Former fire chief talks about friction in PrescottPosted: Updated:
PRESCOTT, Ariz. -- Some hard feelings and hard choices still linger almost 11 months after the tragedy at Yarnell Hill. We recently spoke with the former fire chief about the 19 men they lost and the fallout from that tragic day.
"We're devastated," Chief Dan Fraijo said at a hastily called press conference on June 30. "We just lost 19 of the finest people you'll ever meet."
This was the first time most people in Arizona had ever seen Fraijo. He had been asked to come out of retirement to lead the Prescott Fire Department. But after the deaths of 19 of the men in his department, he became the face of a national news event.
"Boy, I tell you, in my career I buried five firefighters," Fraijo said recently. "The magnitude of 19 is basically overwhelming. You almost have to disconnect to think."
Standing next to the bronze statue honoring the Granite Mountain Hotshots, Fraijo talked about his feelings and frustrations in the months after June 30.
Specifically, how he believes the city dropped the ball not only with the public but also the firefighter community.
"I regret the way the city's handled this," Fraijo said. "I think they handled it poorly.
"I needed support, as a fire chief I needed support," he continued. "I was making decisions that were actually city decisions. When I asked for support, I didn't get any," he said.
The friction with Prescott didn't go unnoticed.
"I use the phrase, 'run, hide and criticize,'" Fraijo said.
And in October, Fraijo was asked to step down.
"I think the timing was horrible," Fraijo said.
The city is still searching for Fraijo's replacement to lead the department and manage the nearly $8 million budget.
Conflicts between cities and their fire departments are not uncommon. Protective services cost money and cities never seem to have enough. But some of Prescott's firefighters feel wounded. Fraijo said they were all bothered by how the city handled the Granite Mountain Hotshots' families.
"I think what would have been smart is to sit down with the families and find out what can be done," Fraijo said. "But I don't think that took place. Walls went up immediately and I think part of the anger from families was there was no discussion."
"One hundred percent we support and feel for those families," said Prescott's public affairs manager, Pete Wertheim. "What happened was incredibly tragic. The city was in a position at times delivering information people didn't want to hear.
"Some of the issues we had to deal with were the survivor benefits," Wertheim continued.
Wertheim took the city's public affairs manager job days before the tragedy.
Those issues he's talking about are now part of lawsuits with millions in claims.
But he denies there is bad blood between firefighters and city management.
"I think in the aftermath, with any process of grieving, there is often an anger stage," he said. "We certainly experienced that."
Now the city must decide if it can afford a hotshot team. After state grants, Prescott spent a little under $70,000 last year on the Granite Mountain Hotshots, less than 1 percent of the department budget.
But costs and liability sky-rocketed after the men were killed. The city will keep wildland experts on staff, but building a new team would be a long-term investment.
"The lack of having a level one Hotshot crew means our city is very similar to most cities that have these conditions," Wertheim said.
Even Fraijo wonders if having a Hotshot team is necessary or even possible for a small community to afford.
"That's a tough one because of liabilities that are associated with it now," Fraijo said.
Prescott will get a taste of this new reality this summer. Arizona mountains will be protected by other Hotshot teams and Prescott will go forward without the crew it called its own.
The city of Prescott is trying to hire a new fire chief. It also spent almost $88,000 on the study looking at the fire department's operations. The City Council may talk about a future Hotshot team when it goes through budget discussions this month and next.
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