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Urban northwest Indiana relies on volunteer firefighters

May 16, 2018

HIGHLAND, Ind. (AP) — Steve Barney drives the truck and runs in the pump at Highland Fire Department. In his words, he’s the one to “get you there.”

Even when he’s not cracking jokes by the coffee pot, he’s not far — Barney’s house is a couple of blocks away from the department’s central station on Highway Avenue in the middle of the town’s downtown business district.

Barney, a retired steel mill worker, is one of the department’s 35-or-so volunteer firefighters and has been for more than 30 years.

“It was just something I was interested in doing. Help the community, you know? Get involved,” he said.

Volunteer firefighters like Barney are vital to the department, Chief Bill Timmer, said, but their numbers have dwindled in recent years. Earlier this month, Timmer told the Town Council they might have to hire some full-time firefighters to help out.

About three dozen fire departments in Lake and Porter counties are at least partially staffed with volunteers, according to the Indiana Volunteer Firefighters Association. In 2015, the National Fire Protection Association found that 70 percent of firefighters nationwide were volunteer.

“It’s still something that’s very important and it’s viable still. It’s just finding the right people,” Dyer Fire Chief Thad Stutler said.

The number of volunteers in the U.S. hit a low in 2011, with 756,400, compared to 897,750 in 1984, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council. While there’s been a slight increase since then, it hasn’t kept up with the number of calls firefighters respond to, the council found.

“The issue is becoming, obviously, less free time or less time available for us. We’re asking for more,” Timmer said.

Timmer and Chesterton Fire Chief John Jarka said they used to get a lot of volunteers from the steel mills, but as mill shifts got longer it became more difficult for people to balance their personal lives.

“I think the demand on the work life has changed drastically,” Jarka said.

In Dyer, there are many people who may be commuting to other places for work, Stutler said.

“Tack that on to an eight- or 10-hour day, they’re commuting, eating sleeping and going back to work,” Stutler said.

For some local volunteers, being a firefighter is generational. Stutler’s dad was a firefighter, now two of his sons are on his department, he said.

In Highland, Barney volunteers with his son-in-law, Bryan Rhoten, who is also the fire chief at BP. Earlier this month, Barney and Rhoten walked hand-in-hand with Rhoten’s daughter, Molly, 1, as they looked at a parked engine and firefighters’ gear.

“Volunteers are giving up their free time. They’re leaving their families, they’re leaving their kids,” Munster Fire Chief Dave Pelc said.

Training alone is a huge time commitment with hundreds of hours of lessons to become a volunteer, Timmer said.

Volunteers “go to a call and risk their lives just like a career firefighter,” Pelc said. They are going to rely on each other and other area fire departments when they’re called in to help, he said.

“There is no difference when it really comes down to it,” Jarka said. “They have to know each other’s job.”

The role of a firefighter has changed over the years, though, as they are asked to respond to a larger variety of calls, Jarka said.

“The response of a fire department is not necessarily strictly for fires anymore. We’re an all hazards type of department,” he said.

When Timmer responded to a dumpster fire last month in Highland, he noticed chunks from something from inside had spewed out.

“What’s in this dumpster? I’ve never seen a dumpster kind of look like a volcano,” Timmer said he thought.

Turns out, there were dozens of old toilets in the dumpster an apartment complex had replaced, and the fire had caused pieces to shoot out, causing a biohazard, he said.

“That goes to that diversity that says you have to recognize what you’re dealing with,” Timmer said.

Even if Highland did hire a couple of new full-time firefighters, Timmer said he would “never” replace the on-call volunteers with a full-time staff. Frankly, he couldn’t afford the expertise each volunteer brings from their different backgrounds, he said.

One volunteer revamped the department’s IT systems, Timmer said. A couple of others come from area public works departments, the chief said.

“The people that are here are phenomenal. They really are,” Timmer said.

Timmer said he’s always looking for ways to attract new people and “see what we can do to sweeten the pot.” Ultimately, Timmer would like the staff to be back in the mid-40 range, he said.

Highland volunteers are paid $13 per call, he said, but some departments pay volunteers per hour to be physically at the station waiting on calls. Indiana also doesn’t have a pension plan for volunteers, Timmer said, and changing that could be an incentive for people to stick around long term, he said.

A few longtime volunteers sat around a brown table with Timmer last month, sipping coffee and watching a screen of calls for service coming in around the area. They’ve known each other for decades and crack jokes about one another as they come and go.

When you become a volunteer, “you make 35 new friends,” Barney said.

Barney knows “it’s a big commitment,” but he said he enjoys getting to go out in the trucks and help people.

“What you put in it, you’ll get out of it,” Barney said.

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Source: Post-Tribune

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Information from: Post-Tribune, http://posttrib.chicagotribune.com/

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