NORTH VERNON — The North Vernon Fire Department’s efforts to improve efficiency and do the best job possible meeting the needs of the community have resulted some historic changes.

For the first time in the department’s history, it has full-time firefighters. Four were hired recently, including the first female firefighter.

Curtis Burton, Aaron Poole, Tyler Morris and Gloria Banister have joined 15 volunteers to answer more than 600 emergency calls the department is expected to answer this year.

“We have always relied on our volunteer firefighters, and we still desperately need them. The full-timers will not replace the need for volunteers, but they will add to the overall efficiency of the department,” Fire Chief Michael Cole said.

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North Vernon Fire Department provides fire, emergency rescue, hazardous material and other responses to more than 9,000 residents in a 43.4-square-mile area, and backup support to surrounding counties.

Cole, who came to the department as chief in 2016, is making changes in an effort to upgrade the insurance service office (ISO) rating of the department and the community it serves, said Deputy Chief Rick McGill, who previously served as chief.

“What Mike is trying to do here is commendable,” McGill said.

Using the criteria of the Public Protection Classification Program, ISO ratings are given to communities across the nation based on a community’s ability to control fire risks. Property values and insurance rates are effected by ISO ratings. The ratings are assigned on a scale of one to 10, with one being the best and 10 the worst. The conditions and efficiency of fire departments are a major consideration in an ISO rating.

The North Vernon area currently has an ISO rating of five on the scale.

“Five is not bad for a community of this size, but Mike just missed a four by a couple of points. Moving to a rating of four could save families and businesses hundreds of dollars on their insurance bills. I think he’ll make it next time,” McGill said.

Cole said he believes more full-time firefighters will add to the efficiency of the department, but added that he is hopeful more residents will become volunteer firefighters.

“It’s getting harder and harder to find volunteers. We demand a lot. Volunteers have to complete training and pass the same tests as the full-time firefighters, and it doesn’t pay financially,” Cole said.

Banister, a certified emergency medical technician and first responder, also served as a volunteer firefighter for Montgomery Township for several years.

Banister smiled and rolled her eyes a bit when asked how it feels to be a full-time firefighter.

“I don’t notice any difference except I am at the station waiting for an emergency call instead of being at home and waiting for a call. And, of course, eventually there will be a paycheck,” she said.

Morris said he will continue to serve as a volunteer firefighter at Scipio-Geneva Fire Rescue even though he has been hired full-time at North Vernon Fire Department.

“Volunteers give up a lot to be firefighters. They do it because they want to help people and their community,” he said.

Morris added that he read that 75 percent of the nation’s firefighters are volunteers.

Hiring, training and coordinating personnel is not Cole’s only concern for improving North Vernon’s fire department or its ISO rating. Equipment also is a challenge.

The department’s rescue truck recently died after more than 20 years of transporting life-saving equipment to accidents and hazardous materials scenes.

“We still have the equipment, but the truck is done and we will need a grant to get a new one,” Cole said.

Another challenge for Cole is the acquisition of a new 102-foot ladder truck. The department’s ladder truck has a reach of only 95 feet and new buildings in North Vernon’s industrial complex will require a ladder of 102 feet to meet new fire risks.

“It’s a puzzle. And, like a puzzle, you need all the pieces of the puzzle to fit together to make the right picture,” Cole said.

The help of local elected officials and the county’s local option income tax have helped improvement efforts, he added.