VERNON TOWNSHIP — Chad Abel started as Vernon Township fire chief in March 2020, coincidentally the same day state legislation died that would have provided the township with desperately needed funding to sustain fire protection and emergency medical services.
“I started with my back up against the wall,” Abel said.
Township trustee Florence May was right there with him.
“The trustee and I were looking at each other like, ‘What are we going to do?’” he recalled.
After years of having a property tax levy that didn’t give fire protection the ability to grow with its now swelling service area, the northwestern Hancock County township was operating in a deficit. May, just over a year into her term, estimated current capabilities were only financially sustainable for a couple more years at most.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck. While not welcomed by any means, it did compel the state to push back a deadline for applying to establish fire protection territories that the township was able to take advantage of.
Vernon Township is now starting to reap the benefits of its fire protection territory and the additional tax revenue that comes with it, most recently by welcoming its nine first-ever full-time firefighters who will begin in those roles this fall. The fire department will soon have two other full-time positions for training and building inspections as well. They mark a continuation of fire protection’s evolution in the township over the past couple years, which officials plan to extend further through the development of a new fire station.
While its counterparts to the south in Buck Creek and Sugar Creek townships have long been full-time fire departments, Vernon Township has only had a 24/7-staffed station since 2019, in Fortville, served by part-time and paid-per-run firefighters. Before the completion of that station that year, two formerly separate volunteer outfits provided fire protection based in Fortville and McCordsville. The McCordsville station houses fire trucks, but it can’t accommodate firefighters for extended periods of time.
Abel said six of the full-time firefighters will be company officers — a combination of captains and lieutenants — spread out among three shifts, giving the department consistent leadership each day. Three are firefighter/paramedics who will be assigned to the department’s ambulance.
“That makes sure that we’re more consistent on our delivery of EMS as well,” Abel said.
Part-timers will continue serving the town through dedicated shifts and filling in as needed.
Along with the nine new full-timers, a current part-time division chief of training will transition to full time in the coming weeks.
“It’s going to allow us to have somebody dedicated to training our firefighters and making sure that they’re up to standard,” Abel said.
The department will also add a full-time fire inspector to carry out code enforcement.
“We need somebody with this growing community that can go and do the annual inspections of commercial properties that’s required by law,” Abel said, adding it will educate business owners and decrease the risk of fire and other dangers.
For the nine full-time positions, the department ran a hiring process in early June for existing part-timers, of which there are about 65, 14 of whom applied.
“We felt we had enough potential candidates, and quality candidates, in the group that were already working for us part time that we could fill those slots,” Abel said.
The Vernon Township Fire Protection Territory Board and Vernon Township Board approved health insurance benefits for the new full-timers and their inclusion in the 1977 Police Officers’ and Firefighters’ Pension and Disability Fund administered by the Indiana Public Retirement System. They received conditional offers of employment on Friday. Physical exams required for the pension program as well as other steps will follow, and if all goes well, they’re expected to go full time in October.
The department’s full-time salary base of $55,800 matches that of Buck Creek Township’s, and both department’s pension bases match as well.
“We virtually have pay parity with Buck Creek,” Abel said. “There are a few minor differences mostly because they’ve obviously been a career fire department for so much longer.”
Greg Brewer, who represents McCordsville Town Council on the Vernon Township Fire Protection Territory Board, said it’s important to be on par with other nearby departments so that the township doesn’t become a starting point for firefighters to gain experience before leaving for more lucrative opportunities.
“I want them to understand if you’re starting here, we want you to make this your home,” Brewer said at a fire territory protection board meeting earlier this week. “And we’re going to pay you accordingly, and we’re going to have your back, and we’re going to have leadership that believes in you. … I don’t want us to short-change these people, because they’re the backbone of this community. They’re here to protect.”
Vernon Township also continues to work toward building a new 24/7 fire station in McCordsville near the southwest corner of Mt. Comfort Road and County Road 900N, where Greenfield-based Pride Investment Partners plans to develop a Leo’s Market & Eatery. The fire protection territory board voted to refer a recommendation that Fortville’s and McCordsville’s town councils will consider for the territory to take on debt not exceeding its current levy ceiling to fund the station for a maximum project cost of $7.5 million.
The township plans to continue adding full-time firefighters as funding allows as it also builds resources and upgrades equipment. Two new fire engines are expected in October.
For Abel, it all makes for a much different sensation than having his back against the wall last year.
“It feels incredible,” he said. “That said, I’ve told the candidates that are getting conditional offers and told everyone else onboard for this ride that this is not the ending. This is merely the beginning. We are now at a place where we can really start growing and developing as a fire department. This community’s been incredibly supportive of us making this transition over the last two years, and I believe they’re seeing the benefits from that now.”