BUCK CREEK TOWNSHIP – A part of western Hancock County experiencing rapid industrial growth has a new fire chief.
Micki Simunek, Buck Creek Township trustee, announced this week the appointment of Brandon Wilch as chief of the township’s fire department. Not even initially one of the dozen applicants seeking the role, he assumes command as the department faces personnel and equipment needs amid a tight budget and building boom of large warehouses.
Wilch succeeds longtime chief David Sutherlin, who stepped down in May 2022. Simunek’s predecessor opted not to replace Sutherlin and instead let her do so after her term started earlier this month. Rudy Nylund, the department’s assistant chief, and battalion chiefs fulfilled leadership duties in the interim.
Wilch, a firefighter and paramedic, has been with the department for 17 years and has managed many of its technological aspects, including patient medical records, the department’s website and radio equipment. He has also represented the department’s firefighters in their union.
His salary as chief plus longevity pay comes out to $82,004.44.
Simunek said the job opening drew three internal candidates and nine external ones, and that Wilch was not initially among them. She added she and two battalion chiefs interviewed the 12 applicants and narrowed the group down to four. To help determine a selection, Simunek brought in Peter Beering, a lawyer and public safety expert she knows from her days working for former Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith. Beering was joined by Bob Zickler, former deputy public safety director for the city of Indianapolis; and Steve Vogt, former public safety director for the Indianapolis International Airport.
Before Beering, Zickler and Vogt interviewed the four chief candidates, they toured the township and visited one of its fire stations to ask questions. Wilch happened to be working at the time, and provided many of the answers.
“After that meeting, on their way home, Peter called and said, ‘We have a different idea for you for chief,’” adding he’d discuss it more later, Simunek recalled.
Following the consultants’ interviews with the four candidates in December, Simunek continued, Wilch turned out to be the top recommendation despite not applying. She said they were impressed with his knowledge of budgeting and challenges facing the area as well as ideas he shared concerning personnel and equipment. Simunek said while she went into the process fully intending to hire someone who applied, and was aware of the hard feelings that could result from an unconventional decision, she trusted the consultants’ “out-of-the-box” thinking and approached Wilch about the opportunity.
Wilch said his decision required a lot of thinking about whether taking the job was right for him, the department and its staff.
“And after a lot of thought and discussion with my family, I felt that it was worth pushing forward on,” he said.
He said he plans to take an inward focus on the department when it comes to its staff, the community and the public it serves.
“In doing that I want to look at building our training program, getting us to a point where we’re not only using internal resources but external resources as well to elevate our staff, take us up a level as far as training and education in the fire service and medical services,” he said.
Wilch said he also intends to work with the Hancock County Council, Commissioners and Redevelopment Commission on funding opportunities to increase staff, as well as explore resources at the state level.
The Buck Creek Township Fire Department has two stations and 21 full-time firefighters serving about 36 square miles, including the Indianapolis Regional Airport, seven miles of I-70 and over 40 warehouses, according to a news release from the township. Among the large industrial properties are two Amazon buildings and a 2.6-million-square-foot Walmart fulfillment center under construction. The department responds to about 2,000 incidents a year and has an operating budget of about $3.3 million.
Simunek said the fire department should have twice its amount of firefighters to provide adequate protection for the number of buildings and occupants in those buildings throughout the township. She added the department has good equipment, but currently lacks a capital replacement fund. The department’s aerial truck – able to fight fires at tall heights – is 22 years old, and new ones cost around $2 million, she continued. She plans to pursue strategic planning during her term, and enlist professionals who helped her decide on a fire chief to assist in that endeavor.
“When it comes to firefighters, the short answer is you always want to have as many as you can,” Wilch said. “The real answer is – if you look at the picture of where the department is and the area we have to defend, I think double is a good place to start. I know realistically we can’t get there overnight, but you have to start that process to get us built up as much as we can.”