Avra Valley Fire District fined $366K for Safety Gaps


Jack GillumBrian J. Pedersen | | Thursday, October 11, 2007

Oct. 10--The Industrial Commission of Arizona has approved $366,000 in fines against the Avra Valley Fire District for workplace-safety violations, among the biggest fines ever levied against an Arizona employer.

The commission initially approved just $55,000 in fines last month. But last week, the group approved higher fines after determining 12 of the violations were willful, Director Darin Perkins of the Arizona Department of Occupational Safety and Health said Tuesday.

The fines stem in part from a March hazardous-materials accident on Interstate 10 that investigators said was not handled properly. The citations also include violations found during routine safety inspections of district fire stations.

On March 14, a tractor-trailer rig carrying hazardous materials collided with a car, shutting down the interstate. Four firefighters were among more than a half-dozen public-safety personnel injured by exposure to the chemical, Perkins said.

The fines issued were a fraction of what could have been levied, Brian Delfs, chairman of the Industrial Commission and a Tucson Fire Department captain, said at Thursday s meeting, according to draft minutes of the meeting.

We have found these violations to be so egregious in nature that along with evidence of willful and serious disregard (by the board and the fire chief) for the safety of not only the firefighters and paramedics who responded, but also the members of the public they are sworn to protect, that we are left with no other option than to impose these penalties, Delfs said, according to the minutes.

Delfs did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday.

Avra Valley Fire District spokesman Capt. Paul Petersen said the district would be appealing many of the citations.

In the past, many companies have succeeded at reducing fines through appeals, and the draft minutes of Thursday s meeting say the commission may cut the fines to $183,000 if the district shows good faith and that they are correcting the violations.

Two Avra Valley firefighters, speaking during and after a fire district meeting Tuesday night, said they had received harassing phone calls, including death threats, after filing safety complaints.

You can fire me, but you can t stop me from talking at these board meetings, former firefighter Brian Lassen told the board Tuesday night. Lassen said he was terminated for filing a complaint with the state.

Fire Chief Barry Gerber, through a spokesman, said the termination had absolutely nothing to do with the complaints, and added that a notice of termination was sent to Lassen two weeks earlier for an unrelated matter. Gerber also said the authorities are currently investigating the harassing calls.

Fire District Chairman Gary Perry, at the meeting Tuesday, called the situation surrounding the violations wrongful and ridiculous, and vowed to have another public hearing within two weeks after fully reading the state s report.

The complaints, listed in public minutes for the commission s Sept. 13 meeting, cited the fire district for:

  • Not developing an emergency response plan to handle anticipated emergencies.
  • Not ensuring that appropriate personal protective equipment was brought and worn to a hazardous-materials site. That site was the March 14 collision.
  • Not establishing a written exposure-control plan for firefighters and paramedics exposed to blood-borne pathogens.

Since the September meeting, the 12 complaints have been elevated to willful violations, which carry a much greater fine. In total, there were eight serious, willful violations, and four additional willful infractions deemed non-serious, Perkins said.

This is huge for them. This is a really big deal, said Northwest Fire/Rescue District Chief Jeff Piechura, who has received approval from his fire board to begin discussions on a cooperative service agreement that could ultimately lead to the two districts consolidating.

I don t think the Industrial Commission wants to put the fire district out of business, but they certainly want to put them back in compliance, he said.

At $366,000, the fines would account for about 15 percent of Avra Valley Fire District s roughly $2.5 million budget.

Avra Valley s 2007 tax rate was $3.17 per $100 of assessed value, down from $3.25 in 2006. That amounts to a 2007-08 tax levy of about $964,000, or roughly three times the fine amounts.

Avra Valley Fire District, formed in 1977, covers 265 square miles in northern Pima and southern Pinal counties, where it serves about 10,000 residents, its Web site says. The district has 25 full-time firefighters and three stations.

--Contact reporter Jack Gillum at 573-4178 or at jgillum@azstarnet.com

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