Chief recalls strides made in fighting fires

Bob Fritch

Photo by Clarke Davis
Rock Creek Fire Chief Bob Fritch


by Clarke Davis
There is someone on duty eight hours a day Monday through Friday at the Rock Creek Township Fire Station in Meriden.
It’s the daytime hours during the week when the volunteer department is the most shorthanded, so for the past two years someone has been paid to be at the station to improve response time.
Fire Chief Robert “Bob” Fritch believes it has been helpful in both fire and medical response time.
“The first year we had someone here three days a week, now it’s all week,” he said.
At night and weekends is when the department can count on most of its manpower to be available. The department has a 20-member roster but it has been a very busy department.
The total calls in 2015 were 315, just 60 calls shy of averaging one a day.
“It’s the grass fires that keep us busy, mostly in the spring,” he said. “Sometimes we’ll have two or three going at the same time. They just get out of hand.”
March is the busy month and the chief said most landowners all want to burn at the same time.
Landowners are required to get a burn permit through the local station each year and then notify the local district and Jefferson County the day they intend to burn.
There are currently seven department members who rotate manning the department on weekdays. The pay is $10 an hour and while on duty they work to keep the equipment in good condition and the fire station in proper order.
Budget wise, the chief said total wages, including those paid to the volunteers to make runs and attend the monthly meeting, come in under $25,000 a year.
Fritch’s days of being a firefighter go back to the late 1970s when there were two departments, one for the city and one for the township. Each had a truck and the same people fought the fires.
Former Meriden mayor Phil Morrell asked Fritch to be the fire chief for the city in 1979. David Murdie was the township chief. When the two merged to become a fire district in the early 1980s, Fritch became the chief for the new department.
Fritch remembers one of the first calls to a scene of an accident near Muddy Creek on K-4.
Derrill Campbell joined Fritch in his personal pickup and they raced to the scene only to find a patch of ice on the roadway just when they arrived.
“We were headed straight for a Highway Patrol car when we hit a dry patch and stopped,” he said. “I’ve never forgotten that one.”
Thinking back, the chief is able to see how many improvements have come along. A lot of the equipment in the early days was donated by the Kansas Foresty Service and consisted of old World War II trucks and Jeeps. Most departments have now modernized with newer tankers and pumpers.
The biggest change, he said, has come through forming the Jefferson County Firefighters Association and developing a mutual aid pact whereby all the neighboring fire districts help each other out.
All the neighboring districts are alerted for a structure fire and they are always on call if a district has a problem with a grass fire or is understaffed.
The Rock Creek district covers 66 square miles and takes in west Fairview Township, a township that was split by Perry Lake.
The need for help is apparent when recalling two major fires in Meriden, the former Co-op gas station that had become a tire shop and more recently, the plant that manufactured kitchen cabinets.
“We poured 70,000 gallons of water on that cabinet shop fire and never ran out,” Fritch said. “That’s how important a tanker shuttle is when you have that many departments working to bring you water.”
Other advances have included better communication equipment and an end to the CB radios and the addressing system that gives precise locations through the 911 emergency system.
The department recently acquired a 1,000-gallon pumper to pair up with two tanker-pumpers, each of which carries 2,500 gallons of water.
The department underwent an ISO audit for insurance rating purposes a month ago, the first time in seven years. With the department’s newer equipment the rating for Lake Ridge Estates dropped from 6 to 4 and it went from 5 to 4 for the city of Meriden.
He said the better ratings came with  the department’s ability to haul more water and the mutual aid pact that creates a tanker shuttle.
“My wife calls this my home away from home,” he said. He described some days as very long after fighting grass fires and then one can’t go home until everything is put away and ready to go again.
“But I’ve got some great help . . . if you don’t have good help you don’t have anything. There been some really good people serve the community and we have a good crew now,” he said.
Fritch, 73 (his birthday was Wednesday), retired four years ago after 44 years at Innovia, formerly Dupont, a Tecumseh plant that manufactures cellophone. But recently he’s been called back to work a couple days a week to help train new people. He also serves as treasurer on the township board, an office he’s held for 36 years.
He and his wife, Sharon, a retiree from the former State Bank of Meriden, are Centralia natives where they were high school sweethearts. They have a son, Matt, who has been on the department since he was 16, and a daughter, Michelle Bell.
Matt had a career with Hallmark Cards until the company left Topeka. He is now an emergency medical technician for the Jefferson County Ambulance Service. Michelle is a licensed practical nurse employed by Cotton-O’Neil medical clinics.
They have five granddaughters and two great-grandsons and two great-granddaughters.
With almost 40 years of firefighting under his belt, is the chief growing tired?
“It got in my blood and I just enjoy doing it,” he said. “I guess I’ll just keep on going as long as my health permits it or until they kick me out.”

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Posted by on Mar 9 2016. Filed under Featured, The Vindicator. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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