ANXIETY MOUNTS: Fire chief points with alarm to rising number of runs

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HANCOCK COUNTY — The high volume of emergency runs in the western part of the county is nothing new, but officials with the Buck Creek Township Fire Department are increasingly at wits’ end over how to handle the growing number of calls. They say without immediate financial assistance to hire more help, they’re not sure how emergency coverage will look in the future.

The fire department recently shared run figures showing it had 1,483 for the entire year in 2019, at that time the most ever. As of mid-September, the department had already completed 1,483 runs, Chief Dave Sutherlin said.

Sutherlin attributes the increase to the business growth in the western part of the county — development he said is not paying its way when it comes to public safety.

The issue with emergency runs in western Hancock County has been simmering for months. Sutherlin and Sheriff Brad Burkhart have repeatedly warned the county commissioners and the county council that the explosive growth in the western townships — fueled mainly by an aggressive expansion of warehouse/logistics space built largely on speculation — is putting too much pressure on public safety agencies. The county has agreed to hire more sheriff’s deputies. For now, there is no solution in sight for additional fire coverage.

Buck Creek’s runs are up 49% this year, Sutherlin said. Some 52% of runs out of Station 471, located at Indianapolis Regional Airport, are going to businesses. Most of the increase is due to the opening of businesses like Amazon, where the fire department is making up to six runs a week. (In May, a Daily Reporter analysis of emergency runs showed first-responders were dispatched to Amazon 77 times in the first four months of the year.)

Sutherlin knows runs will only increase with other facilities such as the Walmart distribution center — under construction on County Road 500N near the airport — coming online. He noted at least five other major projects of 1 million square feet or more are on tap that will employee hundreds of people.

“As these building come online, our responses to these buildings are going to increase,” Sutherlin said. “We’re really left high and dry with no foreseeable solution for fixing staff problems.”

John Jessup, president of the Hancock County Commissioners, said he has been working behind the scenes with developers, asking them to contribute economic development payments to help alleviate the problem. Part of the issue is the amount of incentives going to employers siphons revenue away services such as police and fire operations.

Jessup hopes the negotiations will bring funds to help pay for more fire coverage as soon as the coming year.

“I’m working with as many developers as I can right now, and we’re really close on one deal and in good talks with several others,” Jessup said.

The one deal Jessup spoke about could bring as much as $5 million over the next 10 years that could be used for operational funds for first-responders.

“Our first goal is to make sure we have enough sheriff’s deputies,” Jessup said.

Buck Creek Township has 21 career firefighter/EMT/paramedics. To cover all the shifts, that gives the department three full-time employees at one station and four at the other. One part-time person also is on duty per shift, bringing the total of on-duty staff to eight per day, four at each station. That’s not nearly enough to cover the rapidly growing area, department officials said.

As an example, Sutherlin noted the Sugar Creek Township Fire Department has 15 people on its first shift.

“The state has no good solutions allowing us to hire folks to take care of these new operations,” Sutherlin said.

Sutherlin said he supports the growth. But he notes some built-in disadvantages — such as a maximum tax levy based on the area’s historically agricultural use — needs to be addressed. That’s where help from county or state officials needs to come in, Sutherlin said. Jessup agreed.

“There needs to be some fixes there,” Jessup said, referring to state officials looking at tax assessments.

Jessup believes the issue with Buck Creek Township is going to worsen as he expects the area to double in growth within the next 10 years, and he said the county must prepare for that now.

“If people think the numbers are bad now, Walmart and Amazon are not on the books, and there are probably 10 other buildings out there that are not officially even on the books yet,” Jessup said.

Jessup said the county could explore using money from county discretionary funds as a quick fix for the fire department until economic development funds start coming in.