LAKES OF THE FOUR SEASONS — It’s a special year for Lakes of Four Seasons Volunteer Fire Department, a force that has consecutively expanded in its coverage and calls to service.
The department is celebrating 50 years as a volunteer force.
“Fifty years is a pretty remarkable milestone,” said LOFS Fire Chief Jason Gikas, who started with the department as cadet in 1994 when he was 14 years old.
The force, with stations located in the Town of Winfield at the Winfield Government Center and West Porter Township on the south boundary of Lakes of the Four Seasons, is made up of 33 volunteer firefighters and one paid staffed Advanced Life Support (ALS) ambulance, which includes LOFS Fire staff and personnel from neighboring fire and EMS departments.
LOFS Fire’s jurisdiction covers nearly 33 miles of both Lake and Porter counties, including the Lakes of the Four Seasons community, town of Winfield, Winfield Township and the West Porter Township.
When the force was incorporated in 1969, it was a “bucket brigade” made up of volunteers who responded to fires originally in their own vehicles without official firefighting equipment.
“It was members of Four Seasons that started it all literally with their own money. A couple guys bought a firetruck and said, ‘We are starting a fire department,’” Gikas said. “When they started, they only responded in the (Four) Seasons. If they hadn’t started this department, the Lake County side would have been waiting for Crown Point, and Porter County side would have been waiting for Boone Grove.
“A lot has changed and our area has definitely grown from where we were originally.”
An increased need
When Gikas started with LOFS Fire 25 years ago, the department was responding to fewer than 100 calls to service. Over the years, that number only has continued to increase, but the number of firefighters hasn’t.
“This is really starting to put a drain on people,” Gikas said. “When you consider the state of the volunteer fire service in general, we’re constantly looking for new members. It takes a lot of members to do what we do because it takes a lot of time.”
Last year LOFS Fire responded to 1,303 calls, 70 percent of which were EMS.
The department received certification as an ALS provider and began providing Emergency 911 ambulance services in January 1999. The ambulance staffed one part-time firefighter/EMT and one firefighter/paramedic — a number that hasn’t changed in 20 years.
LOFS Fire Lt. Kevin Heerema said the department currently has three ALS-certified ambulances that are rotated with the current on-duty crew. Over the last year-and-a-half, the fire force has been trying to add two more day-time paid staff to bring the total up to four members.
“This would guarantee that we have two ambulances staffed 24 hours a day. With our call volume the way it is, we are past the point of needing this,” Heerema said, adding that the force often gets hit with two calls in a row, causing longer response times.
“Ultimately, long-term we are going to have to need full-time people.”
LOFS Fire also is looking for support to fund another staffed ambulance this year.
Making it happen
It all lies in the town of Winfield’s hands now.
The LOFS Fire board of directors will negotiate a new contract for 2019 with the Town Council this week.
While he would not specify an amount, Gikas said the board is asking for an increase in department funding to specifically “fund another staffed ambulance with one paramedic and one EMT, 24 hours a day.”
Rick Anderson, Winfield clerk-treasurer, said the town paid $143,500 to LOFS Fire last year for contracted services in addition to $31,847.22, which came from a separate Cumulative Fire Fund that provides funding for equipment.
If the council approves, Heerema said he is confident the fire force would quickly find the staff for the second ambulance.
“If it is to go 24/7, I would see no problem with having it all done within a few months,” he said. “A lot of career guys in the area like to have — almost essentially need to have — a part-time job. To do 12-hour shifts at a time would work well.”
Regardless of what happens, Gikas said the department’s commitment to the job and community will stay the same.
“Everyone here at the department volunteers," he said. "We love what we do."