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Residents Worry Goodyear Development Outpaces Public Safety

(Photo by Matthew Casey, KJZZ)
The home on West San Carlos Drive in Goodyear that burned Easter Sunday. The closest fire station is about two miles away.

Rick Tooker woke up at 3 a.m. Easter morning to the sound of someone pounding on his front door.

Tooker lives in a quiet area called Estrella Mountain Ranch, and he was surprised to see his neighbor’s house on fire.

“It was almost like a jet engine was going off in there,” Tooker said. “The flames were actually bellowing out of the garage.”

Tooker grabbed his phone and called 911. He figured it wouldn’t take long since the closest fire station is about two miles away.

“While we were waiting for -- it just seemed like ever -- for the fire department, people were wondering, they were asking me, ‘Did you call?’ and I go, ‘Yeah, I called, I called, I called,’” Tooker said.

By the time firefighters arrived, they couldn’t keep the blaze from gutting the home and killing the family’s dog.

Some southwest Valley residents say the incident is an example of what will happen if development continues to outpace the number of fire stations.

Census data show Goodyear is the 14th fastest growing city in the country. It's on track to issue about 1,000 single family home permits for the second year in row, and locals worry about how long the wait might be if they call 911.

Cars whip past the intersection of Willis and Rainbow Valley roads southwest of Estrella Mountain Ranch. Goodyear planned to open Fire Station 186 here in 2009, but when the Great Recession hit, the city was shelved the project.

“The last fire station to be built was (in) 2008 when our population was 60,000,” said Stephen Gilman, president of United Goodyear Firefighters. “Now we’re all the way up to anywhere from 75 to 79,000. And we still haven’t expanded or grown public safety at the same rate as we have development.”

Goodyear has set aside land for three fire stations, but it doesn’t have money budgeted for a new one until fiscal year 2022.

The city has six stations already. However, firefighters were reassigned after one closed in March when water inside the building tested positive for elevated levels of lead. Tests revealed there was no lead in water entering the building. 

The recession combined with scattered developments, have allowed Goodyear’s growth to outpace resources, Gilman said. And it would take up to two years to design, build and staff a new fire station. 

“The solution would be, at some point, the city is just going to have to bite the bullet and figure out a way to fund public safety,” Gilman said.

At city hall, officials say public safety is a priority. But rather than set aside about $7 million from this year’s budget to build and staff a station on the southwest side of Estrella Mountain Ranch. Goodyear will spend about $60,000 for a city-wide study on where to put new ones. The project is expected to be complete in the fall.

“Based on that study, it will be presented to council and at that time council will have the opportunity to make decisions as they relate to fire stations, said Sherine Zaya, Goodyear communications manager.

Goodyear will invest in its fire department in the next fiscal year, Zaya said. It’s buying three new trucks, replacing old equipment and renovating the station that was closed.

The city will also buy body cameras, radios, radars, cameras and night vision gear for the police department. Money has also been set aside for the its operations building.

A citizen satisfaction survey played a big part in the council choosing to also fund parks and recreation. About two-thirds of participants said they want parks expanded.

“Because of that survey, some priorities were shifted in the capital improvement plan,” Zaya said. “And that included moving up the design and construction of a community park and a recreation center and I believe also aquatics.” 

Back at Estrella Mountain, resident Jennifer Barber thinks that’s the wrong move. She’s friends with the family whose house burned on Easter Sunday.

With only 11 percent of Goodyear’s 190 square miles built out, Barber hopes its leaders will choose to invest in more fire stations before the sprawl gets too big to catch up.

“We want fire service before swing sets,” Barber said.

The city council recently considered amending a plan for up to 1,250 new homes near Estrella Mountain. Construction could start as early as next year. Before the council weighed in, Barber asked if they could provide adequate fire service.

“They voted for the community so apparently they think they can do this,” Barber said. “But they have a fire chief who is saying, ‘Hey wait a minute, we are not meeting response times.’ We need to study this. We need to find the funding to get these stations going.”

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Matthew Casey has won Edward R. Murrow awards for hard news and sports reporting since he joined KJZZ as a senior field correspondent in 2015.