Writer // Janelle Morrison
Photography // Courtesy of ZFD, Dave Enterkin, InVision Photography and CSO Architects and SullivanMunce Cultural Center
Twenty years ago, the Zionsville Fire Department (ZFD) was an all-volunteer department made up of dedicated volunteers who worked for or in town. It was originally located at 85 E. Cedar St. in what is now Zionsville Lighting Center and zWORKS. It wasn’t until later in 1997 that ZFD moved to its new fire station located at 100 Ford Rd. across from Boone Village.
The town’s fire department was responding to the growing population and began to procure more custom and industrialized fire trucks, much like the ones owned by neighboring city departments. Prior to moving to the current headquarters at Station 91 on Ford Road, the fire trucks couldn’t fit in the old station and were parked in three separate locations throughout the Village. ZFD parked some of its trucks at the old Zionsville Street Department offices that were once located next to what is the Lemon Bar today. Additional trucks were parked at an ambulance building that was located behind Akard True Value Hardware in Boone Village.
“Prior to our move, we didn’t have any firefighters housed at the station,” explained Chief James VanGorder, ZFD. “Back then, everyone came from their homes or jobs when called to an emergency and had blue lights on top of their cars. The tornado sirens, as we know them today, would sound, and that would signify that there was either a tornado or that there was an emergency call and the firefighters needed to listen to their pager or come directly to the fire station. Most of them carried very large antiquated bricks on their hips to get notification of an emergency.”
VanGorder, a lifelong resident of Zionsville, joined the department in 1992 and was elected chief by the members of the volunteer department in 1996.
“We celebrated in 1997 when we moved to the new Fire Station 91. That was a new day for our department. It had some sleeping quarters. It had training room space, and we could house all of our emergency equipment in one area. There was an upgrade in our communications system. We had an upgraded generator and all of the things that we take for granted today. Those upgrades, at that time, were earth-shattering advancements for where we were.”
VanGorder explained that the rules of the organization, at that time, required that there be no more than 40 members of the department. That was one of the antiquated things that, shortly thereafter, were changed to allow a few more volunteers.
“Before 2000, the department was 40 members. The town staff from the Street Department and Wastewater and volunteers who lived and worked in town were covering the daily needs of the department. We were going on about 500 calls a year; everything from fires, car accidents and various medical emergencies. At that time, we were the Basic Life Support (BLS) non-transport providers. We had a few firefighters that were trained in first aid and maybe a handful that were trained Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs). That was really about it.”
The chief shared that the next big shift in the department occurred between the years 2000 and 2006 amidst the rapid growth of the town’s population. ZFD’s runs were increasing as a result.
“Between 2000 and 2006, the fire department began a part-time program called the Stand-By Program,” VanGorder said. “The town hired some of the volunteer firefighters and paid them an hourly wage to staff the fire station, primarily to help the Street and Wastewater Department workers so that they could do their town-related jobs.”
As the years went on, ZFD was hiring more firefighters and saw that its response time was much improved. In 2003, after a difficult budget process, VanGorder met with the town’s elected officials and expressed the desire to present the town council with a strategic plan that would take the department to the next level and increase its staff. In 2004, ZFD’s strategic plan was drafted. It was adopted and implemented in late 2004/early 2005. In this plan, it outlined a transition plan for the volunteer fire department to go to a full-time department.
“In 2007, we created what is known as a fire territory and hired our first full-time firefighters,” VanGorder said. “We hired 17 full-time firefighters and one administrative assistant. In the same year, the ZFD started its Advanced Life Support effort, and we took over all of the ambulatory service needs of the community and became a fire department-based ambulance service as opposed to a hospital-based ambulance service.”
ZFD opened Station 93, which neighbors Zionsville West Middle School, as a response to the continuing growth of the community that was then expanding west towards I-65.
“The first reorganization of the town took place in 2010,” VanGorder recalled. “It really didn’t change much for the department because we had always served this larger portion of Zionsville. What did affect us was the economic downturn that began in 2008. From 2012 until last year, we had not been able to hire additional firefighters to adequately fill the department as a result of the economic downturn. With the passing of the LIT Tax, a public safety income tax, in 2016, we were able to hire additional staff at the levels that we were used to prior to the downturn.”
VanGorder continued, “In 2015, the second reorganization of the town occurred, and we added Perry Township, which had its own separate nonprofit volunteer fire department. During the reorganization, we were very sensitive to that and approached Perry Townships volunteer fire chief and staff with the notion that it was not a takeover attempt but that we intended this to work as a partnership. We’re continuing to work with the Perry Township Fire Department and the residents, under the direction of Mayor Haak, in terms of how we continue to meet those needs going forward.”
Along with the growing population, ZFD has adapted to advancing technology in its industry. VanGorder explained the most unique advancements have been made in the medical field. “In the first 10 years of my career, we saw some general advancements,” he said. “In the last 10 years, those advancements have doubled, and in the last two years, they have doubled again. Our firefighters are carrying $40,000 cardiac monitors that allow them to interpret things that are going on and communicate to the hospital staff in order to get the person from their house to the hospital and into surgery as quickly as possible.”
ZFD continues to strive to provide the highest level of services with all of the latest equipment available while it also provides the community with several different outreach programs and safety/education programs throughout the year. In order to assist ZFD with its services and programs, an annual fundraiser, The Zionsville Firefighters Ball, is held to celebrate the local fire department as well as the community it serves. The proceeds from the silent auction (also available online) benefit ZFD. This year’s ball will be held Saturday, February 3.
For more information on The Firefighters Ball, contact ZFD at 317-873-3344.