By Deb Patterson
WARSAW — Warsaw-Wayne Fire Territory is the largest fire department in the county.
The department is staffed by 35 firefighters who are on shift 24 hours and off for 48 hours. There are also 32 part-time firefighters who rotate schedules as they can based on what their family and work life will allow. “That’s the new step and direction to be able to have more firefighters on a truck. For us that is to be able to have three engines and a ladder truck out the door on fires,” said Mike Wilson, fire chief.
WWFT isn’t just a fire department. It’s an all encompassing department. The crews are trained to respond to fires, traffic accidents, alarms and rescues involving confined space, rope and swift/surface water. They do investigations, inspections, can handle hazardous materials, mass/casualty/disaster response. They also have EMS and fire instructors and a 12-member dive team.
“We are huge into public education,” stated Wilson. “We have a fire prevention team (headed by Fire Marshal Joe Fretz) to provide education to children kindergarten through high school. We also go into the high school and teach Firefighter 1 and 2 classes so that we can get these young men thinking about it (becoming a firefighter) educated and certified by the time they graduate high school.
“We work with seniors and adults about fire prevention and safety in homes. We know there’s a mental health issue in our community and people who need assistance going through daily life. The work we do on the medical side sees those in crisis need help. The mayor’s goal is to create a critical intervention team program using community support and moving forward in a way to help reach those in crisis,” said Wilson.
This is particularly true for firefighters and the things they see and experience. “Our goal is to provide critical incident stress management, mental health awareness, so they can cope with the disaster they just worked through. We provide a lot of mental health awareness and support to the emergency responders of Kosciusko County.”
The department’s run volumes have climbed from 461 calls in 2000 to an anticipated 3,000 calls in 2021. “Seventy percent are medical,” said Wilson. “Knowing that the other percentage is car accidents, alarms, customer service and fires, we’re driving our force to be more all encompassing emergency services.
“We have gone from the old term of hose toters and bucket brigade to firefighters and fire departments with a set of extrication tools to becoming more involved.”
The department now has three stations, improving their response throughout Warsaw. The first station, known as Station 2, was built in 1978 on East Center Street. A new station 1 was built on Main Street in 1982 and the third station was added on CR 200S in 2019.
WWFT is a state certified EMT advanced non-transport fire served. “Within the last year advanced life support training was instituted,” said Wilson. Chris Fancil is the EMS chief and oversees the medical side of the fire service. Aaron Bollinger is operations chief and oversees the daily operation and training center available to all firefighters in the county.
“We have gone, from when I got on the fire department, from three guys at station 1 and three at station 2, with a fire chief and inspector, to having up to 12 guys on duty with up to three part-timers working out of station 3.”
There is a difference between WWFT and that of a larger city fire department. That difference is “what we can provide at a better level per area because we are more familiar with the whole area. The crews today understand the whole community. A larger city that has a station that covers a 10-block area, that’s all they work out of.
“To benefit our community the size we are, we’re right in the middle. We’re not too small, not too big. We’re at a comfortable level to provide a very efficient service. Funding wise, we’re very fortunate to be a fire territory that provides a levy we don’t even go up to. We spend less per year than what the levy is… We’ve grown very hard through documentation of training, through inspection, planning, response time and number of firefighters out the door in fire apparatus to move our ISO rating to 2. We are approximately eight points from 1. Our goal in five years when we’re reassessed, this fire territory will have an ISO rating of 1. This will be a substantial savings to the community.”
The department is looking at a five, 10 and 15-year plan. “We’re currently looking at grooming our young firefighters we have today into being the future battalion, assistant and fire chief, so that the goals of today and the goals of tomorrow can be achieved with quality personnel.
“It’s not just today’s chiefs crew that is doing this. There’s been a growth pattern, I’m goig to say starting with Chief Kenny Shepherd. It was his direction and guidance, setting plans and looking to the future. It hasn’t happened in the last five years. It’s been a pattern since the 1990s,” Wilson stated.
WWFT crews won’t be found just sitting around. Training – whether it’s EMS or specialty training and equipment checks where they “go through every piece of apparatus and touch everything that’s on it” are constantly occurring. “If they are not on calls, they are training to be better. That’s how they keep their skills up.”
Wilson noted WWFT is one of three career departments in the county with the others being North Webster and Turkey Creek. The other departments in the county are volunteer, those communities can’t survive without their volunteer fire departments. “The communities where there are volunteer fire departments, it is very important to support them. Support them financially, support them with manpower … that’s the heart of the fire service. There are more volunteers than paid. If it wasn’t for volunteerism those communities would suffer.
“We have a lot of career guys who volunteer in their hometown. We tell them, what we teach you hear, gain in knowledge here, take back to your hometown volunteer departments and you spread that knowledge. If we can help you learn to be better here, you need to go back and teach to be better there. It’s all brotherhood.”
The fire department was started in 1859 as the Independent Protection Engine Company No. 1 with 38 members. The engine house was built on the corner of Center and Buffalo streets. The name was changed around 1861 to Hose Company No. 1. In 1876 it was expanded into three organizations covering Warsaw: Protection Company No. 1 and Hose Company No. 1, Never Fails No. 2 and Hose Company No. 2 and Lake City Hook and Ladder No. 1 and Independent Hose Company no 1. The first full-time paid fireman was hired in 1912.
In the 1970s there was one station with three firefighters on duty and volunteers were heavily relied upon. The station was then located at Market and High streets in a building that also housed the city hall and Warsaw Police Department. Then the fire department handled a couple hundred calls per year, all strictly fire calls.
Today the department has one ladder truck, two engines, a fire rescue squad, heavy rescue truck and trailer, confined space and dive truck and trailer, heavy equipment rescue truck, a boat, Polaris and multiple staff vehicles.
Wilson can see the department expanding as the city expands to help cover the community in fire, technical rescue and EMS services. “There’s been questions in reference to a new fire station. I can see within 10 years that we do something in conjunction with the Warsaw airport because of the expansion within the north side of our boundaries. The expansion of the airport to be able to provide manpower in association with their employers to have some form of a crash rescue and/or a quint fire truck station out of the airport to handle that area.”