Surprise helps modernize Rocky Point fire department

by Lily Leung – Jun. 28, 2008 08:39 AM
The Arizona Republic

Editor’s note: This is the second of five stories outlining the Surprise Fire Department’s volunteer work with the fire department of Peñasco, Sonora.

PUERTO PEÑASCO, SONORA – Fifty-one-year-old Jorge Ramos has two passions: shrimp breeding patterns and firefighting.

Ramos, the oldest firefighter in Puerto Peñasco, Sonora, has dedicated more than half his life to both. On a full-time basis, he studies “la vida de camarónes,” or “the life of shrimp,” for the University of Sonora. On a part-time volunteer basis, he has been called to blazes, vehicle wrecks and bee removals during the past 29 years at the beachside town, widely known by Americans as Rocky Point.

Though he spends more time doing research, he calls firefighting “my life.”

“I’m always trying to leave it back, but I can’t,” Ramos said at the Rocky Point fire department’s 34th annual celebration two weeks ago.

Ramos is one of two “original old-timers” who have seen the fire department struggle to keep up with the resort town’s rapid growth.

Lack of equipment and money prompted the fire agency to seek help from Montecito, Calif., and Tijuana, Mexico, in the mid 1980s and 1990s, and recently from the Surprise Fire Department, which regularly donates volunteer hours.

“Past firefighters had to suffer a lot so that we can be where we’re at right now,” Ramos explained. In the past, firefighters counted on “heroics,” as he called it, to respond to emergencies. At one point, the department lacked smoke masks, and many remember a water rescue in which firefighters frantically improvised by roping the victim with a fire hose.

That has since changed with the help of outside agencies, turnover in upper management and the introduction of more advanced training. Though they don’t have the newest fire engines and turnover coats, many agree that they at least have something to work with.

When the fire department started in 1974, it operated out of the City Hall building. Now there’s a central fire station with dorms, a rescue boat and four engine companies, and two substations. Firefighters are now equipped with a rescue boat, a jet ski and three ambulances.

Rocky Point fire officials credit Surprise Firefighter/Paramedic Martin Navarrete and the Surprise Fire Department for pushing them to “really getting results” during the past six years, said Hector Ruiz, who oversees the city’s airport’s fire division.

Navarrete has helped train Rocky Point’s firefighters in vehicle extrications, and his next push is to acquaint them emergency-medical services, a service now performed solely by the Red Cross in Rocky Point.

Above all, Navarrete wants to push an important concept that he thinks will really push the department toward growth: improving customer service.

“They’re lacking the biggest vision – the people,” he said. “People tend to be scared about coming to the fire station to ask for help. But. hey, let’s change that.”

Next: A group of Rocky Point firefighters receive hands-on training at Surprise firehouses during the week leading up to the Fourth of July.

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