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Friday, 28 February 2014 12:45

Small fire departments upgrade and adapt

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Chief Donald Shoevlin of the Harlem-Roscoe Fire Protection District inside the newly renovated Station One in Roscoe. The face lift included adding 5,000 square feet of work and living space Chief Donald Shoevlin of the Harlem-Roscoe Fire Protection District inside the newly renovated Station One in Roscoe. The face lift included adding 5,000 square feet of work and living space Ian Gronau/staff

STATELINE NEWS -- Earlier this month the Harlem-Roscoe Fire Protection District moved back into its newly renovated Station One headquarters on Main Street in Roscoe.

Like many departments in the Stateline area, Harlem-Roscoe serves an area with a population not large enough for a full-time team of career firefighters. Instead, the work falls to a staff made up of a significant number of volunteers or part-timers, who are often paid per call.

The new fire station is a step in the evolution of small departments as they focus on keeping up with the latest trends and techniques.

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The Harlem-Roscoe Fire Protection District uses its three stations to service 84 square miles of northern Illinois, which accounts for about 4,600 residents. That includes 68 volunteer firefighters and contract EMTs, six of whom are women. Including support staff, chaplains and bureau inspectors, the total is 94 people.

"We have contract paramedics, and we fill in with our firefighters paid on call or paid on premise so we are a combination department," said Chief Donald Shoevlin. "I am a full-time chief and I have a deputy chief, administrative assistant and captain of the fire prevention bureau that are full-time as well. The firefighters work in 12-hour shifts, and we manage to staff three stations with three individuals 24 hours a day and seven days a week."

In addition to the station’s face lift, 5,000 square feet of work and living space was added to help the department continue service in an efficient manner.

Among the features in the upgraded station are eight new individual bunks for the firefighters, a kitchen and lounge, renovated administration offices, a boardroom and mechanical updates including a new generator. Shoevlin and the rest of the firefighters in the district are excited about the addition and renovations; they feel that it will not only help streamline day-to-day operation, but also increase both comfort and the value of the building to the community.

"We made it a bit more homey because we are staffing 24/7 now," Shoevlin said. "Improved energy efficiency was also a big part for us, plus we put a generator in that backs up the entire building. We had one before, but it backed up the apparatus area. Now, if there was a long-term power outage or major weather condition, we can open up the building to the public to make it a heating area or shelter."

The project, originally estimated to not exceed $4.1 million, is not 100 percent complete yet, but Shoevlin is optimistic about the figures.

"All the major construction is done, but there is a bit of painting and caulking still; we haven’t signed off on it yet," Shoevlin said. "We don’t have final numbers on the budget yet and probably won’t have them for a few months still when everything is done, but I am confident that we are going to come in at or below what we projected."

The project took seven months, and although Shoevlin admits to a few small bumps in the road structurally speaking, overall he says the project could not have gone better. From the architects all the way down to the construction manager, Shoevlin was pleased with how the project was handled.

What do the firefighters think of the new lounge, kitchen and bunk rooms? Shoevlin just smiles and says, "I’ve heard nothing but positive things."

Town of Beloit Fire Department

The trend toward using a combination of full-time and part-time firefighters is used by other departments that cover a large geographical area.

Because the Town of Beloit Fire Department covers the entire township plus part of Rock Township, which accounts for around 10,000 residents and 1,500 calls a year, they are a combination department.

Combination departments make use of full-time career firefighters, while also maintaining a staff of volunteers. In terms of equipment, the Town of Beloit Fire Department operates three fire engines, a tanker and two ambulances out of the station. The department has 10 firefighters on staff and 33 volunteer, five of whom are women. If you ask Town of Beloit Fire Chief Gene Wright, being a combination department poses unique challenges and advantages.

"The challenges are really just keeping people. We hire people and they do a good job for us, but then many of them either advance their careers by moving to a full-time station or have to eventually drop out because of family or time constraints," Wright said. "We get great people, but sometimes it’s not for very long. The benefit of being volunteer is having a variety of people that bring a lot to the table. Career firefighters do this full time, it’s their main job, but with my volunteers I have nurses, veterinarians and military personnel and those diverse backgrounds can be very useful."

Five years ago, the town of Beloit got a station upgrade of its own when it built its new facility. Wright explained that the new building makes a huge difference in the fire department’s ability to function. 

"We just built the new building about five years ago and it’s been absolutely wonderful," said Wright. "We went from three bays for engines to seven bays that are two deep, so we have 14 spots now."

Town of Turtle Fire Department

The Town of Turtle Fire Department is a traditional volunteer department that relies on a combination of township funding, community fundraisers and support from residents to fulfill its mission.

The department is responsible for serving 40 square miles and about 2,400 residents. Like many towns its size, the Town of Turtle Fire Department is fully volunteer. They have 29 volunteers, two fire engines, two tankers, a brush truck, a utility vehicle, one light rescue squad truck and two four-wheelers. Chief Tim Huffman doesn’t see any renovations or additions in the immediate future, but is excited about a new extrication tool they were able to purchase this year.

"We had to get this new cutter because of the metal they are using in cars now and our regular cutters won’t cut it, so the new set cost around $6,500," Huffman said.

Departments with smaller budgets have to rely on fundraising and applying for grants, explained Huffman, and the community has been supportive over the years. The Town of Turtle Fire Department has been holding its annual pancake breakfast on the second Saturday of February for 59 years. On Feb. 15 this year they were able to attract 1,800 people for the event, and the support goes a long way toward keeping the department geared up. 

"We get a lot of grants, too," said Huffman. "TransCanada and Enbridge both recently gave us grants and these helped us buy new hoses, new nozzles, new air compressors, new air packs and new pagers. We’ve gotten around $300,000 in grants in the past seven years. It’s what supplies our equipment."

Volunteer fire departments are powered by local involvement, whether that comes in the form of supporting their fundraisers or becoming a recruit, and it’s easy to forget just how much goes into providing that magic number -- 911. The sacrifice is great, but volunteering is not without its rewards, Huffman says.

"It’s difficult, but we are here because we love it."

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