Phoenix Firefighters Union Pushing For Change After 2 Firefighters Hospitalized From Back To Back Trail Rescues

On June 16, 12 Phoenix firefighters were sent home after three back-to-back rescues. Two of those firefighters were hospitalized on the verge of organ failure.

PHOENIX — Hiking in a heatwave is a choice, but it’s one that can come with consequences for rescue crews.

Prepared or not, no one ever plans to be rescued.

“We will put ourselves in harm’s way to help people,” said P.J. Dean, with the United Phoenix Firefighters Association. “It’s just the way we are.”

But this June, Dean says things have crossed a line.

On June 16th, he said, 12 of their members were sent home after three back-to-back rescues. Two were on Camelback and the third was at Piestewa.

Two of those members were hospitalized on the verge of organ failure.

Dean spoke to one of those hospitalized firefighters himself.  He said the firefighter drank two gallons of water that day and he was still dehydrated.

“He had heart arrhythmias, blood pressure through the roof,” Dean explained. “It’s something that can easily be fatal.”

Mountain Rescues

Mountain rescue crews are specialized crews, which means it’s the same men and women doing the rescues over and over again.

Each year, the Phoenix Fire Department works with the city to raise awareness for not just dangerous hiking conditions for hikers, but the threat they can pose to crews.

“Were always thinking about your safety and I hope that you’re thinking about ours, too,” said Phoenix Fire Capt. Kenny Overton in a social media video posted earlier this month.

A 12 News report from 2019 showed Papago Park had the fewest number of rescue calls, with 14. Piestewa Peak had 43 rescue calls that year. South Mountain had the second-highest number of rescue calls, 63. The highest number of rescue calls came from Camelback Mountain, with 90 in 2019 alone.  

Push for change

The United Phoenix Firefighters Association is pushing for change in those hospitalizations.

Last week, the union asked Phoenix’s Parks & Recreation Board to close down Camelback and Piestewa when there is an extreme heat warning.

“They’re what we call the most technical parks in terms of the access,” Dean said. “It takes 20 to 30 minutes just to reach somebody sometimes.”

The rescue can take even longer if crews can’t use a helicopter. Those can’t fly or function when temps soar above 116 degrees, leaving all the work to the boots on the ground.

“We’re just afraid someone is going to die and we don’t want to see that happen,” Dean said.

Next steps

A public information officer for the Phoenix Parks & Recreation Board says the Board is planning a special meeting next month after hearing from the union last week.  He sent the following statement via email to 12 News:

The Phoenix Parks and Recreation Board is committed to exploring all options to keep trail users, first responders and park rangers safe on city trails. Work is being done to schedule a to-be-announced July meeting so that the Board can receive information on trail usage, mountain rescues, impact to first responders and options to limit trail access during extreme heat days. The Board represents the entire community and a decision to put a policy in place to limit trail access during certain weather conditions needs to factor in feedback from all stakeholders. The Phoenix Parks and Recreation, and Fire departments have worked in partnership since 2015 to share the “Take a Hike. Do it Right.” hiking safety message and continue to lead with education about responsible hiking. The Board asks community members to consider the danger they bring to themselves and first responders when they choose to hike irresponsibly.

The union says those two firefighters in the hospital made a full recovery.  12 News did not hear back from the Phoenix Fire Department for this story.


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