Ohio fire rescue looking forward in fifth year after merger
Forming a new district brought some challenges, but officials said the impact on the community has been positive
Amy L. Knapp
The Independent, Massillon, Ohio
NAVARRE, Ohio — For more than six decades, Navarre and Bethlehem Township operated fire stations just blocks from each other.
The two departments, which relied on volunteers, competed with each other for manpower often leaving both departments without personnel to respond to calls, especially during the day. Many of the calls were turned over to other area fire departments delaying response times.
At the end of 2015, municipal leaders opted to join forces and created the Erie Valley Fire District joining the two departments into one emergency service operation to cover the 36 square miles of the township which encompasses the village.
Five years later, officials say the move was the best option for its residents and expect continued growth and community support.
Since the inception of the fire district, Erie Valley Fire & Rescue has seen a nearly 50% increase in both medical and fire calls. Overall, the call volume since their first year as a combined department is up 37%. In 2019, personnel ran 100 more calls than the previous year.
The majority of the calls answered by the department are medical, Chief Rick Annen said.
Annen said the increase is directly related to residents now calling them for help.
"People know we are here and can depend on us," the chief said. "Before we were only answering, at best, 50% of our calls. Fifty percent was mutual aid. They had to wait a long time for us to show up."
With a fully-staffed medical crew, they are ready to respond to calls, he said.
At the start of this year, the department began staffing an ambulance crew 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Three crew members are on duty from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and two staff members are on duty from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m.
When the duty crew is responding to an emergency, others are recalled to the station to handle additional calls, Annen said.
The medical crew is housed in the newly constructed station at 34 S. Main St., next to the former Bethlehem Township station, which still houses emergency equipment and personnel.
The new station includes office space for the fire district clerk/fiscal officer and EMS officer, men's and women's bathrooms with showers, men's and women's sleeping areas, a living area and kitchen as well as bays to house emergency vehicles.
The New Bethlehem station continues to house the majority of the fire apparatus and other equipment, Annen said.
Plans call for splitting the vehicles between the two stations as well as building a new area in the New Bethlehem station to house firefighters' gear.
With concerns dirty gear poses a cancer risk to firefighters, more and more fire stations are moving to create areas to contain turnout gear. Many also are banning firefighters from wearing the items in the station while not on an emergency.
The chief hopes to have the room constructed as soon as possible.
The department will get a new tanker in March. It will replace a 34-year-old tanker, which will be used as back up.
The formation of the joint fire district has had many benefits from providing dependable emergency services to residents to pooling resources to maximize funding and equipment.
The venture also improved the area's fire rating reducing insurance costs for residents, Annen said.
Capt. Ryan Shanower, the department's fire inspector, has been conducting routine fire inspections in both the township and village helping to ensure local buildings are meeting fire safety codes.
This year, officials hope to bring most businesses up to compliance with Ohio Fire Codes and have been actively working with the non-compliant businesses to remedy the violations and determine hurdles delaying them from obeying the law, Annen wrote in his annual report.
In 2019, the fire inspector conducted 138 inspections of churches, child care facilities, large commercial businesses, smaller business and other establishments.
As the department moves forward officials will continue to study shift times and call volume. The department saw no significant fires last year, but Annen is considering adding on-duty firefighters to man the station 24 hours. The department provided mutual aid for 24 fire calls in 2019 and 17 EMS calls.
Moving forward, Annen wants to upgrade training opportunities for both fire and EMS and find grants to upgrade equipment.
Navarre Mayor Bob Benson said the formation of the fire district was the "best thing that has happened."
"When I am done with my stint in the village, having the Prospect industrial park ready to go and the fire departments together are my greatest accomplishments," he said.
Benson, who has been mayor for nearly three decades has said he won't seek another term as mayor, said the two departments setting aside it differences and coming together has been a win for the community.
"When they got together it brought the community together and everything else," Benson said. "Residents now know when they call they are going to get somebody and it will be fast."
Township resident Mike Husted has seen first hand the quick response times.
His mother has had to call them department a few times.
"It's been positive (the joint venture)," Husted said while enjoying coffee with friends and family at Anderson's in the Village. "The response has been quick and dealing with them they have been very gentle and kind (to patients and families)."
He and others with him agreed the personnel have been much more visible and are always friendly.
©2020 The Independent, Massillon, Ohio