As tourism increases to Grand Canyon National Park, Tusayan Fire District is finding ways to adapt to the related impacts
TUSAYAN, Ariz. — The world is full of great stories, and in Arizona that is no exception.
With Arizona’s rich history, it would be difficult to pinpoint the most significant event that would speak to the overall big picture of life in the Grand Canyon state. There are, however, many who, despite never having reached fame, have contributed to local histories and played significant, albeit smaller roles.
In Tusayan, throughout its history, dozens of dedicated citizens have taken on a greater-than-average level of responsibility to the town as it has transitioned slowly from a ranching community to what it is today — a 16.8 square-mile area that serves as host to millions of visitors per year passing through to experience the Grand Canyon.
At the Tusayan Fire District (TFD), established in 1996 at the request of Grand Canyon, you will encounter a number of these dedicated citizens, whose commitment and sacrifices have paved the way for future generations, as Tusayan ushers in a new era of government policy to ensure the town’s continued success.
TFD long-term members recall the early days
Longtime members of TFD Chief Greg Brush and Captain Bruce Baker can recall what times were like in the beginning, before Tusayan incorporated in 2010.
“It was a lot different. It was a lot more casual,” Baker said.
Indeed, when Baker first arrived to Tusayan in 1984, many of the hotels and businesses that stand today did not exist.
Baker said that the current TFD building, located next to the IMAX theater, was formerly utilized as the employee dormitories for the Grand Canyon Plaza Hotel (formerly the Quality Inn).
“Our old fire station was in an unused hangar for one of the helicopters,” Brush said.
“The helicopter company was right across the street,” Baker added. “The airport was built in 1962. Papillon (Airways) moved out there in the mid-90s I believe.”
Around that time, Grand Canyon National Park was beginning to see increasing numbers of visitors, about 4.5 million per year.
Over the past five years, visitation has increased exponentially in the national parks, thanks to marketing campaigns and social media sits.
Since 2015, Grand Canyon National Park has averaged between 5.5 and 6 million visitors per year, with 2018 being the busiest year on record at nearly 6.4 million.
TFD coordinates with local entities to provide emergency medical services
For a town with an estimated year-round population of 580, most of whom are employees of local businesses, steadily increasing tourism numbers have caused a variety of growing pains; namely, a housing crisis and a lack of social services, including emergency medical services (EMS) and facilities.
When it comes to filling the gaps, TFD serves as a primary medical first response unit, in addition to being firefighters.
In fact, most of the TFD team are either licensed EMT’s (emergency medical technicians) or paramedics, as well as firefighters.
“(Medical emergencies) are the majority of our calls by far,” Brush said.
TFD, as well as Guardian Medical Transport and the National Park Service, all serve the Grand Canyon area to attend to a variety of medical emergencies, ranging from altitude-related illnesses to car accidents.
With serious and life-threatening situations, it is often a tightly-coordinated effort between the park service, TFD and Guardian to get injured persons to Flagstaff and other nearest hospitals, as quickly as possible.
Brush said that an example of that effort would involve air-lifting an injured person from the inner canyon, switching them to ground transport with NPS, driving to Tusayan Fire Department, then transferring them again to Guardian who would then drive the injured party the rest of the way to Flagstaff.
Brush said he loves living and working in Tusayan near Grand Canyon, however, sometimes the work takes an emotional toll.
“In EMS, you always hear people talking about the golden hour of treatment and transport. Here, you’re outside the golden hour, even with the helicopter,” he said.
Brush and Baker both agree that while there are some inevitable losses, being able to save lives is what keeps them going, in addition to working with other local entities to provide assistance with community outreach programs like food banks and vaccination drives.
“I’ve never been (to), or heard of a community that bands together as much as this town, and it’s just- there’s nothing else like it,” Brush said.
Meeting community and visitor needs through funding assistance
At TFD, meeting the needs of the community and its visitors poses unique challenges.
One of the greatest challenges TFD faces is funding, where, in order to meet their sizable operating budget each fiscal year, they must work diligently to procure financial aid in the form of grants and town government assistance to maintain their standard of service.
One such grant is the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG), which TFD received through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
In 2020, TFD was awarded an AFG in the amount of $95,000 to cover the cost of replacing expiring SCBA’s (self-contained breathing apparatuses) and ventilation masks, which are worn while firefighting.
According to TFD, in order to meet the requirements for the grant, they needed to show a significant need for assistance by citing their SCBA’s were 20 years and older, which does not meet National Fire Prevention Association recommendations.
Additionally, TFD had to show financial need, as well as a need for improved interoperability with surrounding agencies.
If TFD did not receive these supplements, their only source of revenue (about $530,000 a year from property taxes) would not be enough to cover operating costs, employee salaries and training and vehicle and equipment maintenance, which total over $1 million per fiscal year.
Brush explained that because of the small size of the town, there simply is not enough property tax revenue to cover costs.
“If (Tusayan) was just a small town without the Grand Canyon, we would probably be OK,” he said.
In comparison, Ponderosa Fire District (PFD), which covers Bellemont and Parks, has approximately the same call volume as TFD, at about 320 calls per year. However, the net assessed value for Ponderosa is an estimated $45 million because of the larger area. TFD’s net assessed value is just over $15 million.
Brush explained the greater amount of property volume and taxes in Ponderosa is what makes a big difference in the amounts received.
“(Ponderosa’s budget) is about 2 to 3 times the Tusayan budget,” he said.
A new era of funding assistance through agreement with town of Tusayan
In the past, the Tusayan Town Council has allocated funds to help cover costs at TFD, at an average of $330,000 per fiscal year since 2016.
However, in recent times, funding amounts were called into question by both parties, with discussions to form an IGA (Intergovernmental Agreement) began in late 2020, culminating in a 5-year agreement which was approved June 29.
The agreement will focus on services TFD provides to the town, and will ensure specific amounts are set aside for a variety of budget needs, such as vehicle maintenance and employee salaries.
TFD Board Chair John Vail said the amounts the town will provide are “very generous,” and will help cover the costs of purchasing a new first response vehicle, since TFD’s current one is out of service.
“It’s really nice that we have a good working relationship with the town again,” Vail said.
TFD Board Clerk Andrew Aldaz said the IGA will essentially help both parties stay on track with the terms of the agreement, as it will provide a frame of reference regarding obligations on both sides.
The IGA will ensure that TFD is able to increase the service level provided to residents and visitors and will focus on obtaining the best ISO (Insurance Services Office) rating to provide local businesses the most cost effective insurance rates.
Last year, TFD made headlines by achieving their highest ISO ratings to date, placing them in the top 25 percent of fire departments in the nation.
ISO ratings are based on factors such as emergency communications, water supply, and community risk reduction, which TFD had been working on improving since 2015.
With everything falling into place as local organizations continue to seek out new IGA’s with the town, TFD has their eyes toward the future, and discussed continuing improvements to the town at a recent board meeting.
“There’s going to be more communication than we’ve had in the past,” Aldaz said.
So far, the town of Tusayan has signed IGA’s with TFD as well as the Grand Canyon Unified School District, and is currently working toward one with the Tusayan Sanitary District as well.
With the new IGA’s, the town has already been seeing improvements, like the new community garden at the Tusayan Sports Complex, which is co-managed by Tusayan and Grand Canyon School.
“Having the community garden (gets) a lot more people together, having conversations about what’s needed, and what else we (can) do,” Aldaz said.
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