Unlike many people who find themselves fighting fires for a living, Tim Cooper did not dream of being a firefighter growing up.
He only stumbled into the profession as a young man after deciding to look for a position that paid better than his job as a karate instructor.
Before being hired, he recalled, “I’d only been in one fire station my entire life as a little kid.”
Fast forward four decades and Captain Tim Cooper is retiring after a decorated career with Scottsdale Fire Department and its predecessor, Rural/Metro.
“Tim is considered the godfather of special operations in Scottsdale,” said Special Operations Division Chief Joseph Early. “He was the driving force behind the formation of our Technical Rescue Team and through his leadership, our technicians are the best in the business. He has inspired countless firefighters.”
So, how did a 20-something karate instructor from Phoenix end up as one of Scottsdale’s most influential firefighters?
Cooper, who earned his black belt in 1973, was running a chain of karate schools in the 1970s when two of his students, both firefighters, told him he would make a good firefighter.
“And then one day, I was tired of teaching karate and there was a test coming up for Rural/Metro in Scottsdale,” Cooper said. “I said, ‘You know, I’ll try it.’”
Rural/Metro hired Cooper in April 1974 and he remained with the company until he was hired by the city when Scottsdale created its own fire department in 2005.
Scottsdale was a much different place when Cooper started out. In 1980, the city’s population numbered 88,364 people — compared to over 250,000 today.
It was also a time of northward expansion for the city, which went from covering 88.6 square miles in 1980 to its current size of 184.5 square miles by 1990.
The fire department — then run by the private operator Rural/Metro — grew alongside the city.
“When I started, there were only three fire stations in Scottsdale,” Cooper said, noting the city now has 15.
Cooper said the biggest change between then and now is the technology employed by the department to respond to emergencies.
He recalled using paper maps while responding to a fire and squinting to read the small type identifying tiny streets.
Now, the trucks are outfitted with an “intense” mapping system that helps firefighters respond quicker to emergencies.
“I can see how to blow through the streets and get the quickest route to that house,” Cooper said.
Other technology for communication and firefighter safety has improved over time as well, Cooper said.
Another change took place in the department’s training, which Cooper was a big part of.
“How we train now is very technical and very competent — a lot more than there was when I first started,” Cooper said. “We kind of flew by the seat of our pants a lot of times with our training. We trained, but it was nothing compared to what it is now.”
Cooper, promoted to captain in 1981, took a leadership role as the department adopted specialized operations like how to deal with hazardous materials.
“I got into hazardous materials and you had to go through the hazardous materials technician course and it was pretty complex,” Cooper said. “That was kind of fun, so I got into that and then ended up teaching in that field for a little while.”
In the early 1990s, Cooper dove head first into technical rescue, which went beyond the traditional fire fighting and medical training employed by firefighters.
Cooper said, at the time, the Rural/Metro team in Scottsdale did not have the training “on how to do high-angle rescues and how to do what we now call confined space rescues and trench rescues and things like that.”
Cooper got into the field early and was a part of the first group of instructors certified by the state to teach technical rescue.
“There were about a dozen of us and we kind of wrote the book on what (is) basically now used as our rescue technician training throughout this state, and the Valley is particular,” Cooper said.
Cooper developed the technical rescue program for Scottsdale and was its primary instructor since 1993. He also supervised the helicopter rescue program and participated in training and operating air support units from Maricopa County Sheriffs Department and Arizona Department of Public Safety.
“Captain Cooper has selflessly served the citizens and visitors of Scottsdale for more than four decades,” said Scottsdale Fire Chief Tom Shannon. “Every one of us is safer today for his dedication and professionalism.”
Cooper said he has been teaching technical rescue techniques for 20 years, including outside of fire fighting circles to industry clients and the military.
Cooper’s expertise came in handy as Scottsdale expanded northward into more desert and wild land areas in the 1990s and began annexing portions of the McDowell Mountains.
“As the city grew, we had a lot of trench rescues all of a sudden with construction expanding out into new developments…we started having more people in the Valley progressing out in the wilder areas and less urban areas,” Cooper said.
As strange as it sounds, Cooper also worked in water rescues and the city, via Rural/Metro, actually had its own dive team to help people trapped in cars during monsoons or after a vehicle ended up in a canal.
The dive team was discontinued when Scottsdale opened its own department because nearby City of Tempe and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department had teams that could respond to incidents in Scottsdale, Cooper said.
After 45 years on the job, Cooper has finally made the decision to retire to give his body a break, though it is not for a lack of passion for the job.
“Over 45 years, I just got banged up and beat myself up,” Cooper said.
He still plans to provide training for new members of Scottsdale Fire Department, which could see an influx of new hires in the next several years.
Shannon, the fire chief, said the department could lose 150 to 160 firefighters over the next five years as the individuals who started with the department in 2005 become eligible for retirement.
“I’m going to try to stay a little bit busy; it’s hard to stop doing it,” Cooper said. “To have the city lose my (45 years of ) experience — if I can stay attached and try to spread it a little bit in guys like me that’s good for everybody to use our experience to help them.”