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  • Writer's picturePinewood News

The Past 50 Years: A Remarkable Journey of the Pinewood Fire Department!

Updated: Sep 1, 2023


Dedication Day, September 1979, for the Glenn Miller Memorial Flagpole.
Dedication Day, September 1979, for the Glenn Miller Memorial Flagpole.

An interview with Fire Chief Josh Tope by Sandee Caviness

Over the course of half a century, the Pinewood Fire Department (PFD) has undergone a remarkable and inspiring transformation. Starting as a grassroots volunteer initiative, it has grown into a comprehensive and dedicated fire department, adeptly responding to the evolving needs of our community.


In 2003, when Josh Tope came onto the scene, there was a significant shift taking place. Chief Huizenga had initiated hiring a second full-time firefighter for each shift. Just prior to Josh’s arrival, the team consisted of one full-time captain for each shift, amounting to three captains in total, and Chief Huizenga. The remaining workforce was made up of 27 volunteer firefighters.


Regrettably, as the PFD volunteers aged and the spirit of volunteerism waned among new Park residents, the pool of volunteers started to shrink. Moreover, some volunteers wanted to pick and choose which emergencies they were comfortable responding to—this was deeply concerning, especially when a rapid, comprehensive response was vital. Despite a core group of stellar volunteers, the nature of PFD calls became increasingly challenging, demanding greater professionalism and accountability.


Josh acknowledged that this transition was uncomfortable yet necessary.


The solution was to introduce a third tier. This involved maintaining a roster of a full-time volunteer, adding reserves, and expanding the recruitment of firefighters to areas beyond Munds Park to attract younger recruits. Before this change, PFD could only recruit firefighters from within Munds Park. That’s how we got Josh; he was one of the first firefighters recruited from outside of the Park. The strategy was to not only recruit outside of Munds Park but also to attract new recruits by providing on-the-job training to aspiring firefighters and subsequently assisting them in securing roles with other departments. This approach proved successful, with the top-performing recruits often being hand-picked to join PFD when positions became available.


From heroic volunteers to a top-tier professional team, the growth story at PFD is remarkable. In the 1970s, while most Arizona fire departments solely focused on firefighting, PFD was ahead of the curve. The visionary leaders of PFD recognized the vital importance of EMT ambulance services and secured a Certificate of Necessity (CON) from the Arizona Department of Health Services in 1976, making our fire department the State’s second official ambulance service provider.


PFD has adapted to the times, responding to changing demographic nuances and pivotal global threats. Each public safety challenge has been met head-on. In the wake of 9/11, PFD stepped up, arming themselves with specialized training to address potential terrorism threats, encompassing chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear responses. Further, to meet the unique demands of our territory, PFD took on advanced skills—swiftwater rescue, cold water rescue, and rope rescue. Skills you’d typically associate with much larger departments. Josh says they might not boast all the resources, but PFD is rich in the essential knowledge and expertise to spring into action when it matters most.


Nestled within the forest, Josh said our most pressing threat was a wildfire blazing through. In the early years, the forest surrounding the Park was largely untouched and overgrown, and at a heightened risk of wildfires. The overgrown forest was largely ignored. However, leaders at PFD took decisive action. They formed a Firewise Community and a Wildland Division, fostering relationships with state and national forest service. Today, treatments, prescribed burns, and commercial thinning projects are standard practice. This proactive approach, paired with the cultivation of strong ties to forest services, has prioritized Munds Park for treatments that mitigate the risk of fires. This pivotal shift will save lives and millions of dollars in damages should a wildfire brush our door.


The Fire District’s growth has been essential even with modest growth in residential structures, with approximately only 100 cabins added. However, the heart of Munds Park for a long time, was its older generation. These long-standing residents gave the Park its character and soul, nurturing our community for decades. However, as time moved on, many of these cabins have been passed down, with the younger generation converting them into vacation rentals or, some, into long-term leases. This evolution means cabins that once stood serene with seasonal use now hustle with a revolving door of guests throughout the year.


With the growth, especially during the summer months, the PFD has seen a sharp rise in emergency calls. Monthly calls have jumped from an average of 20 to 70—a 250% increase.


Today, the PFD is unionized, offering better pay and benefits, and staffed with a Captain, Engineer, three firefighters, and two of them must be paramedics. Further, the station is equipped with two ambulances, all outfitted with advanced life support equipment and an engine, ensuring a robust response to any emergency. In earlier years, if two emergencies occurred in quick succession, the PFD would have to seek assistance from the Highlands Fire Department or Guardian. However, they are now fully equipped to handle back-to-back emergencies independently, even handling a third call to provide essential life-saving measures while awaiting additional support.


One of the earlier Pinewood Fire Trucks
One of the earlier Pinewood Fire Trucks

The Future of Firefighting

I had to ask Josh about the hot topic of AI: Does he see AI benefiting firefighters? He said they’re already using it! ChatGPT has proven to be very helpful with administrative tasks, and he envisions AI in their future.


He went on to explain that currently, technologies are in place specifically designed to monitor firefighters’ whereabouts. In events such as intense house or wildfires, visibility can be severely compromised. Firefighters typically operate in teams for safety, but challenges arise when they are in a vast structure, like a four-story building spanning 4,000 square feet. Modern technologies equip these brave men and women with GPS, enabling the incident commander to track their positions. While these systems aren’t AI-driven yet, he anticipates the integration of AI in the near future.


Medicine, specifically paramedicine, demands a deep understanding of numerous drugs and their appropriate dosages. Their stockpile includes 38 distinct medications essential for complex emergency treatments. AI harbors the potential to revolutionize this field, aiding in dosage calculations, among other things. Josh can imagine ambulances equipped with sensors that accurately weigh a patient. The system then could determine and display the correct drug dosages efficiently and precisely using AI.


As for the future of emergency medical services, Josh points to well-funded locales like Dubai for a hint. They’re at the forefront, employing methods to tackle high-rise fires with firefighters outfitted with jetpacks and deploying drone ambulances for swift patient transportation to medical facilities.


That’s astounding! I couldn’t resist asking Josh if he’d soon request jetpacks from the Pinewood Fire Department Auxiliary. With a smile, he replied, ‘Not yet’.


Recruiting

Josh points out that staffing is a challenge, a challenge faced nationwide. The allure of a robust pension, which once attracted recruits, has lost its appeal for the modern generation. They value life experiences over material possessions or long-term financial stability.


Moreover, he states that while today’s youth display greater emotional intelligence, they often lack fundamental skills such as changing a tire or fixing a leaky faucet. Therefore, Josh has shifted his recruitment focus. He looks for integrity, morals, ethics, and compassion in potential recruits. He’s confident in teaching them the technical aspects; what’s vital is knowing that when he sends a firefighter into a home, they will show respect and genuinely work to provide the best care possible. Simply put, they need to care deeply about the community they serve.


Who Would Josh Call?

I asked Josh if he could partner with any superhero to fight fires and save lives, who would it be?


Josh said it would need to be someone super quick like Superman—after all, he’s faster than a speeding bullet, can start fires with his laser eyes, and douse them with his frosty breath. But wait, Josh remembered the eco-hero from the 90s! Ding, ding! Captain Planet! A blue-skinned, green-mulleted superhero combined with the power of earth, fire, wind, water, and heart. Whether it was a rogue tsunami or a fire threatening a forest, Captain Planet was the go-to guy. With his rallying cry, “The power is yours!” he seemed perfectly suited for any calamity. So, in a playful manner, Josh gives his superheroic nod to the delightfully retro and earth-loving Captain Planet. Why? Because, in Josh’s words, he’s “just so obscure!”


The journey of the Pinewood Fire Department showcases how strong leadership and the support of a giving community both with time and money, can create a modern, resilient force. Adapting to changing landscapes, embracing new technologies, and valuing core principles, PFD firefighters are the heroes of Munds Park. It’s not merely a fire department; rather, it’s a testament to the strength of community bonds and the unwavering commitment of those who serve. As PFD continues to write its story, it’s sure to encompass growth, transformation, and service for a safer, brighter future.


This weekend, come join us at Agee’s Labor Day fundraiser. Enjoy good food, drinks, and merry moments, all while contributing to the donation jar for their new and well deserved state-of-the-art firehouse. Let’s gather those funds and bring jetpacks to Munds Park! Can you imagine?

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