Rita Clark In the metro-Phoenix suburb of Surprise where, on average, a new home is completed almost every hour and 50 new residents a day move in, the Surprise Fire Department depends heavily on volunteers to meet ever-increasing demands for service.

The Surprise Fire Department is a career department with 60 sworn personnel and 9 civilians. The department staffs 4 fire stations with 3 advanced life support engine companies, 1 basic life support ladder company, 2 brush trucks, hazardous materials support unit and alternative response unit.

Although the demands are heavy on all aspects of the department, one division in particular has faced monumental challenges as the population mushroomed from 38,000 in 2000 to an estimated 91,000 today: That’s the Fire Prevention Division. The division consists of the Fire Marshal, 2 Fire Inspector/Investigators, 1 full time Plans Reviewer, 1 part-time Plans Reviewer and a Permit Technician. The division is responsible for all commercial plans review, fire flow testing, new and annual mercantile inspections and fire investigations.

Prior to the addition of the second fire inspector, the plans reviewers and the permit technician, Fire Marshal Doug Helbig was handling everything himself, with one inspector and one volunteer inspector. It was obvious Doug needed to expand his division, but he needed data to support it. He realized the value of volunteers when Gail Kuhn joined the division as a volunteer inspector. Gail was assisting the full time inspector, but the division was still struggling to keep pace with the demand.

One day Rita Clark walked into Fire Administration, and said she would like to volunteer and asked if there was anything she could do to help. Rita and her husband had recently retired to Surprise and Rita stated she wanted to "give back to the fire department." Rita’s husband was a 27 year veteran fire captain and Rita had managed her own business full-time. She never had time, prior to retirement, to get involved with the fire department, but Rita promised herself when she retired she would.

After an interview with Fire Chief Mike White and Assistant Chief Clint Mills, Rita was assigned to the Fire Prevention Division. Doug Helbig summed her arrival up in one word, wonderful. Doug immediately set Rita to work gathering information to support his need to expand the division. In addition, she started to organize and update paper files, input data into a computer software program and, with the help of Gail, revamp the scheduling of mercantile inspections.

With the information gathered to support the expansion of the division, Doug was first able to hire Gail as a full-time Fire Inspector. Having Gail transition from the volunteer role to full-time role was seamless. In the next budget cycle the division staff increased to include the plans reviewers and permit technician. Doug stated that Rita’s help in gathering the needed information was invaluable in obtaining the additional staff.

It has been almost two years since Rita walked into Fire Administration asking to help. Today she is working approximately 20 hours per week in the Fire Prevention Division, helping to meet customer demands in the growing city and Fire Marshal Doug Helbig is still summing it up in one word, "wonderful."
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