Feeling burned in Dolan Springs
Budget woes leave vast district with three responders
DOLAN SPRINGS - The human cost of rapidly declining revenue for fire districts in Arizona can be found on the way to Las Vegas in Dolan Springs and Meadview, where waiting on help to arrive has turned into a frustrating and sometimes heartbreaking exercise in futility.
Not too long ago, the vast Lake Mohave Ranchos Fire District boasted seven ambulances, a number of fire vehicles and the staff to operate them. People bought homes in Dolan Springs and elsewhere in the district based in part on the confidence the robust department inspired.
What they didn't know was that the district was burning through its budget until it went bankrupt.
Today, the troubled district is down to three firefighter-paramedics and a fraction of its former fleet - and that trio must cover a district that encompasses a staggering 7,000 square miles.
To put that into perspective, the Lake Mohave Ranchos Fire District represents an area larger than four states and is nearly the size of New Jersey.
People in Dolan Springs say the dramatic downsizing has rendered the department incapable of responding to fire or EMS calls in a timely manner - or with the equipment and items they need to help residents.
When the district became insolvent, it was put on Patrick Moore to get it back on firm financial footing.
The only way for the chief of the Northern Arizona Consolidated Fire District to do that was to cut spending down to a level the district could afford, which happens to be three firefighter-paramedics, two stationed in Dolan Springs and one in Meadview.
Moore said he understands the frustration in Dolan Springs. Unfortunately, there are a number of issues in play that indicate things will not get better anytime soon.
Here are a few.
The district is far too large for its limited assets.
The district can only afford three firefighters and they do not earn as much as do their counterparts at other regional departments, including at Northern Arizona Consolidated, so turnover is a problem. Moore said it took about two months to fill a vacancy in the district, meaning it wasn't uncommon for a single firefighter to respond to fires and EMS incidents.
Not everybody in the district is taxed - the average annual bill for residents is about $200 - leading to hard feelings when firefighters respond to an incident out of the district when a member needs assistance. Oddly, who is and who isn't in the district is not determined by geographic boundaries, but rather it is a checkerboard pattern, with some non-members living within a few blocks of the Dolan Springs fire station.
The good news is, Moore and the business model he put in allowed the district to emerge from insolvency this month after two years.
Now, he said, is the time to look into consolidating Lake Mohave Ranchos with Northern Arizona Consolidated. To do this, community hearings must be held and the people of Dolan Springs and Meadview will have to be sold on the idea.
The Mohave County Board of Supervisors began the process in March. Moore said if consolidation is rejected, district customers would elect a new board for the district in the next general election and it would once again be a standalone entity.
Too big to succeed
"The response area is entirely too long," said Moore. He also said people who live 45 minutes from the nearest traffic light can't expect city services, but many residents live in Dolan Springs because, at the time, the service was above average for a district that is geographically large but sparsely populated.
"I never would have moved here if I knew it was going to be like this," said Jean Fleming. "I would have stayed in Mohave Valley in my travel trailer in 129 degrees. At least they get to your house quickly."
Because the district stretches nearly to the Nevada line at Hoover Dam, Lake Mohave's crew must leave Dolan Springs' station to respond to motor vehicle accidents on U.S. 93. They are the only emergency responders for that roughly 50-mile stretch of highway. Accidents are not infrequent and Dolan Springs is left without service when they occur.
Jay Fleming is a former law enforcement officer who was a paramedic in his 20s. He saw flames and smoke when a home burned about a mile from his and Jean's home in Dolan Springs. He said it took far too long for firefighters arrive.
He has a medical "go bag" that he carries with him and responded to the home. And while he and his neighbors grow more frustrated by the day, they are not without understanding.
Fleming has empathy. He knows firefighter-paramedics must be racked with second-guessing when they have to decide whether to fight a fire or render medical help.
"I mean, what do you do in that circumstance?" he said. If they're on a tanker, they fight the fire and the patients suffer, he said, and if they're in the ambulance they treat the patients and risk the fire spreading to nearby structures.
Still, he questions why volunteers can't be used, even if they are basic EMTs.
"As long as they can administer drugs and do a few other things, we can save lives," he said. "They can send someone out to teach residents CPR. They can do more than they're doing."
Fleming also said a single firefighter cannot fight a fire alone if a rescue is required and a firefighter providing EMS help can't load a patient into an ambulance alone.
Moore agrees on the safety issue. He said state lawmakers passed a trio of new tax rules regarding fire districts that severely limit how much revenue they can generate. As a result, Moore rarely has enough firefighters on duty to safely fight a standard house fire, which is about a dozen, according to best practices guidelines for the Fire Service.
In a recent interview regarding tax laws that have cut funding to fire districts across the state, Moore said firefighters have been given pagers and are essentially on call to respond to incidents throughout the Northern Arizona Consolidated Fire District.
But Moore said the days of volunteers are all but gone because state and federal rules require volunteers to undergo the same training and to obtain identical certifications as paid firefighters.
As far as Fleming is concerned, more help is needed regardless of where it comes from.
"It does no good if somebody needs an ambulance and the guy from Meadview shows up 45 minutes later in a tanker," he said. "They can't even carry medicine on those tankers."
Nobody is suggesting an elderly woman would have survived burns she suffered last winter if it didn't take so long for help to arrive, but she didn't survive and help really was a long time coming.
A propane tank fire on Bee Drive spread to a motor home on Jan. 25. Injured were Paul Mikonis, 77, and his 85-year-old wife, Ingeborg Mikonis.
Ingeborg Mikonis would later die from burns she suffered.
According to the report compiled by the lone firefighter who responded, the motor home was fully engulfed when he arrived about 16 minutes after the call came in to 911. The report was not written until June 24, five months later, after Fleming requested the report.
A Mohave County Sheriff's deputy volunteered to transport the woman to the designated landing zone for an air ambulance but was asked to take both of them in his patrol unit, according to the report. It took at least 45 minutes for them to receive medical care.
"This was one of those incidents where only one guy shows up and he can either treat the patients or fight the fire. He was in a tanker so he fought the fire. That must have been gut-wrenching, but Mr. and Mrs. Mikonis suffered as a result," said Jay Fleming.
No help on the horizon
There have been other incidents of delayed responses to structure fires and injuries. According to Moore, there likely will be more in the foreseeable future.
"We're kind of in a Catch-22," said the chief. "I don't know what the solutions might be, but I know things aren't going to get better there and they aren't going to get better here anytime soon."
Northern Arizona Consolidated's district includes the unincorporated area surrounding Kingman and Valle Vista. The Kingman Fire Department is funded through sales tax revenue and grants, and while Chief Jake Rhoades probably doesn't have the budget he would like, the city's fire department is not exposed to the problems fire districts face.
For the Flemings and other Dolan Springs residents, any improvement would be better than the grim prospects in play today.
"We know money is the issue," said Jay Fleming. "We know money is always the issue, but we also know we pay for a service that is no longer being provided, and that could cost people their lives."
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