Burlington, Russiaville and Forest volunteer fire departments in Howard County responded to a blaze that resulted in a total loss. Photo by Tim Bath, Kokomo Tribune
Burlington, Russiaville and Forest volunteer fire departments in Howard County responded to a blaze that resulted in a total loss. Photo by Tim Bath, Kokomo Tribune
MEXICO, Ind. – For decades, people who dialed 911 in Mexico would see a fire truck staffed with local volunteers arrive in minutes.

Not anymore. In January, the Mexico Volunteer Fire Department stopped making runs after Jefferson Township Trustee Reggie Wolf declined to renew a contract for fire service. Because of a lack of volunteers who live in town, the department could no longer respond to emergencies during the day, he explained.

“It used to be when the fire bell went off, people came out of the woodwork who lived or worked in Mexico to get on the fire truck and go put out a fire,” Wolf said. “It’s just not that way anymore.”

Since February, the fire departments in Peru and Denver have been temporarily contracted to respond to the town of about 1,300 residents. Those departments are both about 6 miles and 10 minutes away

The Greentown Volunteer Fire Department was dispatched to a fully engulfed house fire shortly in November 2022. One firefighter suffered minor burns to the arm. Greentown was assisted by Taylor Township, the Emergency Management Agency, Converse, Amboy and Wildcat Creek volunteer fire departments. from Mexico.

In the meantime, the town’s fire department is working to rebuild and bring on more volunteers in an effort to get a new contract with Wolf, whose township trustee job requires providing fire services for residents in his township.

But finding people who want to serve isn’t an easy task, according to Dean Owens, a former Mexico volunteer firefighter.

“We’re going to try to recruit and get people started in our program,” he said during a meeting in February. “It may not be a quick fix, but we’re going to stay with it.”

Mexico is far from alone. Across the state, the lack of volunteer firefighters coupled with years of underfunded budgets has some departments at a breaking point.

In the past 10 years, the number of firefighters registered with the Indiana Volunteer Firefighters Association plummeted from about 18,000 to 13,000, a decline of nearly 28%, according to Larry Curl, the association’s lobbyist.

With 73% of Indiana’s 763 fire departments operating on a solely volunteer basis, that staffing decrease has dire consequences for fire coverage in rural areas, where most residents already have to wait longer than city dwellers for a fire truck to arrive, Curl noted.

Now, with dwindling volunteers leading departments like Mexico to suspend service, figurative alarm bells are sounding across the state.

“It is concerning to us,” Curl said. “One department closing is too much. And the reality is, if it’s your community and your fire department closing, it’s desperate.”

Lack of funding, primarily, is what’s pushed many of Indiana’s volunteer departments to the verge of extinction.

“If we don’t do something on that, we’re going to start closing more departments,” Curl said.


Volunteer fire departments are almost exclusively funded by township governments, but the revenue generated by property and income taxes in those townships doesn’t come close to fully funding fire service. That’s why townships often rely on volunteer firefighters.

Now, with departments shelling out more for gas and other items because of skyrocketing inflation, the paltry payout most departments receive is crippling services, explained Curl. Some barely have enough money just to pay the insurance on their equipment.

That means volunteer firefighters, which have always had to raise funds to help cover their costs, are spending inordinate amounts of time scrounging up money at fish fries and pancake breakfasts just to stay afloat.

“Trustees are very reluctant to raise taxes in their community, and I get that,” Curl said. “But our volunteers have gotten to the point where they don’t want to go out and have to raise money in lieu of raising taxes, either.”

At the Plainville Volunteer Fire Department in Daviess County, that lack of funding coupled with more than 100 hours of unpaid training required to become a firefighter has made recruitment nearly impossible, said Fire Chief Mike Heshelman.

When he started about 30 years ago, it took roughly 40 hours of training to become certified. Today, that number has nearly tripled.

“I understand why the state increased training, but when you hire into a full-time, paid department, you’re getting paid for training and then have a job waiting,” Heshelman said. “At a volunteer department, you’ve still got another fulltime job that you have to go to just to make ends meet for your family.”

With tight budgets, most people who might be up for becoming a volunteer firefighter often turn away after discovering how much time is required for training and fundraising, Curl explained.

That reality is particularly difficult to stomach for would-be volunteers, given that volunteer fire departments save Indiana taxpayers about $4.5 billion annually, according to a recent study commissioned by the state volunteer firefighters association.

The study found that if all volunteers became paid firefighters, property taxes across Indiana would rise 58% on average and some townships could even see an increase as high as 500%.

It all adds up to an inherently unfair approach to funding volunteer departments, Curl argued.

“We are asked to supplement the cost of running the department while also providing the service,” he said. “We are the only public safety agency in the state of Indiana and across the nation like this. How crazy is that?”


Volunteer departments’ plea for more funding hasn’t gone totally unanswered.

The state’s biennial budget being hashed out now at the Statehouse includes $10 million for new turnout gear and additional money to install 16 new skills training and testing sites to provide easier access for firefighters.

Gov. Er ic Holcomb requested the budget increase as part of his Next Level Firefighting Training program.

State Fire Marshal Stephen Jones applauded the proposed investment and said it would free up some cash, but added it “doesn’t even touch” the need for new equipment in many volunteer fire departments.

“It’s just a drop in the bucket for what it takes to outfit firefighters,” he said. “Firefighting is expensive, and for our volunteer fire services, there’s a really big strain on them right now.”

Lawmakers are considering legislation that could add more permanent funding for volunteer departments.

Senate Bill 78
would require counties that have a public safety income tax to give some of that money to townships for fire protection. Currently, 76 counties have that tax but can choose whether to give any of it to townships. Many choose not to.

Sen. Rick Niemeyer (R-Lowell), who authored the bill, said he’s introduced the same legislation the past two years, but it always dies in the House. Now, with so many departments vocally expressing their dire need for funding, he’s hopeful the bill will gain traction.

“I just want to get these departments some permanent funding so that they can stay in business, because realistically, they can’t fund themselves anymore,” Niemeyer said. Back in Mexico, some residents say they’re willing to pay more taxes to see the local volunteer fire department succeed.

Dave Yoder, who has lived in town for 64 years, said he’d even be up for hiring two, full-time paid firefighters if it meant better fire coverage in his area.

“There’s no reason why tax money couldn’t pay two firefighters full-time … and volunteers on half-pay,” he said. “At least pay them something for their time. I don’t think that’s being unreasonable.”

But it’s unlikely township trustees will raise taxes to fix the situation faced by their volunteer firefighters, Curl argued. With years of perpetually underfunded budgets, a tax increase likely wouldn’t do much anyway to save departments like Mexico’s from permanently shuttering their stations, he said.

State Fire Marshal Jones said the situation has gotten so bad that getting more volunteers into fire departments is his top priority. In order for that to happen, he said, it will take cooperation at every level of government.

“It’s going to take a lot of commitment from a lot of different stakeholders in order to help address the situation,” he said.

Now, with more legislators becoming aware of the issue, Curl is hopeful that change is coming.

“We’re now starting to get some attention,” he said. “We have been so far behind for so long, it’s hard to say what it would take to catch up. But at least it’s a start.”

Kokomo Tribune Reporter Kim Dunlap contributed to this story.
© 2023 Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc.