By Deb Patterson
MENTONE — “We’re different than most departments in the county,” said Mike Yazel, fire chief, of what most people know as Mentone Fire Department. “We’re a multi-township department opposed to a singular township.”
In the late 1940s, Mentone Fire Department officially became Mentone Tri-Township Fire and Rescue and is overseen by the Mentone Tri-Township Fire Control Board. “Most of our runs are in the township. We run three townships and the town of Mentone,” Yazel said.
The department covers New Castle Township in Fulton County, Harrison Township to the north, Franklin Township and the town of Mentone. The fire control board is comprised of the three township trustees and a representative of the Mentone Town Council, typically the board president.
“We’re a big territory. If you take a map and look at it, it is probably around 110 to 112 square miles we take care of,” Yazel noted. The members of the department are from all three townships. Some even live nearby in Marshall County. “We run in Marshall County some, but we’re not contracted. We do a lot of assist with water hauling and grass fires.”
But the department is also unique in other ways.
Firefighters have to battle the weather when tankers need refilled. Not at Mentone.
The department installed two inside hydrants where assisting departments or their own department can drive in the front door, reload and go out the back. “It’s the ultimate tanker fill station,” Yazel said. “We did that because we were tired of the outside filling station.”
A unique piece of equipment on the trucks is bulletproof vests. “In case there’s a school rescue situation,” Yazel explained. “We went through a school shooter training. We’re out here at the end of the county. If something happens in the school, we’ve got to rescue people.” There are also gunshot wound kits available. “Preparation,” Yazel said. “Be ready to do things you’re called to do.”
With an elementary school in the community, Yazel stated the department needed to have the equipment to deal with a situation should it ever happen. “We’re able to put a vest on and go in and get them. I’d rather be able to help them than not help,” he added.
“It is what it is,” Yazel said. “You prepare or suffer the consequences for not being prepared.” This is also true with use of the JAWS, which the department switched to battery operated last year.
The department has the unique advantage of an air ambulance stationed nearby. “They can have a chopper over me before I can get a landing zone set up. That’s a luxury a lot don’t have. We’ve trained with Samaritan since the 1990s.”
Yazel noted all these tools in a department’s tool box “makes all the difference in the world when bad things happen.”
The department was started around 1886. “It’s an old department in the county, as the county goes.” Uniquely the current fire station is basically located on the same spot as the previous stations. “This is at least the third true fire station,” Yazel stated, possibly the fourth. He noted the original fire station was just to the east of the present station.
Members of the department are involved in the community. “We kind of changed courses,” Yazel said. “As we transitioned into this new station, we wanted to do more things in the community. We made a conscious decision in that direction both for our people and the community.” He said, “if all you ever do is see people in the community on their worst day, it’s not good for everybody. So we make a conscious effort to go out into the community and do things.”
The department has hosted fundraisers for the local peewee football league, raised funds for Wheels on Fire, raised funds for the burn camp supported by the county firefighters association and hosted events for families in need. The biggest fundraiser was the one held for the families of Alivia Stahl and her twin brothers Mason and Xzavier Ingle who were killed Oct. 30, 2018, in a bus stop accident on SR 25. Mentone Fire Department responded to that call.
The department raised $101,000. They received checks from all over the country and support of the community. “It goes back to the support from the community we have here. We have tremendous support in this community.” Even fire departments from outside the area came to help in numerous ways.
There have been other ways they have helped the community. With area residents without power for several days, the department opened up the station and grilled more than 400 hamburgers and up to 300 hot dogs. “We set up our grills, put our sign out for a free dinner for everybody in town. We did a big open house and invited the town to come eat with us.” The station is also open at Halloween where freshly made donut holes are provided. “We do a couple thousand. Everybody comes by and has a good time. We want to be more a part of the community than when you need us.”
The fully volunteer department, with 26 members, has two grass trucks, two 3,000 gallon tankers, two engines and a rescue truck. “We’re very fortunate to be in the tri-township situation. We are a well funded department. We struggle like everybody else does with manpower. That’s the big concern,” Yazel said. They also have a grain rescue tube.
“We don’t really want for anything. We’re very well cared for by the community and fire control board.”
The department is heavily weighted with firefighters 40 years old and over. The oldest firefighter, Al Shepherd is 81 who still occasionally drives the tanker. There are three others, including Yazel over the age of 60. “Firefighting is a young man’s job,” he said, noting nationwide this situation is not being addressed. “It’s a situation where you got a real problem coming … .”
Yazel explained to get a firefighter ready to go out takes about 200 hours of training. This means time away from his family, giving up leisure time and sometimes work. “It’s hard to get people to sign up to go fight a fire in the middle of winter, come in here, wash the frozen hose, reload the trucks and go to work in the morning. It’s a difficult sell.”
The department has handled a grain bin rescue and water rescues in the Tippecanoe River and high water. With the ability for a multi-department reach, other departments have been called to help in specific areas. “That teamwork and ability to pull all that together quickly with everybody understanding their job and working together makes it happen.”
The type of calls is the biggest transition in his 42 years with the department. “We’re not the same entity anymore.” Yazel said when he started it was pretty much a fire department responding to fires, rescues. “Now you’re pretty much a rescue department with a fire – especially structure fire. You don’t work a lot of real structure fires any more.” Training new firefighters and exposing them to structure fires isn’t as easy as it used to be.
“Even though you’re a fire department, you train harder on the rescue side. We’re not a first responder department,” Yazel pointed out. Although the firefighters are trained to use the auto pulse equipment and perform CPR.
But things are changing for the department, even in farm rescues. Grain bins are getting taller, equipment is getting bigger and carrying more fuel and hydraulic oil. Mentone also has a propane company where hundreds of thousands of gallons of propane are stored and one million gallons are sitting in railcars on a rail siding. There are also tanker trains going through town with extremely flammable liquids. “We’re still just a rural volunteer fire department … I’m very fortunate I have 7,250 gallons of water each time (a truck rolls out the door). Water is not a concern of mine.”
The concern is the type of items a business may produce or have on its property which has moved in. “We don’t have the manpower or equipment.”