In the early 1980s, Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community member Brian Smith was hired at the Salt River Fire Department, along with four other Community members: Mike Sommerton, the late Richie Wood, Kervin Miles, and his brother, Paul Smith, Jr. All five of these new hires were sent for a week of training in firefighting. During the training, Paul Smith left, and Community member Warren Waters took his place. Shortly afterward, Kevin Makil joined the team.
“It was the first time [the Salt River Fire Department] ever hired. A lot of people applied from the Community, and there were no outside applicants. There were a lot of people from here that tried out, but only five were picked,” said Brian Smith.
Thirty years have now passed, a major milestone for Smith. At that time, there was only one fire station located in Salt River, and there were two men to a shift. Today, there are 80 firefighters and four stations spread throughout the Community. The much-larger call volume is distributed among the stations.
“Before, if someone was hurt, people would just take each other to the hospital. But as the department grew, we got more calls to attend to people,” said Smith.
When he started, the firefighters’ job duties were to clean the station, check the vehicle, do office work and go on calls. Today, Smith is a fire captain and does more of the office work, but occasionally he will help with station clean-up, check the vehicles and go on calls.
The biggest challenge that Smith has faced with the Salt River Fire Department has been to maintain a relationship with the fire departments of the surrounding cities. Over time, that started coming together, and today other fire departments are working with Salt River Fire Department and have the same respect that SRFD has for them.
“That’s what actually helped build the department, because people started coming to work for the SRFD,” said Smith. “Other challenges were to redefine the fire department rules, being able to [maintain] the service with the Community’s growth, and meeting the requirements educationally and physically.”
The most rewarding part of the job for Smith is serving the people, his fellow Community members.
“I left the Community for a little while, working at a different [fire] departments off the Community, but shortly I returned to SRFD. I learned some [things] off the Community, but I decided to continue working here because it’s a service to the Community. I get to serve the people I know,” said Smith. “As I got more education on CPR and first aid, it gave me the opportunity to help educate [firefighters from] other tribes, so another rewarding thing is continuing to help out other Native peoples.”
Another accomplishment that Smith is very proud of is being involved with wage changes for the tribal workers of the Community.
“We were one of the first tribes to join the International Association of Fire Fighters, and that brought me up to what the department should be getting paid,” said Smith. “I used to work with the Council members back then and talked to former president Ivan Makil about getting retirement and higher wages, for not just us, but for everyone in the tribal departments. I think it was a positive impact that I pushed forward. Now we’re at equal pay to [off-community jobs]. It also pushed people to go back to school to get hired, and that [provides] a better quality of service for everybody.”
Smith’s future goals are to be promoted to a higher position and do what it takes to get the job done.
“It’s good serving people, but yet again it’s hard, because it’s not always fun to go on a call if it’s someone you know and see them in a bad situation,” said Smith. “It’s a lot different when you work on the outside, where someone’s house burns down and not know the people. But here, if you don’t do your best, you know these people and know they might not have a house tomorrow.”