“I’m still as happy as I was when I started,” says Globe Fire Chief Al Gameros who will retire at the end of January 2016 with 29 years of service to the Globe Fire Department, 18 of those as chief. “That’s important. You’ve gotta love what you do or don’t do it.”
Gameros was born and raised in Miami. After graduating from Miami High School, he started working in the Pinto Valley Mine, where he spent twelve years. Gameros went to a four-year apprenticeship through the mine to work on diesel equipment and has a degree in diesel technologies. Toward the end of his time at Pinto Valley, he was promoted to sub-foreman and served in a supervisory role.
In 1980, while he was still at the mine, Gameros joined the volunteer Central Heights Volunteer Fire Department. “We didn’t run a lot of calls back then, but […] we motivated our guys to be there. We were there on weekends, nights. We did a lot of things to build that department,” recalls Gameros. When he started with the volunteer department in Central Heights, he also pursued the necessary training to get his Fire one & two certifications and to become an Paramedic. He worked his way up the ranks to become Central Heights’ assistant chief training officer. “Once I started in Central Heights, I started attending as many courses as I could,” says Gameros.
He found his calling in fire during that time. “We had a fire in the early eighties and a family of five died in it in Central Heights,” Gameros remembers. “Five people died, three children, and a mother that was pregnant, I think that’s what may have turned my decision [to go into fire] because I had a good job in the mines. I was making good money; I was a supervisor, but after that incident—that’s what turned me. Once it gets you, you don’t want to turn around. That was a tough situation. It’s something I still remember like it happened yesterday.”
In 1987 a position became available at the Globe Fire Department, Gameros tested for it and was offered the job by Chief Frank Blanco. He explains that the department looked quite different at the time. “When I got hired there were only nine people. We ran two man engine companies. It was a neat deal, well, kind of a weird deal, but we were the dispatch. We’d answer the 911 phone calls at our station, then we’d page it out, and then we’d respond. People would be amazed as to how it used to happen.”
Since becoming Chief in 1998, Gameros has fostered wide-reaching improvements and growth for Globe Fire. The department is now 18 people strong, 11 of which are paramedics. Gameros calls that ratio “an amazing number.” With those numbers, the department now maintains two paramedics per crew. He’s proud that all of Globe’s “captain level and above staff are paramedics,” which means that he and Deputy Chief Gary Robinson still fill in. “If we get a call, we still jump on a truck. We’ll drive a truck,” says Gameros. “Anywhere else, you won’t see that.”
Gameros is grateful for the folks who have stayed at the department for many, many years.
“I’ve been fortunate that the people that have worked for me, they have stuck here and stayed here,” he says, adding “Some of the guys I have now, I was their only boss.”
In his time leading the department, Gameros started a wellness program. “When I started, fitness wasn’t even a thought, but the fire service as a whole nationwide has tried to change that. You still lose a firefighter every three days nationwide. Over 55% of that is cardiac arrest, so we’re trying to change that mindset and I think we’ve done a good job.” He also helped establish a fire program through the college in which Globe Fire personnel provide instruction for high school students to be able to test for their Fire one & two certification while they’re still in high school. “We are the ones who initiated that program, which has been beneficial,” says Gameros.
Gameros jumpstarted the department’s wildland fire program, which was established in 2001. “We signed with the Arizona state land department to respond to wildland fires throughout the United States, mostly in the southwestern US, but we go all over,” explains Gameros. “We send personnel with city equipment. We bill all of our overtime to the state for our personnel and then the city gets an hourly rate for their equipment.” The program has generated significant revenue for the city over the years. Gameros estimates that this year, the work of the five-person Wildland Fire crew brought in $100,000 to the city’s general fund.
The crew not only responds to wildland fires, but also major disasters like hurricanes. “I was fortunate enough to go to Hurricane Ivan in Florida and Georgia in 2004,” remembers Gameros. “I was there for three weeks. We ended up in North Carolina where people were flooded out. They sent me to an area that was El Salvadorian because they didn’t speak English. I had a great experience with that.”
He prefaces all of his accomplishments by thanking his family, his wife Irene and children Monica, Nicole, and Freddie. “The only reason that I’ve been able to do the things that I have is because of my family. You can’t do anything unless your family backs you. They’ve lived for thirty-five years with my radio on. I’ve missed holidays, Christmas, and birthdays for calls.”
Gameros’ commitment to the community is clear. When GMT asked him to talk about what he was proud of, he mentioned his community involvement before anything professional. Gameros and his wife Irene were on the founding board of the Dylan Earven Foundation. “We were part of the original organization of the foundation, which is doing very well now and that was Donald and Angela’s dream,” he says, adding, “We went through the process of creating a 501c3.” Together, he and Irene have also made significant contributions to youth athletics in the area, including running a K-6th grade youth basketball team for six years. Gameros also coached Miami Junior High football, youth basketball, Pop Warner football, T-ball, and track. In 2015, Gameros won the Citizen of the Year award from the Globe-Miami Chamber of Commerce.
“I grew up here and I truly care about this community. When we think about our community we think in terms of Globe and Miami – and not only Globe,” says Gameros. “Whether something happens in Globe or Miami, it affects us all. I think we really need to push and bring things together, get our communities working together, our schools. I mean, we have too much duplication of things, but I think we need to reach out to everybody.”
Currently, Gameros is serving as Globe’s interim city manager for his last four weeks as a city employee, a role he jokingly calls his “apprenticeship.” It’s a position he’s taken on a handful of times in the past, but never for quite so long. “I could have sat back and basically coasted these thirty days, but this is a new challenge. This is something different. For me, I think it’s a good move at this time.” He’s not looking to make it permanent though, instead he has his sights set on something new for the future.
Gameros calls politics “a strong consideration” for the next election. “I will make that decision probably in March,” he says. Regardless, he’s always thinking about the future of our area. “There’s a lot of things going on within our community that are going to be important for the future. I think we need to break away from dependency on just the mines. You know, we need to really push economic development and jobs in our area. That’s crucial. I grew up in a mine, my dad did 40 years in a mine and I lived through how many layoffs and strikes where we had nothing? The mines are great, they’re a good employer,” but shouldn’t be the only employer.
According to Gameros, it’s the little things that make a big difference. It’s about being accountable for your own efforts and showing a sense of pride in your community.
As Gameros looks back on his time with Globe Fire, there’s no question as to what he’ll miss the most. “What I’m going to miss though is the camaraderie, the family setting,” he says. “We live with these guys all the time, so you build that bond. You probably see them more than you see your own family. That’s what I enjoy the most. We have some amazing guys working for us. We really do.”
Autumn Giles is a freelance writer and recipe developer whose work has appeared in Edible Baja Arizona, Modern Farmer, Punch, Serious Eats, and elsewhere. Her first book, Beyond Canning was published in February 2016.