BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — Those stepping up to bat for a 3.25-mill fire/EMS levy may come from different communities, but as a team, they share the same goal: ensuring that skilled first responders can get to the scene of a medical emergency, fire or accident quickly.
“How many times have you seen three communities come together for a common cause for the betterment of the region? I credit the leadership of our fire chiefs who built a plan that’s easy for us to get behind,” said Waterville Mayor Tim Pedro.
Waterville City Council, Whitehouse Council and Waterville Township trustees voted earlier this year to each put on the ballot a levy that would support a fire co-op for the three communities. Whitehouse Fire Chief Josh Hartbarger and Waterville Fire Chief Doug Meyer worked for several years to create a model for fire/EMS services that is both affordable and sustainable, said Whitehouse Mayor Don Atkinson. With the plan, both departments will increase staffing to ensure that personnel are able to respond quickly – even as the community continues to grow.
“We’ve been working for many years to keep our finger in the dike. We have great volunteers who give their all, but we’ve come to the junction where for the safety of our residents, we need to do more,” Atkinson said.
Kyle Hertzfeld, Waterville Township trustee, agreed.
“I believe this is the right direction for the township to take. Houses just keep coming in and so do the calls for service,” he said.
Since moving to Waterville seven years ago, Columbus native Theresa Pollick has seen substantial growth in the community. She also heard stories from residents who were concerned about response times to emergency calls.
“They expect to have the best when they live in such a great community, yet many people don’t realize how the department is set up,” Pollick said. “Local governments, across not just the county but also the state, have this same problem. It’s great that we have the cooperation here and a great opportunity for a long-term solution.
Like many communities, Waterville and Whitehouse fire departments have some full-time and part-time staff but rely heavily on volunteers – residents who leave home or work, report to the station and get on a rig to head out on calls.
Volunteers are dedicated to the cause, but due to increased work and family obligations, they are not always able to respond to calls, especially those overnight or during work hours. In addition, the number of training hours needed to earn a Fire 1, Fire 2 or EMT card have grown. Township resident Shaun Wittmer has been a volunteer with Whitehouse for nine years. He noted that the 400 hours of classroom time alone can restrict potential volunteers.
Wittmer admits he hasn’t gone on a run in a while, due to work and family obligations. He’s not alone. Getting volunteers to answer calls in the middle of the workday or middle of the night is a challenge for departments nationwide; and when volunteers can’t respond, sometimes neighboring departments need to be called in to answer. That impacts response times.
“Time is critical. Ten minutes can be the difference between life and death, or in the case of a fire, the loss of a room versus the loss of a whole house,” said township resident William Walborn. “The volunteer system is great, but if volunteerism is way down, we need to hire full-time people.”
Former Waterville Fire Chief Pat Wambo, now a township resident, recalls getting the OK from council to hire part-time staff. That’s not always the answer either, however, as part-timers are often juggling other jobs with other departments.
“The trend (in the fire service) is to go more full time,” Wambo said. “By establishing a full-time service, the community should feel safer. There’s a presence there.”
With this new plan, Whitehouse would add four and Waterville six full-time personnel, said Hartbarger. This would enable the departments to respond more quickly by having personnel in-house and ready. Volunteers would still play a vital role, however, especially in large events or when multiple calls come in at once. All will undergo the uniform training outlined in the co-op plan.
Waterville residents Jennifer Scroggs and Nick Sargent are among those who have been out speaking with neighbors and friends about the co-op. Most don’t realize that the department is primarily volunteer.
“I think everybody sees the issue. They see the houses going up,” Scroggs said. “It’s more a matter of cost.”
The cost is $114 per $100,000 in valuation. Whitehouse Council member Louann Artiaga sees that as the equivalent of one gourmet pizza a month.
“I’d rather give up a pizza to make my family safe,” she said.
For Sargent, that’s not a tough sell.
“For $228 a year, I can have advanced medical technology, fire apparatus and full-time firefighters, even if I call at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m.,” Sargent said.
With the co-op, the fire departments have a long-term plan that is sustainable even as homes, apartments and assisted living facilities are added. Reports show an increase in traffic on US 24; and at some point, Nexus will build its compressor station – all requiring a need for more emergency services, Wittmer said.
The fire/EMS issue will appear on the ballot differently for each community: It is Issue 5 in Waterville, Issue 7 in Whitehouse and Issue 11 in Waterville Township.