Former Safford Fire Chief steps down from department after serving in five separate decades

Contributed Photo/Courtesy Safford Fire Department: Mike Rhodes left, and Preston Owens, right, were honored during a retirement ceremony last Tuesday for their 70 years of service on the Safford Fire Department. Both men are local business owners.

By Jon Johnson

SAFFORD – Former Safford Fire Chief Mike Rhodes has worn several hats during his 39-year tenure on the volunteer Safford Fire Department, but now – due to mandatory age retirement regulations – that time has come to an end.

On Tuesday, Jan. 15, Rhodes and fellow longtime firefighter Preston Owens were recognized by the Safford Fire Department for their combined 70 years of service and congratulated them on their retirement. The Safford Fire Department, as are all the local fire departments, is a volunteer department with an only small compensation for the time and talents of those who serve. Yet the fire department is a vital asset to the city and surrounding areas.  

August 1982 – Ronald Reagan was president, rent averaged about $300 and a gallon of gas was less than a buck, but the average income was only $21,050. It was into this world that a spry, slender fellah saw all the cool kids swapping firefighting stories and decided he wanted in on the fun. Little did he realize the department would envelop the next 39 years of his life and he would forge lifelong bonds with his firefighting brothers and sisters and their families.

“I met a lot of good people and became great friends and have lost a lot of friends,” Rhodes said. “I still have firefighter friends from all over Arizona.” 

Contributed Photo/Courtesy Denise Rhodes: Former SFD Chief Mike Rhodes poses by his former truck a few fires ago.

Mike Rhodes joined the Safford Fire Department on Aug. 2, 1981, as a firefighter/hoseman at the encouragement of friends on the department and to serve the community. Throughout the years he has served in multiple capacities, including Firefighter, Second Lieutenant, First Lieutenant, Captain, Assistant Chief, Chief (for 10.5 years), and Lieutenant.

Contributed Photo/Courtesy Mike Rhodes: Former Safford Fire Chief Mike Rhodes allowed his image to be used to help sell Firefighters Brand Backdraft Root Beer.

Dropping their own day jobs at the drop of a hat, responding to calls in the dead of night on Christmas Eve, and numerous other times to serve the community and help those in need, the volunteer firefighters from all the various departments do this with little compensation and go through rigorous training. Rhodes has trained through the state of Arizona and has been to training through the National Volunteer Fire Council and in Indianapolis, Indiana to train with Waye Township, which was the largest volunteer fire department in the nation at the time. He’s also done training in Alaska and Atlanta, Georgia.  

Rhodes served not only locally, but advanced the movement for volunteer firefighters statewide with his time on the board with the Associated Firefighters of Arizona, serving as a board member, second vice-president, first vice-president, and president.

He also was chosen by the National Firefighters Council to have his picture on a can of Firefighter Brand Backdraft Root Beer. The soft drink was part of a snack campaign in which part of the proceeds went to the National Volunteer Firefighters Association.

One of Rhodes’ passions and something he showed a skill for during his time at the helm was arson and fire investigations. 

“It was just one of those things I could see,” Rhodes said. “I don’t know how to explain it. I loved to do fire and arson investigations and figured out a lot of good ones.”

Contributed Photo/Courtesy Denise Rhodes: Former Safford Fire Chief Mike Rhodes has hung up his hat and firehose after 39 years on the job.

The Safford Fire Department has its meetings every Tuesday night. After 39 years of Tuesday night meetings, Rhodes is having some difficulty adjusting to a new schedule. 

“It drives me crazy,” he said. “I just find stuff to do and make it another night at home.”

The Gila Herald thanks Mike Rhodes and Preston Owens for their years of service as well as all former and current firefighters.