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Wess Chambers

Position: Fire Chief
Term: 1991 – 1998

Wess was born in Miami, Arizona and raised there until the 7th grade when his parents moved to Phoenix. After graduation from high school, he attended Whittier College in Whittier California for two years. At that time he joined the Arizona Air National Guard with the hopes of becoming a fighter pilot. He attended pilot training in the Air Force and was the distinguished graduate of his class. After completion of pilot training he returned to Tucson and entered the University of Arizona. In 1956 an Air National Guard unit was formed in Tucson. Wess was hired full time as a Flying Training Instructor which required him to drop out of the University of Arizona. Wess finally completed his Political Science Degree form George Washington University in Washington D. C. in 1965. During his time in the Tucson ANG he served in many positions to include Flight Commander, Squadron Operations Officer, Squadron Commander, Group Director of Operations, and finally Commander of the unit in October 1971. In April of 1981 he was returned to active duty and assigned to the Pentagon as Deputy Director of the Air National Guard of the United States. In 1985 he was reassigned to Pacific Air Force Headquarters (PACAF) at Hickam AFB, Hawaii. His tour included Hawaii, Guam, Japan, Korea, and other areas where reserve forces would be sent in emergencies. For two years he had this “tough duty” and then was sent to Tactical Air Command Headquarters (TAC), Langley, Virginia as Special Assistant to the Commander. He remained in this position for three years until retirement.

Wess and his wife moved to Sonoita in 1988. He joined the Fire Department in January of 1989. In April of 1989 when a vacancy occurred on the SEESI Board of Directors, he was appointed to fill the vacancy. In September of 1989 he was elected President of the Board. In addition to being President he continued to serve as a fireman and enrolled in an EMT course. Also in January he became Assistant Fire Chief to Chief Everhart as John’s business was requiring more time of his time, and John was planning to resign later in the year. In June 1991 Wess resigned as President of the Board to become Fire Chief when Chief Everhart’s resignation took effect – August 1991.

Chambers became Fire Chief in September of 1991. The Fire Department continued to grow by leaps and bounds. A few of the improvements of the Fire Department between September 1991 and May 1993 are as follows:

  • U.S. West donated a suburban vehicle that was converted into the EMT response vehicle.
  • The old ford rescue truck was converted into a quick attack brush truck and equipped with medical equipment as a back up EMT response and rescue vehicle.
  • An Oxygen Cascade System was installed in the Fire Station to fill the oxygen bottles utilized by the Departments Medical Personnel.
  • Map books of SEESI’s area (350 square miles) were produced by Dorothy Dannis (1) for dispatch and for the firemen to put in each vehicle.
  • Construction was started on the north side of the station to provide for a training area, equipment storage, and offices.
  • An agreement was signed with Santa Cruz County to allow the Department to use the water stored at the County Complex in Sonoita (2).
  • The Fire Department began to establish Pre Plan Attack Procedures on how best to attack fires that may occur in the larger commercial buildings of Sonoita.
  • CPR classes were taught in the fire station by Dr. Jud Marston (3) EMS Captain and in March 1992 18 residents graduated certified in CPR.
  • Red Cross Blood drives were started by Dorothy Sturges with the Bloodmobile coming to the Fire Station.
  • SEESI joined the Arizona State Fire District Association to gain knowledge of their requirements and how to establish a Fire District in the future.
  • A First Responder class was conducted by Dr. Jud Marston to teach the protocols that must be followed for Department members that might be first on a scene.
  • An Infection Control Plan was written by Dr. Dorothy Dannis and was eventually accepted as the plan for the County. The Plan had to do with handling infectious material.
  • The Fire Department was organized utilizing the Fire District Association rules and regulations to include functional job descriptions for Firemen and EMT’s.

One of the most fun training exercises was with the Sisters of Santa Rita Abbey. They wanted to learn fire prevention, fire safety, and fire fighting, so they could be better prepared for a fire in their complex. These Sisters were wonderful. They really got with the program. One of the Sisters had the fire hose – shooting water clear over the building – and she was giggling and having the best time. Following the first two evening training exercises, the Sisters prepared and served dinner to the firemen. On the third exercise the wives of the firemen prepared and served the dinner to the Sisters and firemen. A great exercise and a wonderful group of Sisters at the Abby. They were great to work with AND fast learners. We had other exercises with them in the years to come.

June of 1992 began the testing in Santa Cruz County of the 911 system. Up to this point we had to call the Santa Cruz County Sheriff dispatch at 394-2410 to report an emergency. In March of 1993 the 911 system was finally in full operation (Hooray) – but not for Southeast Pima County and Rain Valley. There were still many problems to work out between the counties to make it an efficient operation.

SEESI reached an agreement with Mrs. Beck of the Vera Earl Ranch to install a radio repeater and antenna on the old oil well derrick. This provided the Department with much better communication coverage throughout the Sonoita and Elgin area.

In July 1992 the Arizona Department of Health presented SEESI with a Special Merit Award for the great improvement in medical support for the community. This was accomplished by many hours of training and hard work of the EMT staff under the guidance of Dr. Jud Marston.

August of 1993 the Insurance Service Organization (ISO) from Phoenix inspected and tested our Fire Department to see if an 8 fire rating was appropriate. The Department’s training records as well as a fire drill was required. The Fire Department passed all aspects of the test and the ISO rating was changed to an 8 for residential structures within a 5 mile radius of the station. To reduce the rating for commercial structures would require the Dept. to be capable of pumping 200 gal of water a minute for two hours, which equates to 24,000 gal of water. The water sources and capability of the Department to transport that quantity of water will prevent the Department from reducing the rating for commercial property until sometime in the future.

In the October of 1993 Chief Chambers approached the SEESI Board to fund a new structure engine to replace the 1969 engine the Dept. owned. He recommended that the new engine and an existing engine, number 826, be equipped with Compressed Air Foam which reduces water usage by 2/3. The compressed air foam makes the hose much lighter and requires less man power to move it around the fire ground. Foam is a much better fire retardant then plain water and can be used as a fire barrier around structures. In addition a structure can be coated with foam ahead of advancing fires.

The Board approved the recommendations and began a fund raising drive to pay for the new and modified engines. By February of 1994 $60k had been raised and a contract was awarded to Canyon State Emergency Services of Phoenix to modify 826 and provide a new E-One Engine with compressed air foam capability. Cost approximately $178k. Engine 826 was modified and returned to the Dept. in May. The new E-One Engine arrived in August, and the Dept.. began to train the firefighters on the new system. The Board made a down payment of $107k leaving a balance of $77k.

The Department needed more space for training and to provide for a helicopter landing pad for use in medical emergencies. Mrs. Beck again came to the aid of the Department by leasing us one acre of land immediately east of the Fire Department for $1.00 per year.

In November of 1994 the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) declared the model of Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBAs) used by the Dept. to be unsafe and required that they be replaced. New SCBAs were ordered at a cost of $ 19,127.00.

Many training exercises were held during the period of 1993 to 1998. These include a Disaster Drill, and Fire Fighters attending the State Fire School in Mesa, AZ. Again one of the most fun exercises was held at the Santa Rita Abby. The scenarios included the Sisters of the Abby as make believe-victims. The Dept. had to control an imaginary fire as well as rescue and treat the victims. In April of 1996 the fire departments of Tubac, Rio RIco, and Sonoita burned down five (5) model homes in Rio Rico for training. This exercise took place over two weekends and allowed the Departments to learn to work together and much cross-training took place as neither of those Departments had compressed air foam. Teams entered the burning buildings in rescue efforts while others performed the fire suppression. A really great live training exercise!!

Dr. Jud Marston retired as our Emergency Medical System Captain in May of 1996, and Laura Sink was promoted to Captain to fill the vacancy. Dr. Marston had been in charge of the EMS since 1990 and had made our medical team a first class unit.

A Rescue Vehicle was needed as the old one was not equipped to handle and support some of the new medical equipment now possessed by the Dept. The new vehicle was ordered through Canyon State Emergency Services, and Cholla Ford, Darrel Srader’s dealership in Benson, AZ supplied the chassis. The new Rescue Vehicle arrived in April. At that time a decision was made to keep the new Rescue Vehicle 830 in the station instead of having the EMT’s taking it home at night. This was due to some of the new medical equipment on the vehicle requiring electrical power to keep it fully charged. Also, the the new vehicle had a diesel engine which would be much harder to start on real cold nights.

In January 1997 the Sonoita-Elgin Community was saddened to learn of the passing of Chief Alanzo “Jokey” Spencer our second Fire Chief. Chief Spencer devoted much of his life to the Department. His hard work,dedication,and leadership provided a foundation for the continued growth of the Sonoita-Elgin Volunteer Fire Department.

The future of SEESI was discussed by the Board in November of 1997 and the establishment of a Fire District was discussed. Other options were also discussed; however, it was decided to continue as a volunteer organization.

The SEESI Board selected Captain Ed Schaeffer to become the Fire Chief when Chief Chambers retires. Sparky Sparks was selected to become Assistant Fire Chief. Chief Wess Chambers retired as Fire Chief in March of 1998, but remained with the Dept. as a volunteer fireman and EMT.

That is the end of this part of our Fire Department’s History. In closing Wess Chambers would like to add a few words about his time with the Department: As you have learned from the last two newsletters there was great progress made in the Sonoita-Elgin Volunteer Fire Department from 1989 through 1998. The progress was due to the hard working volunteers, FIREMEN, EMERGENCY MEDICAL TECHNICIANS, DISPATCHERS, SEESI LADIES, and THE SEESI BOARD OF DIRECTORS. Their hard work, dedication to the Department, and contributions of much time, made this progress so remarkable. However, none of this would have occurred without the support of the Sonoita-Elgin community who stood behind the Department with money and encouragement. All of this made my job so much easier!! I want to THANK EVERYONE for their help, support, and encouragement. It totally was a COMMUNITY EFFORT. I know that the current members of the Department, the SEESI Board, and the Future Fire District will continue to receive outstanding support from this Community. AGAIN,THANK YOU ALL.

1. Dr. Dorothy Dannis has a Ph.D. in Microbiology.
2. South East of the cross roads on the east side.
3. Dr. Jud Marston has a Ph.D. in Microbiology.
4. Dr. Dannis was in charge of Infection Control at St. Joseph’s Hospital – Barrows Medical Center in Phoenix.