Greenfield Fire Territory recruits check their breathing equipment during a training session in 2019. For the expense of properly training firefighters -- the cost runs into the thousands of dollars -- departments want that investment to go toward full-time first-responders, not volunteers. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)
Greenfield Fire Territory recruits check their breathing equipment during a training session in 2019. For the expense of properly training firefighters -- the cost runs into the thousands of dollars -- departments want that investment to go toward full-time first-responders, not volunteers. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)
HANCOCK COUNTY — Not long ago, many of the fire departments in the county relied heavily on volunteer firefighters to handle operations.

The cost to train a firefighter even on a volunteer basis, however, isn’t cheap. That has caused many departments in the county to drop their volunteer programs while their full-time staffs have grown along with the population.

Officials with Sugar Creek Township Fire Department made the decision recently to no longer use volunteers or train them after figuring the practice was not cost-effective.

“We got tired of paying thousands to train firefighters and watching them leave and go elsewhere around the state,” Chief Brandon Kleine said. “I joked around at one point saying ‘we were the best farm system in the state of Indiana.’”

Twenty years ago, the department, made up of mostly volunteers, had about 700 runs per year. This year, the Sugar Creek department will go on well over 2,000 runs. The vast majority, some 70%, will involve accidents and similar emergencies. Less than 30% will be associated with actual fires. While many of the calls are mutual aid, the nature of the typical response has proved the department needs the 49 full-time firefighters currently on staff. The department is training six firefighters now who have already been hired to fill retirement spots and a couple of open positions.

Kleine, who is also the volunteer chief in Morristown, a much smaller community that relies heavily on volunteers, noted Sugar Creek was tired of training and then missing out on a lot of great young firefighters who had no choice but to go elsewhere to get a full-time position as they waited for the local department to expand.

Sugar Creek’s last volunteer class cost the department an estimated $40,000 total, or $5,000 per individual for gear, uniforms and training. For many years, the department enrolled two volunteer recruitment classes a year, investing money on which they rarely saw a return. The program included letting Ivy Tech students train in their volunteer program, get experience and then go elsewhere.

Currently, Sugar Creek has enough full-time firefighters to handle all shifts 24/7, a far cry from when Kleine started with the department 20 years ago, when he was one of 12 full-time firefighters.

Officials with the Greenfield Fire Territory made the decision to shut down their volunteer program about a year ago and moved their last volunteer to a part-time basis four months ago, public information officer Corey Breese said.

“It’s completely ineffective cost-wise to have a volunteer program,” Breese said. “You’re talking about spending $5,000 for gear and uniforms and another $10,000 to $15,000 getting them trained, and they end up working only about 12 to 20 hours per month.”

The fire territory still has a cadet program to give younger county residents an opportunity to get into the firefighting service and see if it’s right for them, but there is no more volunteer training at the department.

The mindset is a far cry from how fire departments throughout the county used to run, with large numbers of volunteer firefighters.

“Historically, that part of it was hard to let go, because we’ve always had volunteers who were a big part of our culture and our department,” Breese said. “But, as time goes on your volunteers become less and less.”

The Greenfield Fire Territory had only three volunteers in its last training class, suggesting to leaders that the volunteer aspect of the department needed to be reevaluated.

Not every department, however, has turned fully away from volunteers.

Andy Ebbert, chief of the Shirley Volunteer Fire Department, must rely on volunteers to service the community. He has 25 volunteer firefighter/emergency medical technicians and four EMTs on whom he can call. While that sounds like a healthy number, they are volunteers who can’t always make the runs due to work and family obligations.

“Last year, we had a lot of health issues with quarantines, and that made their availability less and less,” Ebbert said.

Still, the department is several years from being able to hire full-time firefighters, but they do pay to have at least one EMT on staff three days a week, during daytime hours. They also rely heavily on mutual aid from Hancock and Henry counties. Many members of the Shirley department are actually career firefighters at other departments and are picking up the slack of training volunteers now that volunteer training programs around the county are gone.

“Those guys will bring information back to us, and we do training in-house and that helps,” Ebbert said.

Ebbert noted most people who are part of a volunteer fire department are family and friends who live in the community and know their neighbors, which isn’t the case in other areas like Greenfield, Fortville/McCordsville and New Palestine, which continue to grow, have a larger tax base and can hire full-time career firefighters.

Chief Chad Abel of the Vernon Township Fire Department, which serves Fortville and McCordsville, said his department has three levels of workers: career (one person); part time (nine people); and those who are paid per run. Abel said they plan to hire nine new career firefighters this fall. Everyone they hire or work with is trained in their department.

Abel said volunteer departments and training volunteers just don’t work like they used to due to ever-changing, growing demographics. Such volunteer support also has evolved: The Vernon Township department now has a Fire Corps whose members come out and help supply hydration and other assistance to firefighters on runs. The group also works with victim assistance needs and is very helpful, he said.

Still, Abel noted just how rapidly the fire service has evolved even from a few short years ago, when volunteers played an important role.

“That’s the transition, the evolution of firefighting as areas grow,” Abel said. “I came from Fishers, and we saw the same thing happen there. It’s what our county, particularly the west side, is going through now. At some point, that volunteer program, model, it just doesn’t work anymore.”
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