By Deb Patterson
NORTH WEBSTER — An effort to form a fire territory has taken a number of years, but the creation of the North Webster-Tippecanoe Township Fire Territory became a reality in March. The department will officially become a fire territory in January 2022. But for many, it will remain the North Webster Fire Department. It is the third department in the county to become a fire territory.
Over the last 10 years, the department has transformed from being strictly volunteer based to a combination department. Its future as a fire territory will provide increased fire protection and emergency medical services capabilities.
Jeremy Likens, fire chief, has been aggressively moving the fire department forward in its service to the township residents. The department is also one where many of its members grew up. Likens is one of those.
Tippecanoe Township Trustee Chris Francis stated “This department took me in when I was 16 years old and it has been a significant aspect of my life ever since. I am extraordinarily proud of our men and women, both past and present. To be involved with historic evolution for the safety of our community is exceptionally rewarding.”
Every fire department has a patch worn by its members on uniforms. North Webster’s patch carries the theme of “Pride of the Lakes.” Likens stated this was adopted due to all the lakes in Tippecanoe Township, the area the department serves. There are over 24 lakes and ponds in the township, the largest number of any department in the county. These include the Barbee chains, Tippecanoe chains, those found on the Tri-County Fish and Wildlife property and other Department of Natural Resources property.
Additionally, it is only one of two fire departments in the county that is a joint fire and ambulance service provider. Tippecanoe Township also has a contract to provide service into Noble County.
The fire department was originally formed April 4,1935, by the town of North Webster. Among the charter members were Bill Metcalf, George Burns and Howard Bockman. The only fire equipment was buckets and ladders kept on a rack next to the filling station. That rack was later moved to a location behind the old Farmers State Bank, on the southeast corner of Main and Washington streets where it remained until the early 1970s.
The rack was destroyed when the bank was demolished to make way for Camelot Bank and hall building.
The current fire station is built on the site of a former gas station that was used to house the first truck. When it was built, a wall from the old building was left standing and incorporated into the new structure. However that wall collapsed one evening leaving a pile of ruble. It is said it occurred during “high winds” one evening, but a few attributed the “high winds” to a group of firemen who wanted the structure to be completely new.
The station was badly damaged Feb. 18, 1946, when a fire gutted the back of the building. The trucks were driven outside the building and a bucket brigade was formed and the volunteers kept the truck’s water supply going to combat the flames. The station has been remodeled and expanded over the years.
The station also served as the home for the police department and town.
One of the additions was in the 1970s. A dispatch area was built in the front of the building, dispatching police, fire and EMS until 1993.
The biggest change to the station came in the 1990s. The police and town offices were moved to a newly remodeled building. The township purchased the town’s portion of the building and an extra lot, leaving the fire department as the only occupant. Remodeling began on the station changing former offices and the evidence area into meeting rooms, storage rooms and offices.
The first truck purchased was a 1941 Chevrolet pumper that remained in service until 1972. The rescue boat was purchased through a K21 Foundation grant in 2005, replacing on older john boat.
The department has 13 trucks and apparatus. This includes three engines, two tankers, two ambulances, a rescue boat, UTV, grass truck, command vehicle, utility truck and chief’s vehicle. Because the town of North Webster has no city fire hydrants, the department relies on lake water to help fight fires. There are dry hydrants spotted around some of the lakes.
Currently there are 25 volunteers that help the department maintain a seven-minute response time average. The full-time staff consists of Likens, five firefighter/paramedics and two firefighter/EMTs. Additionally, there is 11 part-time personnel. Aside from a fire chief, the department rank consists of a deputy chief, chief of operations, shift captains, training captain and two lieutenants.
The first set of rescue equipment was purchased in the 1980s. These were utilized until replaced in July 2015. It was also at that time the department purchased air bags and a hydraulic ram. The rescue equipment was upgraded in 2020 to e-tools.
The department has updated its equipment and gear over the years keeping in accordance with mandated requirements. All hardware is regularly maintained and inspected.
Training to provide an emergency medical service began in late 1974. Until then ambulance service was provided by Charlie Harris and Gary Eastlund, local funeral home director. Rescues were made with a 1959 Chevrolet panel truck.
Operations as a basic life support unit began in November 1975 and operated by volunteers. The ambulance was housed at the fire station until 1987 when The Dekko Group donated the building at Morton and Washington streets to the township. The building was converted into a community building including quarters for the EMS base and bays to house the ambulances.
The EMS service was stepped up in the mid 1990s, to a paramedic unit. Until then whenever paramedic services were needed the former Multi-Township EMS ambulance was called to meet en route. The first paramedic was hired in late 1994 and the service went to a full paramedic service Jan. 1, 1996, with three full time and one part-time paramedics, with both paid an volunteer EMTs. North Webster was the second paramedic service in the county. The EMS separated from the fire department for a number of years, merging back together in 2016.
Over the years the increased volume in calls found the need for a second staffed ambulance. The two ambulances are now housed at the fire station. “One of the reasons for the fire territory formation is to return staffing to the second ambulance,” said Francis.
A history of the fire department was compiled by its members in the early 20th century, putting together information from many members past and present of the department, including Bill Metcalf, who was one of the charter members and served on the department for 73 years and as fire chief for a number of years; newspaper accounts; history written on the community; and members and records of the department’s ladies auxiliary.
Included in the history is information on the auxiliary which was chartered in 1966. This group held many fundraisers to support the department, sent flowers and cards to those who were ill, baby gifts to the newest members of the department family and supported the firemen with food and drink during long fires.
There are also several major fires noted in the history, such as the Mother’s Day fire in 1953 in the line of stores south of the stoplight, in the old Thornburg Drug Store. That fire soon spread to stores south of the old meat locker and required assistance from other departments. The drug store and the two to three story K.P. Hall were destroyed along with three other small businesses. This fire prompted the town to purchase a truck in 1953 and equip it with a three-stage pump to boost pressure and water volume.
A year later that purchase paid off when fire broke out in the North Webster School gymnasium around 1 a.m. While the gymnasium burned to the ground, firefighters prevented it from spreading to the rest of the building.
Another fire noted was the May 1973 fire at the nearly new Augsburgers’ grocery store, started by person(s) who broke into the store and robbed it to cover up the crime. At the same time there were two other fires reported. Augsburgers and the Yellow Banks Grocery were both burned out and the fire at the North Webster Liquor Store was noticed early to prevent a third disastrous fire that evening.
Also mentioned was the 1996 fire at Tippecanoe Country Club. That was another evening when the fire department had responded to two other calls.
Like other departments, North Webster Fire Department has hosted a number of fundraisers ranging from a boot drive, to a broasted chicken dinner, ice cream social, and pancake and sausage breakfast.
There are some things that haven’t changed over the years. The fire siren is still set off at noon.