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St. Joseph fire crew’s overhaul on track: Chief

– The new St. Joseph Township Fire Rescue Corp. has 20 certified firefighters and EMTs, Fire Chief Timothy Jones said Thursday.

He has five more in training and 10 applicants yet to interview.

“It’s going very well,” Jones said of the new group formed Jan.1. “We are busy working on a lot of projects.”

The rancor between former Fire Chief Jerry Lencke, some of the volunteer firefighters and St. Joseph Township Trustee Richard Uhrick created an atmosphere of distrust, which resulted in Uhrick hiring off-duty policemen as guards to oversee the transition Dec. 31.

The situation began about two years ago when Uhrick announced 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 last year eliminated all paid staff within the township’s fire and ambulance operations.

Last month, Uhrick announced he would disband the 60-year-old St. Joseph Fire Department by the end of the year and would create a new fire rescue corporation that would be under the control of a five-member board, which includes Uhrick.

All of the new corporation members are volunteers except Jones, who will be paid $42,000 a year, Uhrick said.

“He is a paid chief,” Uhrick said. “If he does not perform, he could be fired.”

Jones was with the old fire department for more than 25 years but left on his own accord in September. Five of the current volunteers also worked for the former department, Jones said.

Jones and Uhrick said they have been amazed by the caliber of applicants they have received.

“A lot of the applicants were very qualified but new to the area,” Jones said. “All they’ve seen for the last two years is negative publicity, and they wanted nothing to do with it.”

“These people are excellent, experienced and very skilled,” Uhrick said.

All of his volunteers are certified firefighters or EMTs, and some are certified as both, Jones said.

A fully staffed force would be about 40 volunteers, Uhrick said.

Since the first of the year, the fire department has been called on six medical calls and eight fire runs, and has arrived at the scene of each within three or four minutes, Jones said.

The unit is in the midst of several projects, including installing a tracking system for equipment and gear, changing former dormitories into offices for division chiefs and various remodeling jobs, he said.

The department was able to return and upgrade about $30,000 worth of unopened hand-held and mobile radios received almost a year ago, Jones said.

He said he had no idea why the radios – bought with a grant – had been left to gather dust.

There is no communication or personality problem with Uhrick, a comment often heard from former volunteers, Jones said.

“We talk every day, sometimes multiple times,” he said. “We have people signing up for shifts, working on projects, just wanting to spend time with each other and help finish the projects. It’s a very positive place.”

In addition to Uhrick, other fire corporation board members include Jeff Bowser, Steve Foos, Dave Fuller and Adam Welch.

The board is required to meet at least once a year but in the formative stage will probably meet once a month, Uhrick said.

When the township department was created, it served about 40,000 residents, but Fort Wayne has annexed much of the area. The department now serves about 5,500 in the unincorporated areas.

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