Volunteer fire departments often are the heart of small communities, and Hamilton Township is no exception.
If a house or barn catches fire or there is a wreck with injuries, Hamilton Township volunteer firefighters are on the scene within a matter of minutes.
But that’s not all they are asked to do.
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Fire Chief Don Schnitker said some of the calls they have received in the past haven’t always been emergencies.
“We went out and helped locate a $25,000 show horse that got loose; we got a call about a skunk in a crawl space once; and believe it or not, we’ve been called to get a cat out of a tree before, too,” he said. “We do anything we get called for.”
That includes helping with weather-related problems, downed power lines, hazardous materials incidents, water rescues, lifting assists and lost or missing persons.
The fire station, at 6843 N. County Road 400E, near Cortland Elementary School, also is a gathering place for birthday and anniversary parties, baby showers, 4-H groups and community pitch-in dinners and serves as a poll site during elections.
On Sunday, the department invited the public to an open house and chili supper to give the community an opportunity to see its newly purchased pumper tanker firetruck. The turnout was better than expected.
“They can see what their tax dollars have bought,” Schnitker said of having the open house.
Schnitker has been with the department since he graduated high school in 1977 and has served as chief for nearly 30 years. He said the new truck couldn’t have been purchased without the tax money the department receives through its fire district.
All but one fire department in Jackson County is funded through a fire district, he said. Hamilton Township became a fire district in 2010.
“That has helped tremendously,” Schnitker said. “We banked money through the district to be able to buy this truck.”
The truck came with a price tag of $221,000 and an additional $10,000 in on-board equipment, Schnitker said. The new truck replaces a 1990 truck that uses a 1961 tank and pump.
Although it may have seemed like a big increase to taxpayers at the time, the fire district saved money in the long run because the department didn’t have to issue bonds or borrow money and pay interest to purchase the new truck, Schnitker said.
“The fire districts have made a big difference in the volunteer departments in the county,” he said. “We’re now trying to set it up so our trucks will have a 25-year lifespan.”
The department has a total of five trucks, meaning one should be replaced every five years, Schnitker said.
Engine 61 carries special extrication equipment to help get people out of vehicles after a crash. The department also has a grain bin rescue tube, and the station is a designated landing zone for emergency helicopters and an American Red Cross shelter.
Hamilton Township Volunteer Fire Department serves a 63-square-mile area with a population of 1,660, according to the 2010 census. Unincorporated areas of Hamilton Township include Acme, Bobtown, Cortland, Shieldstown and Surprise.
The fire department was formed in 1973, and the current station was built in 2001 as part of the Build Indiana program, which provided grant money for local projects in Hoosier communities.
“It was the last thing that was ever funded through Build Indiana,” Schnitker said.
Although the station provides “adequate” space for the department now, it was built with the possibility of expansion in the future, Schnitker said.
Last year, the department made 85 runs, including medical and fire calls, and registered more than 600 hours of training. That number is up from the dozen or so runs firefighters used to go on before they began responding to medical emergencies, too. The highest has been 106 runs a couple of years ago.
There are 29 men and women on the Hamilton Township Volunteer Fire Department roster, including two paramedics, Cody Hercamp and Paige Koop; seven emergency medical technicians; and a certified first responder, Gilbert Carpenter, who also is a Seymour police officer.
Recruiting personnel is one of the biggest challenges volunteer fire departments face because a lot of work and training go into the job, but firefighters are not paid for their time.
“It’s hard to find people who want to come up here and donate the amount of hours that are needed to be a volunteer fireman,” Schnitker said.
In the past, only those living within the township could be a member, but that restriction was lifted several years ago after it was determined that Hamilton Township’s population was not sufficient to meet the department’s needs.
Now, firefighters can live in nearby areas, such as the residential neighborhoods near Seymour High School like Bell Ford Manor, Coventry Place and Sunset Parkway.
“It took awhile, but it did alleviate the immediate problem of personnel,” Schnitker said.
Anyone wanting to become a volunteer firefighter must be “mandatory certified,” Schnitker said. That includes many hours of classroom time and additional field training. Most training can be paid for through Indiana Homeland Security, but it’s the amount of time needed that can be a problem for people.
“It’s hard enough to get volunteers without telling them they have to do 150 hours of mandatory training,” he said.
Schnitker said he would like to see the state offer some kind of incentive, possibly a tax break, for those who complete the training and do become volunteer firefighters.
Hercamp, who has the rank of captain and is the department treasurer, has been with Hamilton Township Volunteer Fire Department for 15 years.
At first, it seemed like a good way to gain experience and training needed to make firefighting a career, he said. It also was an opportunity to help people and give back to the community, he added.
He now works full time at Columbus Fire Department.
“After I joined, I learned that it is much more than just helping people and building a résumé,” he said. “I realized that we are one big family. You can call any one of us, and we would be there to help you in whatever you needed.”
Koop joined the department about five years ago at the age of 19.
“After joining the fire department, it led to several other career opportunities and chances that I may not have had if I wouldn’t have joined,” she said.
She has since become a valued emergency medical services worker for Schneck Medical Center and continues to be a volunteer firefighter.
Koop agreed being a part of the department and the Cortland community is like having a big family, and that family supports each other through good times and bad.
“I know that at any given time, whether it’s work related or personal or whatever the case is, I can call any one of the people on my fire department and they will always be there,” she said.
“I think it gives the community a sense of relief and reassurance that when things go bad, chances are, they’re going to know at least a few if not all of us from the fire department that show up. Having a familiar face there eases things just a little bit for those who are in need.”
Volunteer fire departments are vital to communities for a number of reasons, Hercamp said.
Financially, they make sense because they are more cost effective than having paid departments.
“Volunteer departments do not have to pay wages and benefits,” he said. “In our area, it would not be cost effective to pay three or four firefighters to sit at the station every day.”
But it’s more than just saving money. It’s about having pride for the community in which you live, Schnitker said.
“I was talking to someone and she was saying how lucky they were to live in Hamilton Township,” he said. “She listed our school and our fire department. I like to hear that, knowing that what we do is recognized. Even though we might not hear it every day, I know people are proud of this fire station.”
Hercamp said that is most evident when the department is asked to do outreach programs for local churches, schools and service organizations.
“The phrase has been used that we are ‘neighbors helping neighbors,’ and that holds very true,” he said.
Jon Eglen, an EMT, has been on the fire department for 12 years and joined for a very personal reason.
“I got on because our house caught on fire from a vehicle fire,” he said. “The fire chief was heading home and saw our house and vehicle on fire. I think that the fire department does really well at taking care of the community.”
One of his favorite parts of the job is taking the truck to Cortland Elementary School at the end of the school year and letting kids play in a stream of water from the fire hose.
“We try to take care of the young and old,” he said. “Most of us are EMTs or nurses or full-time firefighters, so I feel we can take on any problems that come to us.”
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Hamilton Township Volunteer Fire Department roster
Donald Schnitker, Scott Thompson, Curt Copeland, Cody Hercamp, David Thompson, Ed Flynn, Troy Roberts, Robert Runge, Jennifer Hercamp, Jeremy Kleber, David Vehslage, Brett Quillen, Brian Acton, Gilbert Carpenter, Louis Wonning, Tom Hoene, Paige Koop, Brittney Runge, Jon Eglen, Josh Copeland, Matt Mellencamp, Will Borcherding, Russell Strong, Kris Brott, Dale Roberts, Mark Waltz, Donald Mink, Travis Quillen and Chad Rouse