By Deb Patterson
WARSAW — Every Saturday afternoon for the last 15 weeks county fire departments have been featured in InkFreeNews. The final feature is not on a department, but an organization every fire department and firefighter in the county is part of — the Kosciusko County Fire Association.
The association has received accolades from fire associations throughout the district and state and is said to be the best association in the state. “I hear everywhere I go how strong our association is,” said Gordon Baker, Pierceton Fire Chief. “It is very, very strong.”
Indiana State Fire Marshal Joel Thacker visited the area and share that sentiment to Mike Wilson, Warsaw-Wayne Fire Territory Fire Chief, that “Seeing an organization where all of you can talk and work together as a county organization is unique.” Wilson recalled, “This brotherhood is unique … doesn’t make a difference whose name is on the patch or color of shirt. We’re all there to support the community and the county. It’s unique. You don’t go to other counties and see that.”
“We were members of the Elkhart County Firefighters Association. They were having some issues and disbanded,” said Don Lehman, Nappanee Fire Chief. “We just didn’t really have any place and we felt like we were out of the loop in a lot of things going on. Kosciusko County invited us since most of our territory is in Kosciusko County. We did (join). We’re very appreciative of that. We think that is very important to our department to be members. We have a great relationship with every single fire department in Kosciusko County.”
Wilson noted, “If we put boundaries up, we’re defeating the purpose of what the patch is for — serving the public, serving your communities. Once the boundaries go up, the brotherhood goes away. We like keeping the boundaries gone, the walls gone, so the brotherhood can continue. That county association, I’ve seen them do golf outings, fundraising, give money to organizations. When the time and need is there, they’re there. They are a big supporter of the burn camp.”
Mike Yazel, Mentone Fire Chief, said Kosciusko County is “the only place you can get nearly 400 people with one phone call. The fire departments are that call … you can make things happen. We’re the force to make things happen.”
Kevin McSherry, Burket Fire Chief, is the association president and has been for a number of years. The association is “near and dear” to his heart.
He noted at last count there were in excess of 375 members. “That’s a pretty lofty number … we’ve all got wives, children and parents, so when something influences the county fire association, it has a big ripple effect…”
With county departments made up of career firemen and volunteers, the issues are still the same. “Just some on a bigger scale than others. What affects Warsaw-Wayne may not affect Burket Fire Department today. But next Wednesday it might.”
McSherry noted, “I’ve had friends and vendors go to county meetings (in other areas) and fistfights break out. Go to my county meetings, it’s everything but hugging (and there’s some of that too). It’s a lot of handshaking, patting on the back. We’re all friends. We may not socialize every weekend, but it’s a close-knit group.”
The association meets the third Thursday of every month at the different fire departments. The host department puts together a guest speaker or a topic of discussion and a meal. The meal can range from pizza to pulled pork sandwiches, a beef barbecue, or even grilled pork chops. There’s also a business meeting where projects, programs, and concerns are discussed. Door prizes and a 50/50 drawing are the high points.
“We learn from each other. We share a lot of stuff and information how we handle things, personnel policies, standard operating procedures. The list goes on and on. When we work together that is a big benefit to knowing if those SOP’s are the same or how they might differ,” said McSherry.
The big annual meeting for the association is the fish fry held in September. “We try to bring in outside vendors and make it a little trade show. Some of our firemen don’t go out to other venues much and that might be their only chance to see a new type of fire helmet, new nozzle. We have new trucks come in, extrication tools and radios.” This meeting is also when awards are presented for Firemen of the Year, service award, attendance, tenure and other awards.
This event is underwritten by Hall & Marose Silveus Insurance Agency who takes care of the cost of the fish fry.
Mitch Rader, former county association president and Leesburg Fire Chief, recalls county association meetings always having high attendance. “There was a competition (for attendance),” Rader remembers, with the winner receiving a clock. “Butch (Warren) would bring any body he could and said he was a fireman.”
He also remembers coming to fire meetings and hear the banter and jokes, which still goes on today.
The association has had many projects over its history. The most recent was the purchase of three Titus Fans stationed throughout the county. These high pressure fans can be used as cooling stations as well as exhaust fans to remove smoke from large buildings to protect from further smoke damage. The fans are named after the late Winona Lake Fire Chief Mitch Titus who started the project.
Another project of the association is the department numbering system based on the alphabetical listing of the departments. McSherry explained up until that time dispatchers did not know who on the department or sometimes what department they were talking with. Now, starting with Atwood, the departments are numbered starting with 100 and going to 1400. County dispatchers know if 101 is on the radio it is Atwood’s Fire Chief or if it is 1401 it is Winona Lake’s Fire Chief or 1402 it’s the assistant chief for Winona Lake.
For a number of years, communication between county dispatch and fire departments and even between departments have been a concern with “dead zones” in some parts of the county. This will soon be resolved with new equipment and several new towers.
The most recent, and ongoing, project is a communication update and the installation of new radio towers and equipment. McSherry noted he wrote a Kosciusko Leadership Academy white paper in 2012 proposing an update to improve inner department communications and operations. This was an update of an idea that started in 2007.
“Safety in communication is paramount and this system that the county has bought will be state of the art, second to none. I was pushing for this for a long, long time,” McSherry stated.
The project will also potentially include new pagers and radio systems for the departments through various grants. “Communications has been a huge issue in this county for a long time,” said Baker. Randall Byrer, Etna Green Fire Chief, agreed, adding, “This is a bad area out here,” noting after a new repeater was placed on Creighton Brothers mill, “I’ve been told this is the cheeriest spot in the county. Everybody can hear us when we talk.”
The association also has other programs and projects. One is a benevolence fund. “After the loss of Mitch Titus, it was evident to us we had to do something to help his spouse and children and so we needed the money to do that right away,” McSherry recalls. The association conducted a gun raffle and was able to generate $10,000 to give to Titus’s window. This was the start of the fund, which is overseen by a committee.
The association has also supported and assisted with such programs as the state’s burn camp, Toys For Tots, AutoPulse program, a training council, hosts chief’s meetings and organized a county fire chaplain.
The county fire association has been around since 1945. Bill Martin, former Milford Fire Chief, was the first president. Other presidents have included Garland “Shorty” Keifer, John Huff, Butch Warren, Kenny Shepherd, Dave Biesemeyer, Roger Gelbaugh, Mitch Rader, Jim Heaton, Al Rovenstine and many more.
“We all come from different backgrounds somewhat. Basically all the same. We all grew up in small communities … all in it for the same reason. Some get paid to do it, some don’t get a dime,” McSherry said.