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St. Joseph fire protection shifting

Township duties to be outsourced on Jan. 1

– After more than six decades, the St. Joseph Township Fire Department will be no more as of Jan. 1.

Members of the township board agreed Thursday to form the new St. Joseph Fire Rescue Corp., which will be under the control of township Trustee Richard Uhrick.

The trustee will later appoint board members for the corporation, said Pete Mallers, legal counsel for the township.

Uhrick is expected to announce the name of his newly appointed fire chief Wednesday Mallers said. The chief will then recruit volunteers for the department.

That new chief is not current Fire Chief Jerry Lencke, Mallers confirmed.

Lencke and Uhrick have often had a contentious relationship after the trustee announced about two years ago his intention to outsource both fire protection and EMS services. Since then, the township has contracted with Three Rivers Ambulance Authority for EMS services and eliminated all paid staff within the township’s fire and ambulance operations.

When the township department was created, it served about 40,000 residents in a 10-square-mile area, Mallers said. But Fort Wayne has annexed much of that area and now the fire department serves about 5,500, which is the trustee’s rationale for the outsourcing, he said.

“They have a big station with a lot of expensive equipment, which doesn’t make sense since Fort Wayne has several strategically placed fire stations to service those areas,” Mallers said.

Uhrick had begun to sell off some of the fire department equipment last year, infuriating some firefighters. After eliminating all paid staff, Uhrick boarded up and locked bathrooms and bedrooms used as live-in quarters by volunteer firemen in exchange for responding to overnight calls.

The new fire chief is a paid position, Mallers said, although he declined to give any figures.

Board member Barry Kunkle was alone in his vote against the measure.

“The first time I saw that contract was when I was asked to approve it,” Kunkle said. “First of all, this corporation does not exist except on paper. Secondly, we have no idea who this new chief is since they would not tell us.”

There is no proof that this corporation can deliver the services and Uhrick is the only officer, which means he would be signing on both sides of the issue, Kunkle said, adding that he had “grave concerns.”

“The township will consider anyone who has a sense of community and is dedicated to serving their community to serve in the new department,” Mallers said. “That includes current volunteers.”

But the 22 firefighters present had signed a petition saying they were not interested, Lencke said.

“As far as I know, no one in our unit took an application,” he said, “and these volunteers each have an average of 12 1/2 years of experience.

“What people don’t realize is that we serve the entire county. We are often called out to Monroeville, Grabill, Huntertown and other areas for mutual aid. If it wasn’t illegal, it’s certainly unethical.”

Faced with the department ceasing to exist at the end of the year, Lencke said one firefighter with 42 years of service “broke down and bawled like a baby.”

“We have several members who have gotten tattoos of their badge and unit numbers,” Lencke said. “These guys are dedicated.”

Uhrick had hoped to contract fire protection services from the Fort Wayne Fire Department early this year, but that fell through due to delays caused by administrative changes within the city fire department, Mallers said.

The agreement for the St. Joseph Fire Rescue Corp. is a two-year contract and will expire at the same time as Uhrick’s term as trustee on Dec. 31, 2014.

Uhrick’s daughter Sarah Gnagy is president of the three-member advisory board, and his wife, Jean Uhrick, is the deputy trustee. In addition to Kunkle, Greg Sult also sits on the board.

“They’ve got a few days to interview, train and orient the new staff to the equipment and to make sure they are fully certified,” Kunkle said. “It would take a miracle for that to happen.”

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