Months of frustration for Rural/Metro Corp. over an inability to become part of a traffic signal control system that would reduce the time it takes to get to the scene of an emergency by as much as 20 percent may be coming to an end.
Final drafts of intergovernmental agreements between Pima County and the North Ranch /Linda Vista Fire District, Heritage Hills Fire District and La Canada Fire District - all clients of Rural/Metro - should be available to those districts for review next week and, if approved, could come to the Board of Supervisors for adoption as soon as June, said Kurt Weinrich, director of the Pima County Department of Transportation and Flood Control District.
Approval of the agreements by the Board of Supervisors would be the final hurdle for Rural/ Metro in its long battle to join the Northwest Fire District, Golder Ranch Fire District and town of Marana in gaining access to a traffic signal preemption system that allows emergency vehicles to turn traffic lights from red to green to get through intersections faster.
Intergovernmental agreements between the North Ranch/Linda Vista Fire District, Heritage Hills and La Canada fire districts that would have provided that access have been hung up in the county's bureaucracy for nearly 10 months while undergoing review.
Responses to inquiries as to the status of those agreements always seemed to indicate that approval was "imminent," but nothing ever came of it, said Rural/Metro District Chief George Good.
Drafts of the intergovernmental agreements were sent to the districts for comment last June and changes were recommended by the districts, but the county never responded, Good said. "We've kind of been strung along, I feel, for a long time on this," he said.
Good said he was so frustrated by the delays at one point that he threatened to take his case to the media last year but was advised by Albert Letzkus, Pima County Traffic engineer, not to do so because "going to the media just places everyone on the defensive and won't help.
"County officials like to do things behind the scenes and avoid publicity," Letzkus wrote to Good last spring. "Once the media gets involved, things usually go down hill from there."
Good said the situation had gotten to the point where Rural/Metro and its client districts "couldn't worry anymore about upsetting anybody. We're not trying to upset anybody, we're just trying to get our fire trucks and ambulances to those emergency scenes faster where people need help."
When Good was informed by a Northwest EXPLORER reporter that final drafts of intergovernmental agreements were soon to be sent to his client fire districts and that the Board of Supervisors might be in a position to review it in the next few months, it was the first update Rural/Metro had received on the issue since last June.
"It's unfortunate that things have had to take so long," Good said, "but the bottom line is we'll be able to get help to people quicker at the scene of an emergency and get people to the hospital quicker. Our people also will be safer, as will the motoring public when we respond to these situations. It's a win, win, win situation for everybody."
Good said Rural/Metro could be up and running on the system within two weeks of receiving the emitters necessary to trigger the traffic signal change, and would start with about 10 emitters in the Northwest area and expand from there, concentrating on areas where vehicles could be put to the most use.
"It is much safer for our crews to respond with the system in place than it is without it," Good said. "Many accidents occur during the response mode at intersections, so if we can make the intersections a safer place, then our crews are safer and the motoring public also will be safer for the same reasons," he said.
"Access to the system also works for the betterment of the people we serve, for if a home is burning and we can get there faster, there's that much more of an opportunity we have to do something positive," he said.
Not long ago, Rural/Metro had an incident in which ambulances from Rural/Metro's station at Oracle and Magee roads were responding to a possible drowning when emergency vehicles were stalled at a red light for 45 seconds.
Fortunately, the victim, a 4-year-old girl, was OK, but the outcome could have been disastrous because of Rural/Metro's lack of access to the traffic signal pre-emption system, Good said.
There were two other incidents that same year in which Rural/Metro's fire engines were driving on the wrong side of the road, driving head-on into traffic, Good said. Over the years there probably have been hundreds of times Rural/Metro had done that, he said, adding that while it's legal for emergency vehicles, it's "extremely dangerous."
The system now in place in the Northwest Fire District, Golder Ranch and Marana that allows intersection lights to be changed for emergency vehicles is called Opticom and is manufactured by 3M Corp. The signals are operated by Pima County's Traffic Engineering Division within the Department of Transportation.
A switch in the vehicle turns on a device known as an emitter. The emitter sends a signal to a device in the traffic signal itself known as a detector. The detector reads the vehicle's access code before allowing the light to change and another element in the traffic signal determines what kind of vehicle is requesting access through an intersection and in what order they will be allowed to pass through if more than one vehicle is making a request. Under the current system, access by means of the signal change is provided on a first-come, first-served basis, but in some systems access is also determined on a priority basis, depending on the priority given to a certain type of vehicle. Fire engines, as an example, normally have a higher priority because of their size and weight and the longer distance it takes them to stop.
Rural/Metro has been exploring the possibility of gaining access to a countywide traffic signal pre-emption system since 1999 when a committee was formed to look into expanding the system. Initial requests were handled through the Pima Association of Governments, but responsibilities were then turned over to Pima County in August, 2000. All providers in the Northwest area would contract through Pima County for access to the system.
About two years ago, acting on recommendations from the Regional Preemption Committee, the county sought bids from preemption system providers who would furnish the equipment for system expansion.
Three companies submitted bids. Those companies were Southwest Traffic Systems of Phoenix, suppliers of a system developed by Tomar Electronics of Gilbert, and used by the Tucson Fire Department; C.S. Construction Co; and Contractors West.
The Southwest Traffic System bid was the lowest at $1.52 million, nearly $227,000 less than the C.S. Construction bid and $421,000 less than the bid submitted by Contractors West.
Some thought because the Southwest Traffic Systems bid included replacing all existing Opticom equipment, it would have been extremely difficult for Southwest to compete.
In March 2002, the Regional Preemption Committee met to discuss results of the bid opening and award a contract to be sent to the Board of Supervisors the following month for board approval.
Before that could happen, however, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry sent a letter to Deputy Public Works Administrator John Bernal requesting him to notify the Board of Supervisors that the Southwest Traffic Systems contract was to be canceled.
"While a regional emergency vehicle preemption system is an admirable goal, trying to use this bid process and award to achieve that goal is inappropriate and premature," Huckelberrry wrote. "The bid and award are premature because there is no cooperative agreement in place between the owners and users of such a regional system, contrary to the agenda material's assertion that the contract award was to be made pursuant to a 'cooperative agreement.'
"The town of Marana and the Northwest and Golder Ranch fire districts have questioned the process and proposed award, strongly suggesting they might not join a regional system at this time," Huckelberry wrote, adding that he felt it was "inappropriate” as well because it committed the county to spending more than $835,000 of "scarce transportation dollars that would be better spent on more pressing traffic improvements."
More recently, Weinrich, Pima County's director of the Department of Transportation and Flood Control District, said "rather than create a system that didn't have unanimous support, we terminated the process to purchase additional equipment because we didn't feel it was sufficient to merely have a consensus, but that it needed unanimous support."
There are still bitter feelings as a result of that action.
Fred Roush, president of Southwest Traffic Systems, recalls being kicked out of the meeting at which his company's bid was discussed and "essentially being told to go pound sand."
Roush alleged the process was stacked against Tomar Electronics by the Northwest Fire District and Marana. "It was not an even playing field," Roush said in a recent interview, adding that he wondered about Huckelberry's comments relating to the $835,000 cost to the county when discussions about the cost had been going on for more than a year.
"To me, the reasons for the cancellation are still murky," said L. Thomas Bleasdale, manager of Southwest regional sales for Tomar Electronics. "I don't see how you can go three years down the road and say you're backing out because you don't know where the money is coming from," he said.
"To have a bid come in that's less expensive and meets the specifications and you say you're not going to fund it, that's something you don't forget," said Michael Treece, chairman of La Canada Fire District.
Pete Petrotta, a traffic signal technician for Marana, said the town's opposition to the contract was based on last minute changes to the contract that altered the intent from merely purchasing equipment to replacing the existing system. Neither Marana nor Northwest Fire wanted to replace the Opticom system with Tomar's, he said. All they wanted was an opportunity for better pricing on equipment purchases and to avoid having to take their equipment out of service while the replacements were being made.
Whether the eventual contract winner was an Opticom or Tomar provider made no difference to Rural/Metro, Good said. All the company was interested in was getting the best price it could on the emitters to trigger the signal-changing system, to gain access to the codes which would make it possible and to have an intergovernmental agreement with the county approved.
Of more concern to Rural/Metro, Good said, was resolving a situation in which Northwest Fire had access to the preemption system in the area served by Rural/Metro, where Rural/Metro lacked access in its own area, and completing negotiations with the county on intergovernmental agreements.
The latter was of particular concern since cancellation of the contract concluded the county's regional transportation program for expanding the traffic signal preemption system program.
Rural/Metro wanted to know where its efforts stood in having an intergovermental agreement with the county approved as a result of the county's ending the program, especially in light of comments made by Letzkus of the county's Traffic Engineering Division a year ago about Northwest Fire "playing politics" to see that didn't happen.
Now it appears past difficulties have been smoothed out and Rural/Metro is near fulfilling its goal.
An intergovernmental agreement with Marana also may be possible that would give Rural/Metro access through the intersection at Ina and Thornydale roads, said Marana's Petrotta. "All Rural/Metro has to do is buy the emitters, inform us of the vehicles' numbers and they're welcome to use our system as long as they have an intergovernmental agreement with us and recognize access is on a first-come, first-served basis," Petrotta said. "I'm willing to bend over backwards to have that happen."
Oro Valley had intended to test the Opticom system on its police cars for six months but recently pulled a proposed intergovernmental agreement with the county from its Town Council agenda.