| Ashtabula Township Fire Department evolves over time |
Staff Writer (Star Beacon)
Beginning at the stroke of midnight, on Dec. 31, 1973, all fire calls in Ashtabula Township were answered by its own full- time volunteer fire department.
But the roots of the Ashtabula Township Fire Department, which is celebrating its 30th year in the safety services business, go back much further than that.
The department's genesis resulted from a fire levy approved by the township voters in November 1949.
At that time, Bruce Harrison was appointed fire prevention officer by the township trustees.
In 1953, he was given the authority to purchase a used 1,200 gallon water tank truck. The vehicle was to be used for rural fires and to assist the city of Ashtabula Fire Department, which was contracted to provide fire protection for the township.
As time went on, Harrison dreamed that one day the township would take full responsibility for the fire protection of its citizens.
In 1963, 10 years after that first equipment purchase, the building which now houses the fire department was built. Years passed, equipment was purchased, and many fires were fought by Harrison and his "Road Crew," as it was called, still assisting the city fire department.
But as the township grew, and major industries existed cheek-to-jowl with residential and recreational areas, it became obvious that a full time fire department was needed.
In May 1973, Ashtabula Township trustees decided to organize the township fire department with an eye toward terminating its contract with the city by the end of the year.
The department already had a pumper, tanker and gas fire truck. To prepare for the change, it purchased a fire chief's car, a rescue van and another pumper.
24 hours a day
And beginning New Year's Day 1974, the station was staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
There were 60 volunteer firefighters at the time. They worked two man, six hour shifts, four a day. They were paid $1.50 an hour, plus $3 a fire call.
Off duty firefighters were notified of fire calls by a radio alert system.
At that time, Harry McClimans, a retired city firefighter was hired as the first fire chief. Clyde Stevenson was assistant chief.
Michael Wheeler took over as chief in 1977. But he left in early 1980 to take a job as director of the Ashtabula County Emergency Management Agency.
Today's fire chief
Michael Fitchet was appointed to the chief's position in June of that year, at the tender age of 25, leading a force with an average age of less than 30.
He remains at that position today.
Fitchet began as a part time firefighter in April 1974. In October 1975, he was made full time.
Fitchet calls the development of the department from one that was staffed by volunteers to a full time professional department as an "evolution."
Changes faced by every fire department in the country were the catalysts that made the Ashtabula Township Fire Department what it is today.
Now HazMat, EMS
In its first year, the department handled only fire calls, Fitchet said. Then came hazardous materials and emergency service calls.
"We didn't do HazMat, EMS or car wrecks. We just did fires," he said.
But before the end of that year, things would change.
"Ralph Hawkins, at the time, handled all the ambulance calls for the entire county, I think," Fitchet said. "Then, in 1974, Ralph decided to increase what he would charge all the political subdivisions for ambulance service."
That's when Ashtabula Township, and nearly every other local governmental entity in the county, started looking at how much it would cost to add emergency medical service to its fire department.
"In the fall of 1974, we decided we would take over ambulance calls in January of 1975," Fitchet said.
Everybody interested in taking emergency medical training went to, Conneaut's Station 3 for classes.
'Hearse type' vehicle
The township bought an old "hearse type" ambulance, and six more men were added to the roster as calls increased, Fitchet said.
"It took a long time for that to happen, because people said things like, 'I didn't know that fire department was there,' " Fitchet joked.
Then in the mid 1980s, the handling of hazardous materials became an issue, and an unfunded mandate, dropped in the lap of the local fire department.
At that time, hazardous materials were handled by the companies, on their own," Fitchet said.
"First we met the challenge of paramedics, then we took on HazMat. In. the past 10 years, we've trained for technical rescues, like confined space rescue.
And since 9/11, we have homeland security. As first responders, we play a major role in that.".
Over the years, many things changed. In its first year, the department handled 80 calls. In 2003, it handled 1,463 calls.
There are 18 full time firefighters, officers and paramedics; seven part-time firefighter/EMTs and firefighter/paramedics; four full-time dispatchers; and two part-time dispatchers.
Since 1984, the employees have been represented by Local 2710 of the International Association of Fire Fighters.
This year, officials will retire the 30 year old second out pumper purchased new in 1973 for $33,000.
The vehicle will be retired when the township of 23,239 residents gets a new truck bought with a federal grant.
Township Trustee Steve McClure, who is board liaison to the fire department, praised the department. He also noted its charitable activities, as well as its professional ones.
The department adopts a township family every Christmas, and this year, Fitchet said it hosted a party for about a dozen children who are living at Children's Services, at the Donahoe Center, down the road from the station.
"They do a lot for the community," McClure said.
The department operates on an annual budget of about $2.2 million, with an annual payroll of $1.2 million.
Up to 85 percent of its funding comes from four tax levies totaling 8 mills. The remainder is from emergency service billing.