BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — Like many volunteer fire departments nationwide, Waterville and Whitehouse in 2018 faced a challenge: Call volume was growing, but the number of volunteers available – especially during work hours and overnight – was dwindling.
So the village and city teamed up with Waterville Township to pay for a detailed feasibility study to see whether a fire district was the answer. Later that year, in a community forum, the results of that study were shared for all to see, and the answer was plain: The benefits of completely combining the two departments would come at too many costs.
Instead of giving up, Waterville Fire Chief Doug Meyer and Whitehouse Fire Chief Josh Hartbarger headed to Bob Evans on Briarfield, where they hammered out a plan on a paper napkin. The result was the fire co-op, a model that allows the departments to share training, equipment, policies and even personnel while maintaining their individual identities and fire stations.
The model is so groundbreaking that Napoleon Fire Chief Clayton O’Brien nominated Hartbarger and Meyer for the Ohio Fire Chiefs Association’s Inno-vation Award, given during the annual conference in July.
“I thought it was super innovative to collaborate with different agencies and work to make something that benefits both organizations. It’s thinking outside of the box,” O’Brien said. “It’s no easy feat to navigate the political parties that are involved and get them to understand that this is for the greater good. As fire chiefs, we can be a little guarded. They (the two chiefs) were both being vulnerable and opened themselves up for the betterment of their organizations. Any change takes a bunch of hard work and extra duties. They jumped in with both feet.”
Seated in a booth at the Bob Evans last week, the two chiefs explained how the co-op combines the best of each autonomous department, mutual aid and a fire district.
“It took a while to find middle ground,” Meyer said.
“We had to get to a point of trust. Then, we had to find a way to make it work and get buy-in from the departments, the politicians and the community,” Hart- barger added.
Volunteers, who have been the backbone of the departments from the beginning, were a vital part of the mix, and the two chiefs figured out a model to continue utilizing these men and women while increasing numbers of full-time and part-time employees to ensure seamless coverage to all three communities. As the men rolled out the plan, both sensed a range of emotions from the staff, including fear and excitement.
Now, nearly two years after voters approved funding for the co-op, the evidence of its success is clearly on display, especially when the two departments get together to train.
Last week, standing on the boat dock at Farnsworth Metropark, Waterville Deputy Chief Zach Bingham instructed White-house firefighters on how to deploy a throw bag – a shore-based rescue. Tyler Wepler, a shared Waterville/ Whitehouse employee, and Whitehouse firefighter Daniel Sunday were floating in the water, simulating victims, while Waterville Fire Department members Capt. Bob Grogan, Jeff Dorner and Angel Korotnayi were in Waterville’s boat nearby to ensure their safety.
The Maumee River is the most dynamic hazard in Waterville’s response area, Bingham explained. As part of the co-op, Whitehouse will now be incorporated into river rescues automatically, handling the shore-based operations, so training together is vital.
Every employee has the opportunity to train in each department, and employee sharing is becoming more common. Some work full time in one department and part time in another or combine two part-time positions to work full time, the chiefs explained. As the departments continue to share, the men are also considering standard uniforms with patches that can be attached with Velcro for flexibility among those who work for both stations.
Soon, the advisory committee of citizens and staff from the three communities – known as the W3 – will come together for its first meeting, and the chiefs expect the committee to find even more efficiencies, which will be welcomed.
“We need to keep moving forward with creativity and changes. If we’re not changing, we’re dying,” Hartbarger said.
With over 1,000 fire departments in Ohio, many still face the same challenges that Waterville and White-house were experiencing five years ago. Hartbarger and Meyer sometimes get calls asking how they did it, and they’re happy to explain.
While the OFCA award is humbling, both chiefs know that creating a new model without a template was no easy feat.
“We could easily have gone our own way or dissolved,” Meyer admitted. “We put our heart and soul into this co-op.”