Did you know that in 2013, there were 1,240,000 fires reported in the United States? Did you know that fires caused 3,240 civilian deaths, 15,925 civilian injuries, and $11.5 billion in property damage, and had fire departments responding to a home fire every 85 seconds? These are just a few of several staggering statistics that were learned at the Portage Fire Department Open House on Saturday afternoon.
Held at their headquarters, 3401 Swanson Rd., Portage, firefighters and their canine partners shared information and demonstrations to the public regarding fire safety and prevention. As a kick-off to National Fire Prevention Week beginning October 5th, the open house was held to raise public awareness of the dangers of fires, how to prevent them, and how to safely react in the midst of them. This year's theme for the week is, "Smoke Alarms Save Lives: Test Yours Every Month."
Fire Prevention Week was established to commemorate the Great Chicago Fire, the tragic 1871 inferno that killed more than 250 people, left 100,000 homeless, destroyed more than 17,400 structures and burned more than 2,000 acres. The fire began on October 8, but continued into and did most of its damage on October 9, 1871.
Tom Fieffer, Portage Fire Chief, shared that they just finished the departments 2 weeks of fire prevention training and safety and the open house served as the culmination. They began hosting the fire prevention open house when the station was built 14 years ago and continue to do it annually. "What makes our Portage Fire Department great is the all the services we offer, including dive rescue. We dedicate a lot to that because we cover Lake Michigan." Of the 62 person firefighting crew, all of whom are certified EMT's, 46 are Paramedics. All of their apparatus is ALS (Advanced Life Support) certified. "The goal for the next 10 years is that all our crew are paramedics."
Smokey the Bear and the Department mascot, Sparky, made an appearance to entertain and teach the children (and some adults) about the dangers of fire. Not to be outdone, "Bosco", the arson dog (one of only 3 in the state), and his handler, Lt. Jeremy Himan, were present and demonstrated Bosco's amazing skills at sniffing out accelerants. Bosco's incredible skills don't end there, not only has his extremely keen sense of smell led him to an occasional court appearance, he is also responsible for 9 arson arrests in the area. At first glance, he would seem just an ordinary black labrador, that is, until he puts on his work uniform. Then, like any action hero, he goes into "work" mode. During the demonstration, Lt. Himan hid a small block of accelerant laced wood. Bosco was then instructed to find it. He searched the area, found the wood, then sat on it indicating that he had found it. An incredible sight to see!
Bosco lives with Lt. Himan and his family and trains 3 times a week. "At home he's just a normal dog until I put on his red harness and give him his instruction. He then knows it's time to work." said Himan. Bosco and his partner have worked together for 5 years and have completed over 1300 searches over the region and works regularly with the State Fire Marshall.
As adults enjoyed the refreshments and the comradery, the children were given the opportunity, with the assistance of the firefighters, to have a "hands-on" experience as they climbed aboard the fire truck and ambulance to see and touch the many buttons, gadgets, fire hoses, and learn their purpose. A long lined awaited their turn to take a ride up in the air on the bucket truck. Meanwhile, other children chose to try on firefighter gear and tour Edith (Exit Drills In The Home), a traveling trailer exhibit used to teach fire safety and response.
Chris Kender, Division Chief of Inspection and Prevention for the department, spends many hours per week teaching fire safety and prevention to schools across the Portage area. "I think it's important to teach children about fire prevention and safety, and what to do in case of a fire at school or at home."
An exhibit by the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Fire Management Office provided information about the prescribed fire program. "We burn on our terms instead of nature's." said Micah Bell, Fire Prevention Specialist, when describing the controlled burns they oversee. The controlled burns help prevent wildfires and reduces hazardous fuel accumulation. "Just last year, we had an event where a wildfire was started in an area where we had previously burned, and because of that, instead of it burning 100 acres it only burned 1/4 acre."
Barnabas, Isaiah, and Tabitha, Comfort Dogs at the Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Portage, along with Tim Engel, Loraine Giertz, and Dan Fulkerson their handlers and trainer, were in attendance showing love and affection for, and welcomed the many gestures of affection given them. " We take our dogs to nursing homes, schools and hospitals. We also respond to crisis and disasters across the country. These guys are part of a group of golden retrievers that cover 16 states." Barnabas and Isaiah were present to offer comfort during the tragedy at Sandy Hook, Newtown, CT. Isaiah also offered comfort to many after the bombings in Boston, MA.
Along with fire suppression and EMS Services, the Portage Fire Department also offers its' citizens services including, Fire Investigation, K-9 Bosco, fire and EMS Instructions to public and private sectors, Water Rescue, Specialized SWAT Medics, Honor and Color Guard, and Emergency Management.
As guests left the festivities, many had gained a new found knowledge and awareness about fire statistics, prevention,and safety; The ultimate reason for the event!
We are grateful to these everyday heroes at the Portage Fire Department for their dedication and tireless efforts 24/7, to make our community a better, safer place to live.