverage,” Hatch said.
Currently, Hatch operates on a 72 hours on, 72 hours off schedule, with Blazer covering the district when Hatch is off and vice versa. When Blazer is gone, Hatch will have to respond to all major emergencies after hours and go on more calls during a regular shift, which is on top of his already full workload as chief in station.“It will run me ragged,” he said.
Hatch further explained crews will no longer use the department’s engine when responding to medical calls, opting instead to use a less expensive pickup truck.
While it is easier to run an engine on every call, especially if firefighters are called to a fire while away from the station, switching to a smaller truck will save an estimated $10.81 a mile, according to national averages.
On average, it costs $11.52 a mile per engine compared to 71 cents a mile per truck. Because of the cost savings in Star Valley, Hatch plans to implement a similar plan in Tonto Village. There, crew members will switch to type three responses, which involves using a smaller engine for medical calls, Hatch said.
Currently, fuel costs eat up $26,000 of Hellsgate’s budget, vehicle repairs, $40,000 and insurance, $125,000 a year.
To combat growing costs, Hatch plans to sell off one fire truck with a bad engine and a staff vehicle.
“People don’t realize how expensive it is” to run a fire station, he added.
Around the state, other fire departments are grappling with ways to handle growing costs and declining revenue.
As vice president of the Arizona Fire Chiefs Association, Hatch learned that 40 percent of fire departments in Arizona could close their doors within five years.
“There is the potential to go back to the Wild West,” he said.
Already, Arizona has made huge cuts at the state fire marshal’s office including removal of a state-funded system for training and certification and elimination of a fire resource coordinator.
“The state outlook is horrible,” he said.
Hellsgate’s economic woes started with news that Payson was no longer interested in constructing a joint fire station that would have benefited both fire jurisdictions.
Hellsgate had already made a $33,000 payment on the land near Valley Road that would have housed the station. When Payson said it would go ahead with plans to build its own station without Hellsgate, Hatch was forced to walk away from the property. On top of losing the new station, Hellsgate will no longer receive payment from Payson for automatic aid.
Currently, whenever Payson responds to a fire call, Hellsgate sends 12 to 16 firefighters to assist. This averages out to one call every three days. Last year, out of the 400 calls Hellsgate firefighters responded to, 153 were in Payson.
For responding to Payson’s calls, Payson paid Hellsgate $130,000 last year. This year, Hellsgate was scheduled to receive a $160,000 check.
Payson paid Hellsgate $30,000 for the first quarter of the year. Hatch said they were contracted to receive $40,000, but Payson asked for a $10,000 reduction. Hatch gave the reduction without question because “it is a brotherhood.”
“I know their wages have been froze, we are trying to help out,” he said.
Although Hellsgate will no longer provide automatic aid, it will still offer mutual aid.
Under mutual aid, anytime a fire department cannot handle a fire alone, all surrounding fire departments respond.
Hatch expects Hellsgate will respond to Payson roughly 20 times a year under the aid agreement.
Losing the contract with Payson represents an 18 percent hole in Hellsgate’s budget.
In addition to losing its contract with Payson, Hatch expects to lose $185,000 in tax revenue after the county completes property devaluations.
Home values are expected to go down 20 percent, he said.
While cutting Blazer will reduce expenses, it won’t make up for the deficit.
Hatch plans to save $22,000 a year by closing down the department’s administrative office off Highway 260, across the street from the Star Valley town hall, and moving back into station 21.
The smaller space must accommodate Hatch, a business manager and an administrative assistant.
While raises and overtime have been frozen, no pay cuts are planned. It would be nearly impossible to cut wages to firefighters making $24,000 a year, Hatch said. “My salary has been froze for two years already,” he said.
With only five years left as chief, Hatch said he is devastated to be tearing apart a department he worked so hard to create.
“It has been hard to build something for the last 28 years and now be tearing it apart,” he said. “It is not a good way to end a career.”
When Hatch started with Hellsgate as a volunteer, the department had no budget.
Now Hellsgate operates on a $2.2 million budget with only a million of that coming from taxes.
The department earns the other $1.2 million through fighting wildland fires for the Forest Service.
“We have always been conscious of how we spend,” he said.