Chesterton Tribune

The Liberty Township Volunteer Fire Department celebrates 50th anniversary

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By KEVIN NEVERS

On March 7, 1955, 19 residents of Liberty Township met at the Liberty Center School “for the express purpose”—as the minutes of that meeting read—“of formulating a Volunteer Firemen’s group.”

By April 20 the Liberty Township Volunteer Fire Department (LTVFD) had incorporated, it had already collected $225 in donations for the purchase of equipment, and it had sold $585 in tickets to a fundraising dance scheduled for three days later.

Before the end of the year the LTVFD took delivery of its first engine: a pumper with a capacity of 600 gallons and a rate of 500 gallons per minute, purchased by the township for $12,899 and housed at Bill Kibble’s Texaco at the northeast corner of U.S. Highway 6 and Old Ind. 49.

In the meantime, the volunteers were building a fire station entirely from community contributions and almost entirely with their own hands. On June 6, 1956, they held their first meeting at the station—still at 900N 50W and still owned not by the township but by LTVFD Inc.—and in October of that year they moved the pumper into its new quarters.

Volunteer firefighting was a rough-and-ready business in those days. Volunteers bought their own protective gear—barely protective rubber coats—for $26 a pop. They took turns spending the night at the station to answer the phone—which automatically activated a siren—and to call the other volunteers when it rang.

(“THE SIREN ON TOP OF THE FIRE HOUSE WILL SOUND WHEN THE FIRE NUMBER IS DIALED!” announces a mimeographed flier distributed by the LTVFD. “CAUTION. . . . . . DO NOT CALL THIS NUMBER, EXCEPT IN CASE OF FIRE. . . . . . CAUTION”)

In 1956 the LTVFD responded to 57 calls.

Much has changed in half a century. A new pumper—with twice the capacity and better than twice the rate—costs $450,000 now. Outfitting a firefighter from head to toe costs around $1,500. And last year the LTVFD responded to 571 calls.

But much more remains the same. As the LTVFD celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, it still has the loyal support of residents and businesses. And firefighting is still a labor of love. “We’re volunteers,” LTVFD Assistant Chief Ray Wesley says. “We have to leave our families, jump up from dinner, jump up on Christmas Eve and Christmas, leave our kids’ soccer games.”

Bob Esserman, one of the charter members of the LTVFD and a volunteer until his retirement 44 years later in 1999, remembers the old days, when one of the primary qualifications of a volunteer was his ability to drive a stick. “It was basically on-the-job training because we had no formal training anywhere in the state,” he says. “The first year or so we were pretty much on our own. The only thing we knew was you pulled some levers and aimed the hose.”

The early volunteers came to be expert scroungers and inspired improvisers, Esserman says. At first they relied on the on-duty man to call each volunteer in turn after receiving an alarm on the fire phone. Then the department acquired a two-way radio linking the station to the engine, and 10 volunteers each spent $50 out-of-pocket to get a monitor-receiving set. When an alarm was sounded, the on-duty man would broadcast it via radio to those 10 and then they would start dialing.

At a time when many homes were still heated by wood-burning stoves and roofs were shingled in wood, barn and house fires were fairly common, Esserman says, but the department’s first call ever, in January 1956, was a brush fire ignited by sparks thrown by a passing train behind the site of the station itself.

No LTVFD volunteer has ever been killed in the line of duty, Esserman says, although a few have sustained injuries, minor burns mostly and some cases of smoke inhalation. Once, about 10 years ago, two volunteers were jostled a bit when a tanker flipped on the way to a scene.

In fact, Wesley says, vehicular accidents are an occupational hazard and account for around a third of all firefighter fatalities nationwide. “Wrecking their trucks, wrecking their cars on the way to the station.”

Wesley, as it happens, has had a few close calls himself. “I got trapped in a house and I couldn’t find my way out,” he says. “I found a bathroom window and tried to break the window but it was Plexiglas. Couldn’t break it. I took my helmet off and I hit it hard. I didn’t have my ax with me and just kept beating it and beating it and beating it and it wouldn’t break out. So one of the guys outside saw me and they busted the window from the outside and dragged me out. I thought it was over. If I hadn’t had my air pack on, I would have been dead.”

Esserman and Wesley agree that improved technology—like the air packs—has made firefighting considerably safer. Time was, the firefighter made do with rubber coats and boots and plastic helmets and got used to eating smoke. Now bunker gear is fire retardant, and not only can firefighters breath in smoke-filled structures, they can see in them as well, thanks to thermal imaging cameras.

If the equipment is increasingly sophisticated, however, the scenes themselves may be more dangerous than they’ve ever been. “With building construction nowadays, everything’s made at the factory,” Wesley says. “It’s not made as well as a stick-built home. The trusses fail a lot faster. You’ve really got to watch the roofs and ceilings. When they start to sag, it’s time to go.”

And, of course, while plastics and other synthetic materials have revolutionized construction, they also have a way of turning burning buildings into gas chambers. “When I joined the fire service we had two air packs in the department,” Wesley says. “But if you used them, you were a sissy. You know, the old thing about leather lungs and smoke eaters. But these plastics put out poison gas when they burn.”

Wesley doesn’t deny that the risks of firefighting are part of its appeal. “There’s definitely an adrenaline rush,” he says. “When the pager goes off, your heart starts pumping. You wonder what it is, how bad it is.”

But volunteer firefighting is something of a family business too, and many have joined the fire service because it was a tradition in their households. “It’s family oriented,” Wesley says. “My dad was in it. My brother was in it. You know, it mostly stays in the family.”

It certainly did for the Esserman clan. His daughter, Mary Wesley—Ray’s wife—has been a volunteer with various departments since 1977, when she was 17.

When Wesley himself joined the fire service—just as when his father-in-law did—becoming a volunteer was pretty much just a matter of jumping on a truck and grabbing a hose or ax. Nothing today regulated by government could ever be that easy, though. Now volunteers must complete a minimum of 48 hours of training before they may work a scene. Not to mention an eight-hour hazardous materials course and an eight-hour CPR course.

“It’s hard to get volunteers and it’s hard to keep them on,” Wesley says. “The mandatory trainings that the state puts out, a lot of times it’s hard for a guy that’s working and has got a family to maintain his training. . . . People are busy nowadays. If you got kids, there’s always stuff you’ve got to do with them, running them around. A lot of the guys we have join, they don’t finish their training. It’s just too much for them, too much time.”

The department’s service area has not changed in 50 years: 55 square miles, all of Liberty Township and everything in Jackson Township west of C.R. 500E. The population within those 55 square miles, however, is burgeoning, as Chicagoland continues to push east, and not all of the newcomers are familiar with the ways and means of rural firefighting. “We’ve had such an influx of people coming into Porter County now with all these new subdivisions,” Wesley says. “And they don’t realize we’re volunteers. It takes time for us to get out of bed, get dressed, go to the station, get our equipment, get dressed again, and get to the scene in the middle of the night. It takes awhile. And people don’t understand. And they get all bent out of shape. A lot of people are moving here from cities where they have full-time firefighters. They have to realize we’re volunteers.”

The LTVFD then and now

By KEVIN NEVERS

Since 1955 at least 200 men and women have been members of the Liberty Township Volunteer Fire Department (LTVFD), and more than 100 women have assisted firefighters at the scene, providing them with food and drink, as members of the LTVFD Auxiliary.

The original charter membership of the LTVFD totaled 15 but that number rapidly grew to 47. The department’s first chief: Harold Esserman.

In 1956, in its first full year of service, the LTVFD responded to 57 calls and averaged a turnout at each of 20 men.

The LTVFD currently has a membership of 33, three of them women, eight of them emergency medical technicians, one a paramedic, and one a first responder. All volunteers are trained in CPR and the use of the department’s three automated external defibrillators.

The department’s fleet includes two pumpers and a tanker, a rescue/utility vehicle, a brush truck, and a command unit.

Memorable calls:

•April 18, 1986: Four Porter County residents died when the single-engine Piper Cherokee airplane in which they were riding crash-landed at 6 p.m. in a swampy field in Jackson Township, just north of U.S. Highway 6 and just east of C.R. 625E. All four passengers were ejected from the plane and were believed to have died on impact. Authorities said that the plane appeared to have run out of fuel.

•Aug. 17, 1989: A hazardous-materials fire at the transfer station operated by Waste Management of Northwest Indiana at 1035 N. Ind. 149 in Crocker subsequently forced the LTVFD to replace $50,000 of contaminated equipment. The fire was sparked at 12:45 p.m. when lime from the Northern Indiana Public Service Company’s Schahfer Generating Station ignited in a chemical reaction and spread to involve a “witch’s brew” of other corrosive or carcinogenic substances, including sodium biflouride and hydrochloric acid. Water used in the initial attempt to extinguish the fire only succeeded in accelerating the chemical reaction. Firefighters wore protective suits and air packs and later had to be decontaminated. Ten homes were evacuated, Ind. 149 was closed twice—the second time after the fire re-ignited at 6 p.m.—and neighbors later complained of headaches, nausea, and sore throats.

•April 7, 2000: The Open Flame restaurant at 155 W. U.S. Highway 6 burned to the ground, after an earlier grease fire in the kitchen—which employees believed had been extinguished—apparently spread around 9:51 p.m. The fire was fanned by a fierce north wind. Two firefighters were caught in a flashover but not seriously injured. The blaze caused an estimated $300,000 in damage.

•Dec. 3, 2003: In the worst fire in Duneland in years, Ruge & Sons Meat at 887N 100W was destroyed, when heat escaped through a breach in the company’s incinerator and ignited wall studs around 9:30 p.m.

The LTVFD, assisted by 13 other departments, battled the blaze for 12 hours in frigid weather which froze valves, pumps, and nozzles.

A lack of hydrants forced firefighters to shuttle 100,000 gallons of water to the scene in a fleet of tankers requisitioned from two counties.

Ruge & Sons, an institution in Duneland for more than half a century, was founded on Dec. 7, 1946, by Bill Ruge Sr. and his four sons, Dick, Bill Jr., Donald, and Byron, the latter three of whom were charter members of the LTVFD.

 

Posted 4/14/2005