FLORENCE — After 40 years of fighting fires, rescuing people from pile-ups on Interstate 10, hazmat spills and other emergencies, David Strayer is ready to retire.
This year has certainly been no smooth coast to the finish line.
“Hardly a day goes by that we don’t run a COVID call,” Florence’s fire chief said. Symptoms can be life-threatening, especially for the elderly or those with compromised immune systems. Sometimes, these patients didn’t even realize they had COVID-19 until their symptoms became severe. “Difficulty breathing is typically what we get called for.”
Three Florence fire personnel also caught the virus, but they’ve all since returned to work and are doing fine, Strayer said. “We’re not sure if they caught it here or brought it here. The contact tracing is not easy.” Florence has been fortunate, he said, compared to other departments that have seen a third of their staff or entire crews sidelined.
Florence firefighters also had to work out an agreement with each local correctional facility on patient transfers, arranging rendezvous points that were secure but also open-air.
“That took some doing. But overall, nine months in running COVID calls every day — I knock on wood when I say it — it’s gone really well.”
Fire personnel regularly “fog” the stations with disinfectant from a pressurized sprayer and clean contact surfaces in the stations and trucks. Temperatures are taken when crews come on duty and during their shifts. The stations have been closed to the public.
Strayer, who has been Florence’s chief for five years, was also invited early in the pandemic to make a presentation to the Overseas Security Advisory Council on the precautions his department was taking. The forum, hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Ecuador, was held online over the Zoom platform. Strayer was one of several presenters. Major corporations, other businesses and churches were in attendance.
“That was really cool to be able to do that. They really appreciated it and I got a lot of good feedback on it.” He also picked up some good ideas from others. “When you have to teach something, you always learn.” Strayer taught at the Emergency Management Institute for several years, which he called “an amazing experience.”
He expects to continue teaching. “Retiring is just a word; you don’t really retire, you just do other things.” His church wants him to start a disaster relief ministry, and he wants to finish hiking the Arizona Trail with his son. They’ve done 500 miles, with about 300 to go.
“We used to ride the tailboard (holding on to the back of the truck) to fires when I first started; that was kind of fun, but dangerous.” Today, GIS, computer-aided dispatching, thermal-imaging cameras, drones, robotics and other advances make the job safer.
What hasn’t changed that much is the basic gear a firefighter wears into a blaze. “The turnout — hood, self-contained breathing apparatus, helmet and gloves — that hasn’t changed. The material has improved. But the actual ensemble of gear is the same. The packs are lighter and last longer.”
There’s also a growing emphasis on medical care. Now, the full name of the Florence department is the Florence Fire and Medical Department. About 80% of its calls are for emergency medical services, Strayer said.
“Community paramedicine” is a new buzzword. “There’s going to be a lot more integration as our health care system continues to evolve,” including home visits, follow-up care and prevention. “It’s just a whole new world for the fire service. The truth is, the fire service in general has gotten much better at preventing fires. I don’t know how much longer, honestly, they’re going to call them fire departments.”
The future name may be “Emergency Management Departments.” Firefighters are working for community risk reduction, prevention and education. “The mission is evolving, and as fires become less and less of what we do — because thank goodness, we’re getting better at preventing those — we’ll pick up other services.”
When Strayer, 59, retires at the end of the month, he likes the department he’ll be handing over to the next chief. “I feel like this is a very good department, it was when I got here.”
In his five years in Florence he has begun a “Fire Safe Seniors” program that has installed more than 600 smoke detectors; an annual fire station open house; a Community Emergency Response Team of trained citizen volunteers; and a wireless fire alarm program to protect the historic downtown.
He has also worked to upgrade the department’s radio communication, records management and self-contained breathing apparatus systems, and the town’s Insurance Services Office, or ISO, rating from a 4 to a 3. The department became a Premier Emergency Medical System Agency through the Arizona Department of Health Services.
“So I think we’re in a very good place. I hope that I’ve been able to help position the department for growth. Because that will be the challenge.” He was a battalion chief in Avondale for five years and watched Buckeye’s growth take off on the western edge of the Valley.
“And I’m seeing the same sorts of things beginning to happen here. … Florence is literally going to be the eastern end of the Valley. I think Florence is going to be the place to watch for the next 10 years.”
Strayer also kicked off the Pinal County Historical Society’s efforts to begin restoring the town’s old firetrucks, which until a few years ago were rusting away behind the museum. He saw the old trucks, became a museum member and started talking with people who had experience restoring trucks. One of these old engines, a 1953 Ford, now appears in the town’s parades.
Strayer became an on-call firefighter in 1980 in Casa Grande to pay for college. In those days the city had one fire station and a population of about 15,000. Strayer was hired full-time in 1986, rose through the ranks and served 11 years as operations and training division chief in Casa Grande. He was also interim chief for five months.
He was the division chief in Casa Grande who supervised a crew from that city helping to fight the fire that destroyed Florence’s old high school gym. It was a “defensive fire,” past the point where an interior attack was feasible, so firefighters stopped it from spreading to other areas of campus. The objective was “hit the main body of the fire with master streams and protect exposures.”
Strayer remembers that night more than 20 years ago as one of his first big mutual-aid responses. “When I first started we didn’t have mutual aid, anywhere.” The mutual aid system, in Pinal County and statewide, is “one of the big success stories of the last 40 years,” he said.
Then-Florence Town Manager John Geib saw what Casa Grande’s ladder truck could do at the gym fire and bought one for Florence. “In fact we still have it, it’s our reserve truck at Station Two (in Anthem).”
Another vivid memory is responding in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana. “That stands out as a very unique experience, part of 4,000 firefighters from all over the United States.” He ran a team of eight cutting down trees, tarping roofs and other jobs that people needed.
The amount of devastation was shocking, not only from water but from wind. “You would see ships miles inland, on dry land, that got washed in.”
Through the decades, “I’ve seen some awful tragedies. It’s not easy and it does leave its mark on you. You can recall it decades later, like it just happened. That’s the downside.”
Better memories are “you always remember the people you respond with. That’s true for all the departments I’ve served on. It’s kind of like the military in that sense. You kind of bond when you run these emergencies together and spend that kind of time together.”
As retirement nears, Strayer formalized his appreciation for some of the people he’s served with recently. He has just presented “Valued Partner” awards to the local hospital, the Florence CERT team of civilian emergency responders and the Pinal County Office of Emergency Management. Nine department members also received individual awards.
“It’s been an honor to serve here. It was an honor to serve in Casa Grande and Avondale. … I’m very grateful to be able to finish my career this way, and hopefully end it on a high note, a positive note. I hope I’ve been able to help in some small way to progress the department to the next level and prepare for the future.”
FLORENCE — The Florence Fire and Medical Department announced several awards and promotions.
Receiving Fire Service Excellence awards were Battalion Chief John Kemp, Battalion Chief Jim Walter, Capt. Bill Bruin, Capt. Freddy Gameros, Capt. Corey Pine, Capt. Corey Usher, Engineer Mike Scherm, Engineer Mike Harrison and Firefighter/Paramedic Chris Robison.
Promotions were James Walter to battalion chief; Brad Kells to captain; Mike Scherm to engineer; and Justin Chrzanowski, Kristofer Torres, Taylor Price and Scott Wetherbee to full-time firefighters.
Receiving Valued Partner awards from the Fire Department were Mountain Vista Medical Center/Florence Hospital, the Pinal County Office of Emergency Management and Florence Community Emergency Response Team (CERT).
FLORENCE — Tom Smith received the Key to the Town and Dec. 19 was declared “Tom Smith Day” in a mayoral proclamation Monday.
The proclamation notes that Smith and his wife, Lynn, “have made the most significant, individual impact on revitalizing the Historic District” by buying and preserving four historic adobe buildings, including the Francisco Cuen building which is nearing completion at 11th and Main streets.
The proclamation further notes:
“Tom Smith was born in Canada, lived in Peru, Colombia, Washington State, California and Alabama, where he became a U.S. citizen, but chose to settle down in Florence. …
“Tom is the nephew of Jack Purvis, the first editor of the Florence Reminder. ...“Tom graduated from Florence High School, Class of 1958, and lettered as a Gopher on the football team, and then attended the University of Arizona. …
“He married Lynn Steinko in 1962, and together they have had a passion for the preservation of Florence. …
“Tom actively contributed to our community through the Lions Club (regional officer), Pinal County Historical Society (lifetime member and treasurer), Pinal County Mounted Posse, and served on the first Make a Wish Foundation Board along with Lynn. …
“Tom served 12 years on the Florence Town Council, elected in 2002 running on the slogan “Time for a Change.” He served as vice mayor, and he was on the Historic District Advisory Commission, Police and Fire Public Safety Retirement Board, Parks Advisory Board, and he participated in the League of Arizona Cities and Towns and the Arizona Historic Preservation Conference Board. …
“He, along with his wife, Lynn, have made the most significant, individual impact on revitalizing the Historic District by purchasing and rehabilitating four historic adobe buildings listed as “Contributing” in the Inventory: John Nicholas Residence, 1st Nicholas Beer Hall, the W.C. Smith/Rittenhouse/Arriola’s Cosmopolitan Stores and recently saved the Cuen Building from demolition. …
“Tom has demonstrated his great love of Florence as shown by his commitment and dedication to preserving and revitalizing Florence.
“Now therefore I, Tara Walter, Mayor of the Town of Florence, do hereby proclaim Dec. 19, 2020 as “Tom Smith Day” in the town of Florence. The proclamation will be read again at Old West Days on Dec. 19, 2020.”
FLORENCE — New COVID-19 infection thresholds for determining when a school would shift to a “hybrid” schedule, or a complete return to online learning, were approved by the Florence Unified School District board on Dec. 8.
A 2% positive rate in a school would trigger a hybrid schedule, in which the student body is split into two groups that attend on different days. A 4% positive rate would return a school to the all-online “distance learning,” which FUSD did for the first quarter.
The minimum time frame for the change would be two weeks, or a full quarantine cycle, so the school has “a clean slate” when it resumes in-person learning, Assistant Superintendent Adam Leckie told the board.
Teachers in attendance were skeptical. Jodi Hekter, president of the Florence Education Association, said that according to current county data, the schools should have already been in a hybrid model for the last several weeks. She said 4% positive cases would be 48 people at Poston Butte High School, not including cases that aren’t reported.
“Is the goal of this plan to put all the responsibility on the health department?” Hekter asked. “Because if 4% of the school has COVID, so many people would have been exposed, and the health department most likely would have shut us down first.”
She continued that the district is having trouble following the Return to Learn plan for cleaning, communication and notification. Until it’s fixed, teachers don’t feel like safety is a priority.
“This district plan goes against the state health benchmarks specifically designed for schools. The district plan conveys to the public that we’re going to stay open no matter what,” Hekter said, “and not even consider the state benchmarks and the safety of our community. I think we can do better.”
Teachers have heard they had a choice about being in school buildings and this is what they signed up for. “Like me, most teachers chose to come back in person because they believed we had a solid Return to Learn plan.. ... But according to this plan, that is not the case. If I would have known what I know today, I might have made a different choice,” Hekter said.
Melissa Rodriguez, a mother, San Tan Foothills High School teacher and teacher association representative, asked that the board consider the opinions of hundreds of teachers “on the front lines who’ll be deeply affected and placed more at-risk by the district’s new model that’s been proposed tonight.” She asked board members to visit schools and spend time with teachers prior to adopting the proposal.
Board President Denise Guenther replied she would love to be in classrooms. But to reduce potential infections, schools currently prohibit visitors, which includes board members, “and that’s why we’re not there.”
Another parent and teacher commented to the board that the percentages seem high and should be different for each grade level. “A positive case in a lower level most likely won’t affect my child in an upper grade level. So why are we not breaking the percentages down by the areas in the school instead?”
Guenther replied that the district does address infections at the grade level, and can move a grade to distance learning. “That wouldn’t change, I don’t believe, moving forward into a new plan.”
Board member Steve Johnson asked if the board was comfortable with the percentages, “or can we review or revisit?”
Board Vice President Jim Thomas said at this stage, the district needs a plan. “We’re moving into Christmas break, we don’t know what’s going to happen. If everything stays steady, we’ve got a plan for the coming year.” If the plan isn’t working, “we can come back in a special meeting.”
Superintendent Chris Knutsen said the pandemic continues to be a learning experience. “We’ve been trying to fly this plane for nine months as we’re building it.” If the state’s benchmarks for the county are all in the red, “maybe we hold a special meeting and we address it at that time,” he said.
He said the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said recently that the safest place for children is in school. Board member Bob Dailey said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was on television that morning saying the same thing.
According to the new model, Anthem K-8, with an in-person population of 796, would move to hybrid learning with 16 active cases, and move to distance learning with 32 active cases. At Florence K-8, with a population of 601, the numbers are 12 and 24.
FUSD maintains a dashboard that shows positive numbers in schools and updates it daily. Visit fusdaz.com and scroll about one-third of the way down the home page and under the heading “Welcome-Safe-Connected,” click on “Active Cases by School.” After the Dec. 8 meeting, the dashboard showed all campuses with an infection rate of less than 1%, in most cases much less.
Dailey leaves the school board after 14 years. “This journey has not been work; this journey has given me a new family.” He said the FUSD staff — including janitors, bus drivers and others — is amazing, and he encouraged the new board members to meet as many of them as they can. He said he’s sad to be leaving, but he’ll still be volunteering for the district in other ways. “Thank you very much for this privilege.”
Thomas, who leaves the board after a combined service of more than 20 years, expressed thanks to the staff, teachers and administrators who’ve been able to “filter out that noise, and get down to what our mission and what we’re about, and that’s taking care of the kids.” He also acknowledged the parents who’ve had to make sacrifices for learning to continue in the pandemic. “Some of them have had it very tough. Thank goodness they have their kids’ best interests at heart and are keeping them involved in education.”
Katrina Solis, who is leaving the board after four years, said she’s thankful to have had the opportunity to serve. She told parents their children are “surrounded by so much knowledge and love that can’t be measured” at FUSD.