Sound The Alarm
Plainfield Fire Department Celebrates Grand Opening of New Fire Station & Headquarters
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
Photographer / Amy Payne
The history of the Plainfield Fire Department (PFD) dates back to May 1923 when a significant fire started downtown that burned homes and threatened several businesses. Up until that time, fires had been extinguished by a handful of men who rode a hay wagon to the scene with a roll of hose in the back. Often the Indianapolis fire station would assist, but given the distance, by the time they arrived the buildings had often suffered substantial damage. Following this massive blaze, however, citizens and business owners made a call to action to organize a dedicated fire station.
“In 1923, a Model-T fire truck was purchased and stored in a building off of Center and Main Streets,” says Joel Thacker, PFD’s Fire Chief.
Thacker believes that the first fire station was located in the 100 block of South Vine Street. The fire station on West Main Street prior to 1997 was an auto repair garage that later became the dedicated fire station/jail/town hall. According to Thacker’s research, Carlos “Red” Swinford was just 18 years old when he was elected fire chief (a role he held from 1933-1968).
Up until 2008, the PFD had an agreement between the Town of Plainfield and Guildford Township to create the Plainfield Fire Territory. As the industrial logistics of the town flourished, there was a need to build a station in the warehouse district. Therefore, in 2012, Station 123 was erected.
“Historically, the PFD has always been located in the heart of downtown, but as Plainfield grew, there was a need to place fire stations in locations that best serve the entire community,” Thacker says.
More recently, it was determined that building and renovating several of the public safety facilities was necessary — for example, the expansion of the Hendricks County Dispatch Center, which is now located at 4010 Clarks Creek Road (this location was PFD headquarters from 1995-2017).
The Public Safety Building Project was developed in 2014 and began in 2015. This project includes the PFD headquarters, fire stations 121 and 122, and upgrades to the Plainfield Police Department (PPD) substation once the fire department moves out. Fire station 121 should be completed sometime in 2019.
The PFD headquarters, located at 591 Moon Road, is 14,500 sq. ft. The new PFD fire station, at 565 Moon Road, is 20,500 sq. ft. and is equipped with a kitchen, 12 individual bunk rooms, exercise facilities, and additional space for growth.
“These buildings are designed to last the next 50 years or more,” Thacker says.
Through the years, firefighting has changed dramatically.
“Years ago, firefighters were reliant on the pressure they’d get out of the water main,” explains Thacker, noting that water mains were made of hollowed-out logs. “Though I haven’t confirmed this, I’ve heard that when Danville was replacing their town’s infrastructure, they came across some of these logs.”
Other changes include more advanced trucks and protective gear, including coats, pants, helmets, gloves and, of course, the self-contained breathing apparatuses.
“That protection has increased dramatically, all in an effort to make firefighting and emergency services as safe as possible,” Thacker says.
Safety is more important than ever, especially considering that these men and women face a much higher risk of cancer.
“If we look at modern fuel versus legacy fuel in the 50s, 60s and 70s, we start to see a transition from all wood and natural products to all plastics,” Thacker says. “Almost everything is made up of some chemical compound.”
Though the department monitors for carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, cyanide and oxygen deficient atmospheres, they still have to enter those dangerous atmospheres that they know can cause harm.
New technologies, such as thermal imaging cameras, help crews locate victims to expedite rescue operations. Utilization of a computer-generated dispatching system (911) is obviously a huge improvement, not only in terms of speed but accuracy of location. And in the advent of cell phones, dispatch centers can ping devices to lead first responders to the person in trouble.
“Given that we have more than 26 miles of trail systems in Plainfield, this is a huge help. Because we know that on nice days, we’ll likely have an increase of trail emergencies,” Thacker says. “If someone crashes their bike or collapses from a heart attack, we can find them, even if they can’t tell us exactly where they are.”
Emergency medical services make up 70 percent of the department’s calls. Last year, the PFD responded to more than 5,700 calls, ranging from heart attacks, stroke, diabetes, mental illness and drug overdoses. Plus, they risk their lives to fight fires, which is why every other spring, the PFD holds an awards ceremony recognizing the men and women within the Plainfield fire territory for their acts of bravery.
“It’s always a great time of celebration where the entire department comes together — all 77 of us under one roof, which is rare,” Thacker says.
This month, in partnership with the American Red Cross, the PFD will do a “smoke alarm blitz” where members of the PFD will go door-to-door in downtown Plainfield to see if residents have a working smoke alarm. If they don’t, the department will install one at no cost. The last time they did this, they installed nearly 100 smoke alarms around town.
“We’re happy to report that the death and injury rate in the town of Plainfield is low,” Thacker says. “We want to keep it that way.”
One way they do so is by logging several thousand hours of training annually. They participate in singular and cross-jurisdiction training with Avon, Wayne, Decatur, Mooresville and Liberty Townships, as well as with the Indianapolis Airport FD.
While no one can predict emergencies, the PFD does track trends. For instance, storms often set off alarm systems, and lightning strikes can spark fires. They also watch forecasts for heavy rain and ensure they have water rescue equipment ready to go in the event of a flash flood.
The only certainty in this career is that no two days are ever the same. For instance, a training may be scheduled, followed by a public education event. But then a residence fire breaks out, a medical call comes in, or there’s an incident in the warehouse district and, just like that, the day’s schedule goes out the window.
“And that’s okay,” Thacker says. “Community comes first. That’s why we’re here.”
Jim Tharpe, who just retired after 30 years with the Plainfield school system, was a reserve firefighter with the PFD for 19 years. He was also in the movie “Hoosiers” — in the scene where the team wins sectionals, Tharpe is driving a fire truck.
“That’s his truck, which he still owns and brings out occasionally for various community events,” Thacker says.