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Plans for fire territory consolidation in St. Joseph County stall, but efforts will continue officials say

Lakeville Volunteer Fire Department Incorporated truck.
Photo courtesy of Lakeville Fire Department
Lakeville Volunteer Fire Department Incorporated truck.

What’s the best way to provide fire and emergency medical services to unincorporated areas of St. Joseph County?

That’s a question local township trustees are debating as firefighting units across the state are consolidating resources to keep up with larger departments.

Leading the charge locally is Portage Township Trustee Jason Critchlow and who said that smaller fire departments are increasingly harder to operate financially.

Nationwide there are fewer people willing to become firefighters and with larger city departments like South Bend, Mishawaka and Elkhart offering significantly higher salaries, smaller departments are often left with shortages.

On top of that, modern equipment is more expensive than it’s ever been. A single fire engine runs upward of a million dollars.

“From both an efficiency and financial standpoint, it’s getting harder and harder to maintain these very small fire departments that are only responsible for a small amount of area,” Critchlow said.

Currently the unincorporated portions of Portage Township are serviced by the Southwest Central Fire Territory, which also covers parts of Greene and Centre township to the southeast. There are other territories in the county including the Clay Fire Territory and the Penn Township Department. The more rural Madison Township has a volunteer unit.

Critchlow, along with Southwest Central fire chief Darrell Eiller had designs on forming a much larger fire territory that would have encompassed Portage, Warren, Centre and Union Townships as well as the city of Lakeville.

The Southwest central territory currently has 22 firefighters, but the larger imagined unit, called the St. Joseph County Fire Territory, would employ 100 across five stations.

According to Critchlow, only around 20% of residents would see tax increases and most of those would be less than $100 a year. He added that other governmental services in the country would likely receive slightly less than they do now to make up the difference.

But, he said, the exchange is better protection and quicker response times.

“These days, generations like mine expect high quality service from public safety professionals,” he said. “That means when I call 911, I expect someone at my house in five to 10 minutes. In a lot of areas of the county, that isn’t the case.”

The plan for a multi-township St. Joseph County Fire Territory, however, was scrapped recently when Centre township officials rejected the proposal.

Centre Township officials did not agree to an interview with WVPE. But in a written statement, township board member Tom Lindenman said the consolidation doesn’t make financial sense for Centre and that the township doesn’t need the level of service as an urban area.

In other words, the police departments, airport, libraries, schools, parks, health department, etc. would not get the full amount of their budgeted property tax levy," Lindenman wrote. "Those reductions would go to fund the new territory. Rob Peter to pay Paul."

Centre will have to create its own fire unit next year and it's unclear how many of the current Southwest Central firefighters would join that new department.

Efforts towards consolidation are not confined to St. Joseph County. In Indianapolis, state legislation is moving forward that would force area townships to consolidate into the city’s metro fire department though most already have.

Public meetings have also started recently in LaPaz about combining their firefighters with the neighboring North Township.

Without Centre being on board, the new St. Joseph County Fire Territy will still be formed, but it will only include Portage and Warren townships for now. Even with the momentary pause, Eiller expects consolidation is coming, sooner or later. He added he's lost three or four firefighters to larger units in the area.

“It might not be in my lifetime, but I see in the next 10-15 years, it’s gonna be a requirement for grants, for money, for efficiency,” Eiller said.

Marek Mazurek has been with WVPE since April 2023, though he's been in Michiana for most of his life. He has a particular interest in public safety reporting. When he's not on the radio, Marek enjoys getting way too into Notre Dame football and reading about medieval English history.