By Deb Patterson
SILVER LAKE — Silver Lake Fire Department has something no other fire department in Kosciusko County has. They have a helicopter landing pad behind the fire station.
Fire Chief John Conley explained why. He said a business in town had an industrial accident during the day. A large item fell off a forklift and hit an employee.
Emergency medical personnel with LifeMed arrived and called for a medical helicopter. Firefighters were also called in to assist the medics and set up a landing zone near the business. However, there were only two firefighters available and they couldn’t do both tasks.
Shortly after the incident, fire department personnel approached the Silver Lake Town Council to have a landing pad built at the station. Minimum or no manpower would be needed to set up a landing zone.
Support from the town, community and even from two Fort Wayne hospitals, was received. The town agreed to pay for the concrete, but the bill for the concrete work has never been seen. Additional work such as boring work under the asphalt and installation of landing lights was also donated. A grant from K21 Health Foundation was received to purchase a remote switch, allowing the helicopter pilots to activate the landing lights.
The helipad was dedicated June 26, 2014, a month after the project began.
“We don’t have to be here. It (the helicopter) can land on its own if we only have one or two guys who can respond,” said Conley. “That’s the main reason we pushed for the landing pad.”
While the landing pad isn’t used on a regular basis. It has proven to be a great asset to the southern portion of the county.
“Setting up a landing zone in a field takes more people,” Conley noted, as someone also needs to be in contact with the helicopter and check the surroundings. “This takes less people. The pilots have done a few fly arounds. It’s proven very beneficial.”
Shortly after it was installed Sidney Fire Department was the first to use it for a gunshot wound patient. “I would say sometimes there is a year goes by of not using it. Sometimes it’s two or three times a month,” Conley stated.
There are also security cameras at the station and at the helipad.
The all-volunteer fire department was established in 1900 and was incorporated in the early 1960s. One hundred years later a roster listing all firefighters in the department was created.
According to history, the department began when the Howe Fire Engine Company of Indianapolis delivered an engine. “An exhibition and test of the apparatus was given on the public square. The suction hose was lowered into the well at Fitton’s corner and a stream of water was thrown upon the roof of the Odd Fellow’s Building. Water was supplied from cisterns and the engine was placed in the building next door north of Rager’s Grocer.”
The history document notes Bert Coxley was the fire chief and Francis Rager was made captain. A chemical engine was purchased in 1910 and in 1922 additional equipment was added. The model T truck was replaced in 1940. In 1936 a rural fire truck was purchased.
The document notes fire personnel in 1958 included Howard Swihart, fire chief; Wayne Haney, assistant chief; Robert Zimmer, secretary-treasurer; and firemen: A.R. Ramsey, Bill Peff, Walter Meinert, Harold Roberts, Truman Enyeart, Cole Thompson, John Teeter, Robert Lehmer, Walter Jontz, Austin Neher, Duane Sells and Ted Kerlin.
One of the first stations for the department still stands in downtown Silver Lake on the east side of SR 15. “We had five trucks in two bays,” Conley stated. At one time there was a bell tower and someone would ring the bell when there was a fire. The bell, which had disappeared, was found by workers with Lewis Salvage when scraping a water tank. The bell was auctioned off, for well over $1,000, to a new owner.
More room was needed so in 2003 a new fire station was built on the east side of town and south side of SR 14. The station, owned by the town, now holds two engines, one owned by the town, the other by the township; two tankers and a rescue truck, owned by the township; a grass truck, owned by the town. Parkview EMS is also housed at the station and provided living quarters.
A monument was built outside the new station dedicated to Duane Sells, who is believed to have been the longest-serving member of the department, at 50 years. Sells, who never retired as a firefighter, passed away while still with the department.
There was a time when the town equipment was never used in the township. “It is in the contract now. Both engines go to town fires,” Conley said. Because there are more calls in the township, the township engine, a 1995/96 model, has 1,400 hours compared to the town’s 2000 engine, that has just under 400 hours.
“I think we’ve done pretty good, (on equipment)” said Conley. While the equipment is 20 plus years old, Conley said “We’re happy with the equipment.”
Silver Lake Fire Department is not a town or township department. It is its own entity. However, the trucks are owned and maintained by the town and township. “We have contracts with them to provide the service to them,” Conley said. There are contracts with Lake Township, a portion of Seward Township and the town of Silver Lake.
The department hosts two major fundraisers each year. One is a dinner and auction the second Saturday in May. There has been up to 100 items donated to be auctioned with buyers from all over the country. Another fundraiser, held the last Sunday in June, is a golf outing.
The department does receive community support for these events as well as occasional donations from town and township residents and local businesses.
Proceeds from these events are used to replace old or worn-out equipment, and smaller items instead of using budgeted funds.
The department has also, along with the use of grants, been able to purchase grain bin rescue equipment, a trailer for the District 2 Kubota utility vehicle which is housed at Silver Lake, an air compressor system and updated the cascade system.
“We don’t do the big purchases unless we know more toward the end of the year,” Conley said. Such was the case in 2019 when the Kubota trailer and boat were both purchased.
A new project the department is working on is creating its own live burn training structure. The plan is to obtain two 40-foot containers from the state, placing them behind the station and create a two-story burn structure. This would be used in a live burn training situation. To have a company come in and create such a structure would cost close to $80,000.
The department, still all-volunteer, has 15 members on its roster with two junior firefighters. The junior firefighters are those who are under the age of 18 and will be taking the Firefighter 1 and 2 classes at Warsaw Community High School in the fall.
While they do respond to CPR calls or to assist the EMS calls, the department is not a first responder department.