The eight-member volunteer department happened to be planing a training exercise when the alarm came in at 7:34 p.m.
But the department’s successful response—limiting damage to a small portion of the building contents—is better attributed to an intensive effort to recreate an effective department that had all but died out five years ago.
“When we got started on this project—looking for people and equipment, and finding out what we needed to do and learn—basically we were starting over,” said Fred Sheridan, who has been a key player in the resurgence as assistant fire chief and a member of the Lehigh City Council.
At its lowest point, the department essentially existed in name only.
“We had one truck that worked—but nobody knew how to use it,” Sheridan said. We had virtually no equipment and no paperwork.”
And, for the record, the department had only one active volunteer: Louis Coyle, veteran Lehigh resident.
Today, the department has eight trained volunteers on the roster, plus an additional member who just signed on. The fleet of response vehicles has expanded to three trucks, and the department has added additional hose, nozzles and other equipment.
Brian Unrau heads the effort as department chief.
“We’re working really hard as a team to get things built back up so we can better serve the area around Lehigh,” Sheridan said.
In regard to recruiting personnel, Coyle deserves a lot of the credit.
“Whenever somebody young and fit moves to town, he’s on their doorstep within a week, asking them if they’d like to be on our fire department,” Sheridan said. “We’ve assembled a pretty good group of guys that way.”
Sheridan was recruited by Coyle within a month of moving to Lehigh. He has been with the department since May 2004 and is currently in his third year as a city council member.
Sheridan said his connection with the council has been beneficial.
“On the council we’ve all got some civic things that we’re in charge of,” he said. “For the past few years I’ve been in charge of the fire department, as far as the administrative end of it.
“It really helped, because by learning what I needed to do at the fire department I knew where we were deficient and what to address first.
“That helped me to tell the council this is what we need to do, and these are my goals.”
The rebuilding process has been gradual.
“We started training and learning what we actually needed to do,” Sheridan said. “Then we looked at what we could do, and kind of went from there.”
One thing the department needed was another truck to go with the 1963 Class A pumper it already possessed. In the process of looking for one, the council found two: a 1975 Class A pumper acquired from the city of Hoisington, and a 2.5-ton six-by-six truck through the Kansas Forest Service equipped for grass fires as well as serving as a tanker truck.
“The forestry truck was free,” Sheridan said. “They provide apparatus to rural fire departments to supplement fire protection. It still belongs to them, but we’re responsible for the maintenance and equipment on the truck. It’s a great deal.”
Emphasis on training
Another element of the department’s resurrgence has been training. The volunteers have attended seminars and Firefighter I training. Sheridan has completed Firefighter II, including hazardous material training.
“We do training three times a month,” he said. “We’ve got a couple of nights where we do classroom things, then one Saturday a month we actually get the trucks out, drop line on the ground and do the hands-on things.”
Sheridan said Lincolnville Fire Chief Lester Kaiser and Hillsboro Fire Chief Ben Steketee have been instrumental in the training process.
“We’ve gotten a lot of help from them,” he said. “Right now our training is internal—and everything we can get from outside sources. It’s still in process.”
The hard work is paying off, in the observation of Steketee, whose department from Hillsboro responded to the fire on Thursday night as part of a mutual-aid agreement.
“It was one of those fires where, in a few more minutes, we would have had a fully involved structure with everything being lost,” Steketee said. “The Lehigh Fire Department acted quickly and decisively and safely, and got it knocked down.
“If it had been like it has been in years past, when the (Lehigh) fire department was not viable and had to wait for us to get there, we would have had a lost structure.
“So kudos to the Lehigh Fire Department for the training and the work they’ve done on their equipment.”
Room for improvement
Sheridan is pleased with the progress Lehigh’s department has made, but he realizes it will need to continually upgrade equipment and expand the roster of volunteers. He hopes to have 15 on the list someday.
“It’s helped make our community safer,” Sheridan said of the department’s progress so far. “Recently we were able to lower our fire-protection rating from a 10—which is no protection—to a 9. My goal is to get the city down to a 7 or a 6, but we’re going to need more water supply to do that.
“It’s helped to lower insurance rates for people who live in town.”
Sheridan said the Lehigh community has taken note of the improvement.
“A lot of individuals have stated it’s probably the best fire department Lehigh’s ever had in the history of the city,” he said. “But we’re looking to get better yet. Everything we can do to improve is going to help the whole.”
The recent improvements have turned out to be timely as well as effective.
“I don’t know how long it’s been since Lehigh’s had a string of structure fires, but I’ve heard it’s been 20-plus years—we’ve had two in the last 41⁄2 months,” Sheridan said. “I’m pretty confident in saying five years ago there would have been a lot more loss of property because Lehigh’s fire department would not have been able to get there quickly and effectively knock it down before it got bad.”
Sheridan still has his eye on the future, though.
“I just want to keep getting better,” he said. “The better we are, the more we’ll be able to help others and the safer our community will be.
“And that’s the whole purpose of our fire department—to ensure the safety of the citizens.”
Hillsboro-Lehigh tie sees changes
The effort to provide fire protection for the Lehigh community has involved the Hillsboro Fire Department in various ways over the years.
In 2002, the Hillsboro Fire Department had been assigned by the county to provide fire protection for Lehigh. In January 2004, the Lehigh and Hillsboro city councils approved a contract that would essentially unify the two departments, with Hillsboro covering fire protection, record keeping, vehicle maintenance and other “reasonable services” for a fee of $4,000 a year.
The arrangement was well intended, but “fizzled out” as various issues arose.
“There’s been some political disagreements between the departments occasionally,” said Hillsboro Fire Chief Ben Steketee. “But I want to point out that when the chips are down and there’s a fire, all that stuff goes completely by the wayside, and we all work together.
“We’re used to working together, and we we’ve trained together lots of times.”
Fred Sheridan, assistant chief at Lehigh, agrees the current relationship is healthy.
“It is a reassuring thing to know that we have another department on its way right off the bat,” he said. “We were able to get there quickly and effectively for knock down (at last week’s fire). But it’s nice to have Hillsboro show up with the extra manpower and extra trucks in case we need help.
“Hillsboro’s got a good department,” Sheridan added. “They’re fast, they’re effective. We value their help.”