By Carson Gerber
---- — When Peru Fire Chief Chris Betzner was first hired as a firefighter in the department more than 25 years ago, he was posted at the old firehouse at 12 N. Miami St.
The station was built in 1868 and was originally designed to house horse-drawn steam engines. More than 130 years later, it still was serving as the main headquarters.
It didn’t have any office space, and the entire fire department had to share one computer.
“I actually got hired in that relic,” Betzner said. “I remember sleeping right by a window, and when it snowed, you woke up with snow on your blanket.”
That all changed in 2002, when the city of Peru built a new $1.6 million fire station at 85 W. Canal St. It had plenty of office space, a training room, a small gym, a comfortable living area and a large five-bay garage to house fire engines, ladder trucks and other equipment.
That was the start of a major push to update and improve the fire department, and Betzner has kept the momentum going since taking on the role of fire chief.
In the last two years, the department purchased two new fire engines that brought the entire three-engine fleet into compliance with federal guidelines.
The department replaced a 1974 truck in 2012 after purchasing a new engine for $315,000.
Earlier this year, the department spent $350,000 on another new engine to replace the aging 1988 truck. That engine should arrive early next year from Pennsylvania. It’s being built from the ground up to meet the department’s specifications.
The department didn’t take a loan or issue bonds to buy the engines. Instead, Betzner made the purchases after setting back and saving money for years from the budget.
Not only are the engines newer and federally compliant, but they’re also a lot safer for firefighters. The 1988 truck getting replaced next year still has an open rear cab, exposing riders to the elements and making them more vulnerable to accidents.
“Our big deal here is going to these closed cabs,” Betzner said. “They’re safer. These guys are harnessed in and protected. Right now, the crews take a beating sitting back there.”
And the upgrades and improvements keep coming.
The department moved into a new Station 2 in 2011, after trading the old station with Peru Township for its building, which was later remodeled to accommodate fire engines. The old Station 2 was built in 1943 as only a two-man facility.
This year, the department purchased a 2005 ambulance that’s now housed at the central firehouse. The old 1994 ambulance went to Station 2, which had never had an ambulance. For the first time, the department has two ambulances.
In 2011, the county bought a small off-road vehicle with grant money to use on walking trails or driving into fields and woods for emergency rescues. It’s available to every fire department in the county, but it’s housed at the central fire station.
Over the last decade, the facilities and equipment at the Peru Fire Department have advanced and expanded by leaps and bounds, but its mission to serve and protect the community hasn’t changed since it was first founded as a volunteer department back in 1843.
The mission may be the same, but serving as a firefighter today requires more training and skill than ever before, Betzner said.
That’s why Peru firefighters spend every Tuesday in intensive training sessions at the station, honing their skills as emergency medical technicians, HAZMAT specialists, pump operators, engine mechanics and other specialized abilities every firefighter has to have.
They need to know it all, because they have to do it all.
“Every job that we do here, we rotate,” Betzner said. “You might go from running the fire engine one day, to driving the ambulance the next, and then into the control center after that.”
With all the roles they serve, it takes years before new firefighters learn the ins and outs to do the job well.
“For two to three years, you’re just going to follow around the other guys like a puppy dog,” Betzner said. “Even if you’re doing the training, you still don’t have any real experience. It’s going to take a while before we feel comfortable sending you out to drive the engine.”
Then there’s the not-so-exciting parts of the gig — keeping the fire stations clean, doing yard work, scrubbing down the bathrooms and cooking meals.
It’s all part of a day’s work for a Peru firefighter. A 10-man crew holds down the station every day from 7 a.m. to 7 a.m. the next day, doing whatever needs to be done — saving lives, putting out fires or cleaning the bed sheets.
“When things need painted, we paint,” Betzner said. “When something needs fixed, we fix it. That’s the neat thing here. We have guys with all kinds of talents, and everyone is willing to help.”
And the cooking part? It’s a bigger deal than you might think. Betzner said all firefighters take turns making meals for their crew during their 24-hour shift at the station. If you serve up something less than appetizing, you’d better expect to hear about it.
“If you don’t know how to cook, they’re not very nice,” he said. “They’re kind of hard on you. Firemen are supposed to be good cooks, so if you throw something at them that’s not edible, they’re still ribbing you about it 10 years later. You learn to cook real fast.”
Peru firefighters may serve a hodgepodge of roles, but it’s all for one purpose — being ready, prepared and equipped to hit the road when duty calls.
Betzner said they make on average 1,250 runs a year, and around 80 percent of those runs are medical in nature. That’s why out of 30 firemen who work in the department, 22 are EMTs.
“Fires are down because of code enforcement and fire prevention awareness,” he said “Talk to any fire department, and they’ll tell you most of what they do is medical in nature.”
Newer fire engines, ambulances and stations all help to make firefighters’ responses quicker and more efficient, but in the end it’s the teamwork that really matters in emergency situations. And Betzner said the Peru Fire Department has plenty of that.
“Truly, when the bells go off, these guys come together and get the job done,” he said. “They all have each other’s back.”
Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.