COOLIDGE — Following a chemical fire that occurred earlier this month at its manufacturing plant, resulting in the reported loss of nearly $50,000 of equipment for the Coolidge Fire Department, Bright International has agreed to pay for replacements.
The fire broke out at Bright International on Oct. 4 at around 2 p.m. Firefighters were reportedly on scene working to bring the incident under control for more than 24 hours.
In the weeks following the fire, the event raised a number of questions about the overall state of the Coolidge Fire Department after the mother of one firefighter revealed that her son’s turnout gear and clothing where contaminated in a reported chemical explosion that she stated took place during the incident.
Bright International has since denied the claim, and in a statement said that the firefighter was injured when he was “struck by the lid of a container that came off due to internal pressure.”
The incident, however, left many Coolidge residents wanting to know more about the needs of the department. Concerns voiced by citizens at a meeting of the City Council on Oct. 14 included aging turnouts, the lack of adequate turnouts to address chemical incidents like the one that took place at Bright and the need for more full-time staff.
During that meeting, CFD also revealed that it had lost thousands of dollars in equipment as a result of the Oct. 4 fire, reportedly due to contaminated water emerging from the Bright facility.
According to the inspection report obtained from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, “on-site firefighting” resulted in “significant amounts” of water that had been contaminated by oxidizer waste.
Oxidizers are typically found in hair dyes and can be employed as bleaching agents, among other uses.
Bright International Corp. will pay $49,755.89 to replace the equipment losses CFD suffered on that day, City Manager Rick Miller told the council during a study session that took place Monday evening.
Bright International was also invited to attend the Monday session, but representatives were not present. However, Bright International President Tom Hoerman issued a memo addressed to Miller, indicating that company officials would attend the next council meeting to share information with the council.
“While our work is ongoing, we have made significant progress since our investigation began following the October 4 incident, and we look forward to sharing an update with the Council at your next meeting,” Hoerman’s letter reads. “Meanwhile, at this stage of our review, we can share that we have identified and addressed what we believe to be the issues that resulted in the recent incidents, and we are currently taking necessary steps to return to full operational status.”
The letter also outlines that Bright has implemented “enhanced safety protocols” at the Coolidge facility since the October incident — something that Hoerman credits for the “safe, controlled and quick resolution” of another incident that took place on Oct. 19.
The letter makes no mention of what exactly is believed to have been the cause of the Oct. 4 incident.
The Coolidge City Council previously expressed interest in looking more closely at what could be done to improve the state of affairs at CFD — something members began to examine during the study session.
Following the concerns raised at the Oct. 14 council meeting, CFD was instructed to purchase 17 new pairs of turnouts to replace contaminated turnouts that were involved in the Bright incident, Miller stated.
Money to pay for the turnouts will come from the funds the city will receive from Bright, he noted. In the effort of expanding the resources available to the department, the city is also hoping to get some use out of the old turnouts.
The turnouts were sent to a company that specializes in decontaminating firefighting gear for evaluation, Coolidge Fire Chief Mark Dillon confirmed. If the gear can be decontaminated, the goal is to salvage the equipment so it can be used by the department as well.
Beyond equipment, the council also explored what options would be available to expand personnel at CFD.
The department operates as a combination of five full-time staff and a number of volunteers.
Dillon is proposing to expand the number of full-time personnel to 10, which would include two administrative positions. One of those positions, he noted, would be that of a battalion chief.
“The battalion chief position would be someone who would act as a fire marshal, training officer and a secondary supervisor much like the Police Department’s commander in rank,” Dillon said.
Currently the Fire Department runs on two full-time shifts, seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
“Anything after 8 p.m. is a page-out and there are requirements that have to be met for a page-out,” Dillon said. “We don’t go on any (standard) EMS calls after 8 p.m. We do go on fire calls, if smoke alarms go off, any hazardous materials incidents, car wrecks involving injuries — those types of incidents would be a page-out.”
By adding two more staff members to each shift, the department would be able to run as a four-man engine company or run two pieces of apparatus. Aside from the battalion chief position, the proposal recommends adding three engineers, one firefighter and an administrative assistant.
The total cost to the city would be nearly $500,000 per shift annually. The figure, Dillon noted, includes the full city benefit packages.
“More than likely these numbers will not be as big as they are unless (the new staff members) take the full city benefit package,” he said.
But where the city will come up with that funding is currently unclear, with only a limited number of options available to implement the plan.
In addition, Coolidge will no longer be receiving funds from the Martin Valley subdivision, which has paid the city for fire service. The funding initially helped the department hire full-time personnel in 2007.
According to City Attorney Denis Fitzgibbons, the payments became the subject of litigation, with the subdivision challenging the assessed fees.
The fees were part of the initial development agreement, which outlined that the subdivision would pay a fire fee to enable the city to man the fire station on Signal Peak Road.
“Based on (Martin Valley’s) investigation, (they felt) that they were paying for something that was essentially benefiting the entire city, so they felt like they were being treated unfairly,” Fitzgibbons said.
Options the city has to fund the salaries of additional staff members, Dillon said, include raising property and city sales taxes, reallocating funds from other departments or attempting to secure a "Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response" grant through the federal government.
Dillon stated that taking funds from other departments was not an ideal solution.
“Now you’d be looking at cutting services to other departments to make up for a shortcoming in another department,” he said. “Well, then somebody is going to gain and somebody is going to suffer. You’re basically robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
A more attractive option, he noted, would be to secure a SAFER grant. However, staffing grants also have their downsides.
SAFER grants provide funding to fire departments and fire organizations for three years for personnel costs. For the first two years, the grant would pay for 75% of the salaries for the staff.
But in the third year, the funding would drop to just 35%. The city would also still be faced with the issue of how to pay for the salaries once the grant ran out.
The council is expected to further examine the issue at a follow-up study session next month.