NEW LOOK — Individuals stood in front of Knoxville Volunteer Fire Department’s Station46, underneath a new sign indicating the department’s merger with the Toronto Fire Department Saturday. From left, front, are Frank McEwen, Toronto City Council president; Mike Swickard, Knox Township trustee; William Scalley, Toronto safety director; and back, Kaylyn Manley, Knoxville assistant chief; Ryan Boyd, Toronto career firefighter; Jessy Reynolds, Knoxville fire chief; Bill Scheel, Toronto fire chief, and Rob Herron, Knox Township trustee. — Christopher Dacanay
KNOXVILLE — Merging the Toronto and Knoxville fire departments into one entity will lead to better emergency response coverage for both communities, officials said during an open house at the Knoxville station on Saturday.
The informal open house offered food and two gun drawings alongside its primary function: Providing a meet-and-greet setting for residents of Toronto and Knox Township to ask questions about the Knoxville station, which will be doing business as the Toronto department.
Present were Toronto and Knox Township municipal officials, plus representatives from each department and their chiefs, who spoke about the merger and the benefits it will bring to both departments and their communities. However, both departments cited the merger’s main motivating factor as a current lack of volunteers — a trend seen in departments locally and nationally.
“If you go to any community-based organization, they’re all struggling,” said Jessy Reynolds, chief of the Knoxville department. “This (merger) is what we decided was the best thing for our township residents and the people who call 911 to get help in a timely manner.”
Reynolds said increasingly fewer people are willing to undergo the extensive hours of training necessary to become a licensed emergency responder for the Knoxville department, an independent nonprofit. Also, younger generations have been generally unwilling to take the reins, Reynolds said, adding that a Knoxville resident has not volunteered at the township’s department in three years.
The Knoxville department currently has six licensed volunteer firefighters; four unlicensed social members and four junior firefighters, who are under 18 and are ineligible but have expressed interest in the department, Reynolds said. On the other hand, Scheel said Toronto has six full-time, career firefighters and 24 volunteers.
With the merger, the two physical stations will be retained — Knoxville’s Station 46 will keep its name — with a new sign for the Toronto department adorning the station’s exterior, along with a new coat of paint from Rick Antill, the Toronto department’s vice president.
Individuals from the Knoxville station and the Toronto station will be notified simultaneously and respond automatically to a call in either community, rather than only one station responding and needing to call for backup from the other once the first arrives on scene. With both responding simultaneously, the first arriving station can call the other off if no assistance is required.
Bill Scheel, chief of the Toronto department, noted that the Toronto department is staffed 24/7, meaning the people of Knox Township will now have 24/7 coverage. Depending on future fire levies, Scheel said, the hope is to have the Knoxville station staffed 24/7 as well.
“(The Toronto department) is not as close (to Knox Township), but we are immediate response,” Scheel said. “As soon as dispatch goes out, we’re responding.”
Reynolds said, “The main purpose of (the merger) is that, when somebody calls 911, help is coming. Both stations were struggling during daylight hours when help is the least. So, we just doubled our odds of somebody getting to you in the daylight hours.”
In addition, both chiefs said the merger would eliminate financial redundancy, gathering fees for both departments’ monetary processes into one, rather than each department paying the same fees separately.
Addressing residents’ fears of fund misappropriation, Scheel said the budgets will remain separate, with their own line items in the city of Toronto’s budget.
“Every cent that came in (to Knoxville) … is going to stay in Knox Township, on the hill, and everything in Toronto’s budget is going to stay downtown.”
Now, with the Toronto department’s coverage area being re-evaluated, Scheel said it remains to be seen how the merger will affect the Insurance Services Office’s Public Protection Classification score for the department, though Reynolds said it will be beneficial. A department’s PPC score — given on a one-through-10 scale, with one being the best — affects the home insurance premiums of a given community, with lower scores making premiums cheaper.
With the Knoxville department’s nonprofit dissolving, everything is set to be transferred, Scheel said. Currently, the departments are waiting for deed and title transfers to be finalized by their attorneys, as well as details to be ironed out with 911 dispatch, for the merger to become official.
“We have always had a working relationship, and this just makes it stronger,” Scheel said.
Knox Township Trustee Bob Herron said the merger will benefit the township’s people “tremendously.” Herron said the trustees, who administer the Knoxville department’s funds through the Jefferson County Courthouse from its fire levy, have always been supportive of the department and were kept “in the loop” during merger discussions, though the department is a private entity.
Toronto City Council President Frank McEwen, who retired from the city’s fire department after 35 years of service, said the departments are merging on a three-year contract, giving time to assess what does and doesn’t work. He said part of the merger’s goal is to increase potential volunteers’ interest in both departments, securing the departments for the future.
Attending the open house were Knox Township residents Ed Moore and Dawn Bryan, who said they approve of the merger. Both monitor an emergency response scanner app and try to help direct traffic for the Knoxville department when they can, and Bryan said she was interested in helping in even more ways.
Also attending was Connie Crawford, who lives and grew up in the house right next to the Knoxville station — the house her family has lived in since 1898. Crawford, 17 at the time in question, recalled how her father, Bill Crawford, donated the property to the area’s now-defunct Ruritan service club in 1964 to build a fire station, in which a plaque hangs in honor of her family.
Crawford recalled the station’s once-booming number of volunteers and said she approves of the merger, adding, “By going together, we’ll be able to keep this fire department going.”