Queen Creek dropped plans Monday to have Rural/Metro Fire Department staff the town's first fire department, instead opting to negotiate with Gilbert for 24 firefighters and two fire engines.

The change came as Queen Creek officials saw the need to join a valleywide mutual aid system, which the town could not be part of if it contracted with the private Rural/Metro, Queen Creek Town Manager John Kross said. Mutual aid allows fire departments to respond to emergencies in neighboring communities when needed.

Gilbert firefighters will work in Queen Creek beginning Jan. 1, pending approval of a contract between the two towns. Queen Creek will pay between $3.1 million and $3.7 million for Gilbert personnel and equipment. The agreement would cease at the end of 2008 when Queen Creek is expected to have the fire department staffed with town firefighters.

Queen Creek's change of plans was delivered to Rural/Metro officials minutes before it was made public Monday.

The Scottsdale-based Rural/Metro has worked with Queen Creek officials since 2001, through two fire service committees and several studies, to establish a town-owned fire department, Rural/Metro fire spokeswoman Alison Cooper said.

The company also worked for months helping the town map out where fire stations are needed and what type of fire engines should be purchased, she said.

"This announcement has shocked and deeply disappointed the Rural/Metro family who has provided hundreds of staff hours helping the town improve their fire service for the community," Cooper said in a statement.

Kross said the decision is no reflection on Rural/Metro. "We have the utmost respect for their services," he said.

Queen Creek Mayor Art Sanders said the town is moving forward with its plans faster than previously anticipated. Operating the town's fire department on its own had been a five-year plan and is now down to one year.

Before Queen Creek started creating its own fire department, Rural/Metro provided fire and emergency medical services by individual subscription to town residents and businesses.

In May, Queen Creek residents passed the town's first property tax to help fund a town fire department. The tax — $1.95 per $100 assessed valuation — is being coupled with a quarter-cent sales tax increase to pay for those fire services.

The Gilbert Fire Department has 175 firefighters with 15 more who will finish the fire academy in November, said Gilbert fire spokesman Rob Duggan.

The pending agreement means 24 of those firefighters would go to Queen Creek, along with two of eight fire engines.