HOPE — Nowhere was the spirit of camaraderie more evident than when nine Bartholomew County fire departments joined forces — all for the benefit of one, their comrades in Hope.

About 65 firefighting volunteers worked during a countywide fish fry Saturday at Hauser Junior/Senior High School, serving nearly 3,000 people and bringing in an estimated $25,000, event treasurer Charlie DeWeese said.

“Now that’s before expenses, but a lot of items such as desserts and buns were donated,” DeWeese said. “So we’re hopeful we can hand over a pretty big check.”

Behind the school, 15 firefighters were busy preparing the main course with eight broilers or working to thaw frozen fish and wheel it down the halls of the school for preparation.

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During peak times, about 22 volunteers were hustling about in the school kitchen, making sure there were also plenty of hot dogs, baked beans, desserts and drinks available.

All of them were working to raise money needed by Hope firefighters for training, new equipment and other expenses.

Through mid-October, the department’s primary source of income this year was from an annual $50,000 contract with the trustee’s office to provide fire-protection services throughout Hawcreek Township.

An annual fire-protection agreement for $69,000 with the town of Hope has been held up by elected officials reluctant to sign a formal contract until a lawsuit filed against the fire department by a Madison-based construction firm is resolved.

A memo of understanding with the town approved Oct. 19 now is providing $51,750 reimbursement for past expenses, as well as up to $5,750 a month for the remainder of this year for future department expenses. But the town council stipulated that the money cannot be used to pay expenses related to an uncompleted new fire station or the $189,000 lawsuit filed against the department by its building contractor.

While Saturday’s event was the first time in more than 40 years that Hope Fire Chief Bruce Neal has seen such a collaborative event for the benefit of one department, he said he realized something special was brewing days before the fundraiser.

For example, a woman handed him a $200 check while he was in the Hope Post Office last week, Neal said. Several smaller contributions came in from as far away as Missouri, he said.

During the fish fry, donation boots positioned next to two cash registers in the Hauser cafeteria were being constantly stuffed with cash, DeWeese said.

“I’m just shaking my head, wondering if this is really happening,” Neal said. “I’m very, very humbled.”

Shortly before 1 p.m. Saturday, two hours into the event, Hope assistant fire chief Randy Woods said the crowd stretched across the Hauser cafeteria and flowed out into the hallways.

Between 75 and 100 people were in line at any given time during the first three hours. Similar crowds showed up during the dinner hour, DeWeese said.

“We have a lot of out-of-towners, and many have traveled quite a distance,” Woods said. “They know Hope has one of the oldest fire departments in the county and want to make sure we continue.”

Pulling together

Political tensions, such as those that emerged between the firefighters and the Hope Town Council early this year, are not that unusual in small towns, said Columbus Fire Chief Dave Allmon, who once lived in Hope and currently lives near Clifford.“When people start choosing sides, there gets to be an atmosphere where nobody is looking at the big picture,” Allmon said. “But I think the people are coming to the realization that it’s hard to find volunteer firefighters. It’s even harder to find them with EMT training. So at some point, everyone has to come to the table and figure out what’s best for the community.”Hope resident Joyce Dempsey said she never understood the politics that were causing such a divide in her community.

“But I do know that if you’ve ever needed a fireman, you really appreciate them,” Dempsey said. “And if we lost our fire department, what would we do? They are lifesavers.”

The son of Bartholomew County Sheriff Matt Myers explained his support of the event.

“If I needed help, I wouldn’t want just one fire department. I’d want them all to show up,” said J.D. Myers, 13. “So why should anyone like just one department? We should like them all.”

His father said he came to the same conclusion after attending several meetings earlier this year throughout the county.

“The communities we serve want public safety working together,” Sheriff Myers said. “If we all work together and we’re a team, it benefits them.”

“Our communities are supporting us because they know we exist to help them,” Clifford Fire Chief Charlie Moore said.

While those reasons illustrate what motivated residents to attend the event, it doesn’t explain what motivated nine departments to work together for Hope’s benefit.

The reasons were both practical and emotional, said Roger Johnson, a former Indiana fire marshal who has been associated with Bartholomew County firefighters for 50 years since his 1963 graduation from Hauser High School.

At the practical level, a lack of funding means firefighters can’t do their jobs effectively and safely, which greatly increases the odds one of them will go down while working with other departments, Johnson said.

“That puts everyone at risk, because now we have to go in and rescue that person, as well as fight the fire,” Johnson said. “They are then putting their lives in double jeopardy.”

The emotional reason can be traced to the brotherhood shared among firefighters throughout the world, several fire chiefs in attendance agreed.

That sense of family explains why many firefighters prefer to call the place they spend much of their time together as a firehouse rather than fire station, Neal said.

“Whether you are one of the 343 that died on 9/11 or a member of the Hope Fire Department, you are part of that family,” Allmon said.

Although the tax-supported Columbus Fire Department is expected to have a $9.2 million budget next year, Allmon recalls how his professional units found themselves relying on water supplied by rural departments during a Nov. 2 barn fire on County Road 450S.

“That’s the way we work,” Allmon said. “No matter whether it’s an all-volunteer or all-professional department, there is always that we-have-your-back feeling.”

It wasn’t just firefighters who worked the event.

Several members of Boy Scout Troop 585, which meets at the Southwest Fire Department in Ogilville, performed chores such as clearing tables and helping elderly patrons.

As he was picking up trash from tables, Jasiah Marshall, 12, noted that since both firefighters and Boy Scouts want to be good citizens and help their communities, they share a common interest.

“The only difference I see is that we don’t go into burning buildings,” the Central Middle School student said. “We’ll leave that to them.”

Why volunteer?

For many people, it’s difficult to understand why volunteer firefighters would offer to put their lives on the line, as well as invest time and expenses to assume a responsibility that doesn’t pay anything.

According to a July 2012 article on the Firefighter Nation website, the most common reasons cited by new recruits include:

  • To learn new skills.
  • To fulfill a family tradition
  • Interest in public safety as a potential career field.
  • To be a part of a team.
  • To gain experience.
  • To build a resume.
  • To pursue firefighting as a career field.

But veteran firefighters are more prone to cite an intangible that comes with few other experiences: Their fellow volunteers become their second family, the article stated.

Brotherhood is what fuels much of the meaning behind being a volunteer firefighter, according to Firefighter Nation.

By the numbers

$25,000: Amount raised before expenses at fish fry to benefit Hope Volunteer Fire Department

3,000: Attendance Saturday at Hauser Junior/Senior High School.

65: Number of volunteer firefighters who worked at event.

9: Number of participating fire departments in Bartholomew County who helped comrades in Hope:  Hartsville, Clay Township, Elizabethtown, German Township, Clifford, Southwest Fire, Harrison Township, Wayne Township and Columbus Township.

Source: Charlie DeWeese, treasurer for Saturday’s countywide fish fry to raise money for the Hope Volunteer Fire Department.

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.