A rural fire department in northwestern Jackson County has made enough improvements to its firefighting capabilities in recent years that property owners will soon have something they never had in the past — an ISO rating.

That rating is used by insurers to help make decisions about premiums, and the lack of one for Owen and Salt Creek townships likely has meant higher premiums for property owners, said Chad Laney, chief of the Owen-Salt Creek Township Volunteer Fire Department.

It also has created a perception problem.

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“A lot of them think they don’t have a fire department,” Laney said.

That’s because that is what those people are told when they go to get insurance on their residences, he said.

“We’re basically listed as inactive,” Laney said.

During the past several years, the department has focused on upgrading its trucks, firefighting gear, other equipment and training to get them to the point where the ISO would implement a rating of 9 through its Public Protection Classification Program. Insurance Services Office (ISO) is an advisory organization in New Jersey that provides such information to insurers.

Nine is the lowest rating available, and Laney said the department hopes to move it to an 8 in the future. The lower the number of a rating, the better the fire protection, which in turn means lower premiums.

“We’ve been told we probably can’t go any lower than an 8,” Laney said.

That’s because the department, which has a station at Kurtz and a second just off U.S. 50 in the far western part of the county, serves a sparsely populated area of nearly 100 square miles with few fire hydrants. Other communities in the service area include Clearspring, Norman, Houston and Maumee.

Seymour, with a paid department, fire hydrants and plenty of equipment, has an ISO 3 rating.

Owen-Salt Creek also faces another challenge, and that’s to attract new and younger people to become firefighters.

“Nobody has any time anymore,” said Laney, who is 35 and joined the department 16 years ago when there weren’t as many rules and regulations. Firefighting requires continual training, and the trucks require regular maintenance and upkeep.

“We hold a half-hour training session after our monthly meetings each month,” he said. “We change the fluids (in the trucks) every year whether they need it or not.”

All of the pumps also have to be flow tested annually.

Laney said the word “volunteer” — meaning no pay — doesn’t help recruiting efforts.

If you look at the department’s 11-man roster, you’ll find names that match the roster of the department when it began serving the community in 1978.

It begins with Laney, whose father is Assistant Chief Earl Laney. Earl Laney and firefighter Wally Mullins are about the only two members who have been with the department since it began. Firefighter Loy Hanner, who lives in nearby Brownstown Township, said he just wanted to help. Hanner’s father, Loy Hanner Sr., also was an original member of the department.

The ISO is not the only “first” in store for the department and people of the two townships. The department also is preparing to order a new firetruck.

When it arrives, it will be the first time firefighters will be able to respond to a fire in a new truck.

The department’s first truck was a 1955 or 1956 Chevrolet that Pershing Township donated to the cause back when Owen-Salt Creek opened for business in February 1978.

The department already had a station in Kurtz. It was not much more than a garage on the north side of State Road 258 when you leave the west side of town. That building had been serving as a substation for Pershing Township, which had been providing fire coverage.

The donated firetruck wasn’t much, but it did the job for the most part, Earl Laney said.

“You had to be careful because one of the brakes didn’t always work,” he said.

Mullins agreed, adding crews never knew if the truck was going to make it up some of the steeper hills in the area. He said the engine liked to “hop a lot” when it was confronted with a hill.

Both said training in the early days was minimal.

“They showed you a hose and told you how to pull the lever to turn it on,” Mullins said.

Friends and neighbors who might be handy often were drafted to help fight fires, even riding along in the firetruck.

“Insurance took care of that,” Earl Laney said.

He and Mullins both said the department has come a long way since those early days, and the move to establish a fire district, with its own taxing power, several years ago has helped a lot.

The district collects only 3 cents per $100 assessed valuation, and many property owners don’t even realize it’s on the bill because it’s so small of an amount.

“They still ask us why we’ve haven’t sent them a letter,” Earl Laney said, referring to the days when property owners in rural areas paid a yearly fee to fire departments for fire protection.

Chad Laney said it has been estimated the lower ISO rating will come pretty close to matching the department’s property tax rate.

The revenue collected from the property tax rate has allowed the department to provide upgrades to some of its six trucks. One of those trucks, a mini brush rescue truck, cost $30,000 to upgrade but would have been $100,000 or more if purchased new, Chad Laney said. The department obtained that truck from the U.S. Forest Service.

The department also has a brush truck it obtained from Brownstown Volunteer Fire Department and updated for its needs.

“Most of our calls are for brush fires,” Chad Laney said. “We might have one or two house fires a year.”

Property taxes also will help pay for a new engine but likely will add just about a penny more to the tax rate, Chad Laney said. That new engine will be the first new firetruck the department has ever had in its inventory, he said.

When the new engine comes online in a couple of years, the department will retire a 1980s engine obtained from Hamilton Township’s fire department.

The new engine will be able to carry 2,500 gallons of water to a fire. That coupled with a 3,000-gallon tanker the department recently rebuilt for $60,000 from a truck obtained from Rose Acre Farms will allow the department to carry more than 5,000 gallons of water.

“That should help improve our ISO rating,” Chad Laney said.

With the advent of mutual aid agreements in recent years, Chad Laney said, rural fire departments can count on others for help when needed. For Owen-Salt Creek, that means firefighters will come from Brownstown, Pershing and Carr fire departments, depending upon where the help is needed.

Pershing and Carr also provided medical coverage for Owen and Salt Creek townships.

“They have the medical personnel that we don’t have,” Chad Laney said.

The department conducts a fish fry in May and a second one on the first day of deer season, which is Saturday.

“We usually do pretty good on that one,” Chad Laney said.

Proceeds from the fish fries help pay for some of the extra things the department needs, he said.

The fish fries also are a public relations event where the public gets to meet with firefighters and see the equipment, he said.

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What: Owen-Salt Creek Township Volunteer Fire Department fish fry

When: 10 a.m. until the food runs out Saturday

Where: Kurtz Fire Station, 5742 N. Cleveland St.

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Chief Chad Laney

Assistant Chief Earl Laney

Assistant Chief Marty Young

Capt. Roger Bond

Firefighters Ira Auffenberg, Loy Hanner, Roy Bannister, Andy Lockman, Kevin Bond, Jack Hall and Wally Mullins