By Rural Metro
“This is a tale of white horses and green fire trucks. It is the story of the very earliest days of what is now the Rural Metro Corporation, in 1947 called the Rural Fire Department.” – Louis A. Witzeman Jr.
Celebrating our 70th anniversary, the Rural Metro Corporation was the conceptualization of a 22-year-old journalist working for the Arizona Times. A seed planted when he watched his neighbors’ home rendered to ash by a fire one night, the fire department never responded. For insurance reasons, city fire departments could not leave the city and you guessed it, the home was outside the city limits.
And so, it began, Lou’s “white horse” cause. The idea that everyone needs a “white horse” to save the day, became his mission. Driven by his new-found cause and a desire to leave the world just a trifle better than he found it, Lou revolutionized the fire service industry with the first privately owned fire department.
“It takes hard work, brains and luck,” is what Lou told anyone who asked what it took to make it in the controversial world of privately operated fire service. Doing “the government’s” sacred duty did not rest well among many.
“It takes hard work”— A single minded dedication. Hours, days, years of driven work to fully recognize the concept of privately managed fire protection.
“It takes…brains”— Not genius status brains, but enough intelligence to challenge and interpret the minds of your competition and detractors.
“It takes…luck”— There are many things beyond your control that can hurt or help your cause. “I believe the old truism that you make the most of your own good luck with hard work and most bad luck comes from lack of attention, but the factor of luck remains and it can bless you or it can put you in the grave.” –Lou Witzeman
On February 2, 1948, Rural Fire Protection went into service on a shoestring budget, one truck, a 30 x 30 station fully furnished with used goods and eager anticipation. Two weeks later their first call defied the law of averages with not one fire, but two at the same time.
By 1950, Rural Fire Protection was operating in the then town of Scottsdale. A budding city outside of Phoenix with a population of just over 2,000. In April, a massive fire erupted in the Arizona Crafts Center and Rural Fire Protection charged in to help. An event that cemented their future as the first fire department for Scottsdale, Arizona. Over 50 years later (2003), Rural Fire protection bowed out, allowing the City Of Scottsdale to raise its own fire department to service nearly 200,000 citizens.
During the 50 years that Rural Fire Protection was servicing Scottsdale, it acquired Metropolitan Fire in 1959, making it Rural/Metro Fire Department. In the same fashion, Rural/Metro expanded to Pima County replacing Catalina Fire Department in 1962, and then to Yuma County replacing the Tri-State Fire Department in 1971. In 1976, Rural/Metro Fire Department made a historic move outside of Arizona, purchasing Knoxville Fire Department and taking Rural/Metro Fire to the national stage. Founder Lou Witzeman even sat for an interview on 60 Minutes (1968) and later Good Morning America (2000).
One man, a green fire truck, “hard work, brains and luck.” Seventy years later Rural Metro Fire Department boasts 42 stations, 75 Fire Apparatus and over 950 employees—the nation’s largest privately-owned fire department. Lou’s “white horse” cause has come full circle. When once he was thought to be the scourge of the earth by Municipal Departments, in the 2000’s he was named one of the Top 20 Most Influential People by U.S. Fire Chief Magazine and was inducted in to the Fire Marshall’s Hall of Fame.
“It takes hard work, luck, brains, guts and a sense of humor.” In his experiment of free enterprise gone wild, Lou found these five things key to growth, creation, acceptance and survival. From an enthusiastic 22-year-old to a pioneer in the fire industry, Louis A. Witzeman gave birth to a revolutionary idea, fought his way to the top and handed over the reins in eternal rest in 2004.
In our 70th year, Rural Metro Fire Department carries on the courageous fight of a young journalist and his “white horse” cause. Continuing to put in “hard work” in communities across the Nation. Serving as the “white horse” for those in need. With a little “luck, brains, guts and sense of humor,” Rural Metro Fire Department looks forward to the next 70 years with eager anticipation, determination, and promise.