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Smaller fire districts in Southern Arizona strive for hiring, upgrading facilities

COVID-19 pandemic highlighted ongoing challenges to competitively recruit & modernize older buildings
Volunteer firefighters
Posted at 5:32 PM, Apr 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-14 20:32:00-04

TUBAC/RIO RICO, Ariz. (KGUN) — You’ve likely heard or read the phrase, “Two heads are better than one.” It takes the heads of two crew members per shift to answer the call for help in the Tubac Fire District.

"I think the big thing now is to make sure that our folks understand how important they are to our success,” Tubac Fire Chief Cheryl Horvath said.

In her four years leading the district, Horvath said two of them required making the necessary changes to serve the public in the 160 square miles it serves. That, she said, took a toll on her staff’s morale.

"I think COVID really took some of that away from us,” she said, “and made it really difficult because we all had to isolate from each other."

Local first responders spent the last two years adapting to the constraints of the pandemic.

In talking to leaders of local, smaller fire districts, they discussed how both their unique and similar challenges existed even before COVID-19.

Asking fire chiefs in Tubac and Rio Rico, for example, they said they want to invest in hiring and keeping their smaller crews for the long term.

"There's always physical strain but there's always mental strain and COVID just really exasperated that for us,” Horvath said.

But even as they're doing that with the resources and partnerships they currently have, they also said new, capable talent may also be more willing to come or stay in Santa Cruz County if station facilities can help them do the best possible job.

Sitting down inside Tubac Fire’s Station 1, Horvath said she and her team are working through a cultural assessment.

While those conversations continue, she said two key pieces will play a part in making sure Tubac Fire can respond to the community's emergency needs: Finding younger recruits (it helps if they're home-grown like the ones working at Station 1) and then training them to work as both firefighter and paramedic.

“We can't get there overnight,” Horvath said, "so the retention piece is really, really critical. We can't be the rotating door."

There’s been some recent success, in that respect, through Santa Cruz County’s regional EMT academy. Only miles down the road at the Rio Rico Medical & Fire District, Fire Chief Adam Amezaga has brought on some of that coveted talent.

“I have an additional six recruits right now in the academy,” he said, “and I'll tell you this, I’m so impressed by the people that we're recruiting."

Amezaga said he understands it's hard to compete with larger districts that can pay higher wages. He said Rio Rico Medical & Fire is now also paying individuals to study and earn their EMT certificates.

Back in Tubac, part of the conversation about retaining firefighters and keeping morale high led back to Station 1’s living quarters. It’s a reminder, Horvath said, of how the district itself once called on volunteers to put out fires.

“It’s older. It doesn’t have the ventilation system like... before station 3 and 4 were built in 2010, 2011,” Horvath said.

When a building is around 50 years old, Horvath said, it won’t compare to the modern stations that have more up to date health and safety standards.

"This is our busiest station. We respond north to the county line and south past Rio Rico High school. This station responds everywhere,” she said.

One solution to issues in both fire districts would be building each a new fire station.

In Tubac, Horvath said money doesn't appear to be the main hurdle, so much as it is approval from a group of taxpayers to rebuild.

“It has been a little bit of a struggle with some folks in the community and I totally understand where they're coming from,” she said.

In Rio Rico, Amezaga said he feels like he has enough support behind the district for a new station, but is still working on getting the funding they need.

"We've already had people come and look at it and it would be much cheaper to build a brand new station and they would be to renovate it,” he said.

Tubac Fire District will continue to apply for federal grants and funding. The rising price in materials likely means a bigger final budget. Horvath said that, on the higher end, it could cost $5.5 million.

José Zozaya is an anchor and reporter for KGUN 9. Before arriving in southern Arizona, José worked in Omaha, Nebraska where he covered issues ranging from local, state and federal elections, to toxic chemical spills, and community programs impacting immigrant families. Share your story ideas and important issues with José by emailing or by connecting on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.