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Coolidge fire chief responds after neighbors question slow response to deadly fire

Neighbors want answers after it took nearly 20 minutes for firefighters to respond to a house fire in Coolidge that killed a mother of three.
Published: Jun. 17, 2022 at 9:04 PM MST
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COOLIDGE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -- Coolidge Fire Chief Mark Dillon said it took his firefighters 17 minutes to respond to a house fire that turned deadly. Neighbors reached out to Arizona’s Family concerned about that response time, pointing out that the city is growing and the fire department needs to do better.

The fire happened Sunday just before 4 a.m. A mother of three, Niki Gustafson, was killed.

Her neighbors said they called 911 but were helpless to stop it. “It was in the front, and you just saw it come around this way, and then it shot through the back, and it got the storage room, the storage room way in the back,” Anise Chuigo, a neighbor, said. She said it took firefighters about 20 minutes to arrive.

May Fields echoed those sentiments. The home is about two miles from the fire station. “It took a long time for the fire department to get here. I was concerned because I live next door,” Fields said. With the city growing, they said the fire department needs to improve.

Fire Chief Mark Dillon defended the 17-minute response time. “It’s right in line with how we call it our after-hours response,” he said.

Dillon said Coolidge is a combination department, meaning they only have six full-time paid firefighters; the rest are volunteers. Their full-timers work from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. That means when the call came in at Gustafson’s home, firefighters were at their homes and had to come to the station, load up and then go. “It’s going to be an extended time for them to do that, so each call is going to be completely different,” Chief Dillon said.

How does that compare to other combination departments? According to the National Fire Protection Association, which sets response standards, the minimum requirement is 14 minutes.

Arizona’s Family asked Chuigo if that time would have made a difference. “Yes, yes, very much so,” she said.

“17 minutes is actually pretty quick. Not quick enough for the people having to see the fire but it’s not a bad response time.” City Manager Rick Miller said.

Miller said the fire department has doubled in size in the last five years and plans to add two full-time firefighters. “As the city grows as we are, we’re receiving more revenue from retail sales tax and property taxes; we should be able to continue to grow the fire department,” Miller said.

Those two additional firefighters who work that day shift give the department the chance to respond to two calls simultaneously.