The Peninsula Fire Department has been an integral part of the Old Mission Peninsula community dating back some 70 years, when a small group of civic-minded members of the Cherry Center Grange formed the first volunteer fire department in Grand Traverse County. That crew included Ray Heller, Roy Hooper Sr., Claude Watson, Stanley Wood Sr., Harry Heller, Isadore Lardie Sr., John Lardie, Oakley Lardie and Arnold White.
As noted in “A Century of Service,” published by the Peninsula Telephone Company in 2008, that first volunteer fire department mounted a spray tank onto a Chevy truck chassis, added a pump and were ready to fight fires. They did their own training and bought all of the original equipment on their own.
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In 1947, the Grange turned the fire department over to Peninsula Township and a special assessment district was established to fund fire suppression services. Township residents also voted to purchase a new Reo fire truck to replace the vehicle made by the Grange members. The Reo was in service until 1960, when a new Ford truck with a Howe high-pressure fire pump replaced it.
Since then, hundreds of community volunteers and paid staff have devoted thousands of hours to fighting fires and protecting the residents of Peninsula Township – with much bigger and more diverse equipment.
The Peninsula Fire Department is once again in transition, as the Peninsula Township Board is in the midst of hiring a fire chief to head up the department. The field has narrowed to two: current interim fire chief Randy Rittenhouse and Fred Gilstorff, deputy fire chief for Wayne Fire Department, where he has worked since 1994. Read more about Gilstorff here.
Peninsula Fire Department also voted to unionize last year, and Township trustees approved a contract earlier this year. Other plans include possibly adding personnel, staffing Station #2 (on Center Road near town), and upgrading ambulance service to Advanced Life Support (ALS).
We caught up with Rittenhouse, who has worked for the Peninsula Fire Department since 2008, and served as the interim chief since 2016, when former chief Steve Ronk resigned.
Read on as Rittenhouse discusses the current state of the fire department, the recent unionization, and what really happens when a call comes in.
Old Mission Gazette: Are there fire department personnel at the fire station all the time?
Randy Rittenhouse: Currently, we have two people who are there [at Station #1 in Mapleton] 24 hours a day, and that covers everything – fire, ambulance and water.
Are there still volunteer fire personnel, too, like we’ve had in the past?
Everyone is part-time now. So once they respond to a call, they get an hourly rate. We have about five people who live out here, and I’ve been talking to other people in the area, younger people, and trying to get them on.
I know there was some drama with the previous fire chief.
It wasn’t a great working environment with the previous chief, and now we’re just moving forward and keeping everything positive. The new Town Board has been great to work with. Brad’s been great, so has Rob and everybody.
So when you get a 911 call, what happens? If somebody’s house is on fire, walk me through what happens.
So what happens is they call 911, and [Grand Traverse Central Dispatch] sends it to our radios, our pagers, which tells us where to go, and then we respond to that location. Currently, we’re staffed at the Mapleton station [Station #1], so getting to the base of the Peninsula is a longer time period. I’m pushing hard to get that other station staffed. We need to have two people down there, as well, because when we have a call at the base, it takes us ten minutes to get there, and that’s a long time. Here on the north end, we’re at any location within five minutes, but ten minutes is a long time to get down there.
Does the Traverse City Fire Department respond to those calls, as well?
We have what’s called a ‘Mutual Aid Box Alarm System,’ so if the fire’s out here, 911 strikes a first alarm, and City Fire would start a tanker out this way. When we get on the scene and evaluate, if we need additional resources, we tell them to strike a second alarm, and we have everything already pre set up. So we’d have another tanker from Metro, another tanker from Elmwood that would be coming out to assist, too. That’s something we’ve always had, and it works out great.
Is our Peninsula Fire Department part of the bigger county system or the Grand Traverse Rural Fire Department?
No, Peninsula Township is only Peninsula Township. So we’re our own [independent] fire department.
There was some talk about selling the boat a while back. What’s the status of the boat?
That goes back to when we had a Fire Board [which has since been disbanded]. There was talk about selling the boat, but that’s all it ever was, just talk. We’re not getting rid of the boat. We’re pushing a fee scale on it, because currently, we don’t charge for anything. So if we go down to the Cherry Festival, we don’t charge for that, which isn’t really fair to Peninsula Township residents. So we’re working to get some of those funds back.
What do we have for equipment right now then? Or is that list too long to mention everything?
It’s a good sized list. We’ve got two engines, two tankers … we have all the same stuff that we’ve always had [see the full list here]. And two boats. We still have the smaller original boat. We’re also trying to get a portable hydrant similar to the truck, that we got rid of when Chief Ronk was here, so we can help out with fires and be able to fill tankers a lot faster.
Walk me through what the boats are used for.
Any time a 911 call comes in from the water, or a call going to [Power Island], we respond to that. And we also use the boat for stand-bys, so if they’re having a race on the water, we can patrol that and if somebody does have trouble, we’re right there to be able to help them out. That’s why we’re looking to bill for those type of events, so we can recoup our money for those services.
I’ve heard that a certain number of fire personnel are required at a structure fire before anyone can go inside. What’s the scoop there?
Basically, it’s a ‘two in, two out’ rule. So you have two people to go inside, and two people on the outside in case something happens and they need to go in and pull them out.
So if there are only two fire personnel on duty at any given time, you’re going to need a couple of the part-timers, right?
Correct. We’ve always been pretty fortunate to have people in the area, or close enough so that by the time the trucks get there, other people are showing up. But there are times when we don’t have that, so then we have to wait for those other fire departments to get there. That’s why we need to have [Station #2] staffed. Then, if you have a fire in the middle [of the Peninsula], both departments come together at the same time, and you can start attacking it.
Do you have a good feeling that we’re headed that way?
Yes, the Town Board is 100 percent behind moving that way, as well as going to ALS [Advanced Life Support], and hiring additional staff.
Is the union a done deal now?
Yes, that’s all done. The union went through and they came up with a contract [read it here], so that’s all behind us now and we’re moving forward.
Is the union a good thing?
Yeah, it protects the fire personnel and also opens up different avenues for training and other things. A lot of people hear ‘union’ and they think, that’s going to cost me more money, but that’s not really the case. It’s becoming a lot more common for fire departments to unionize.
Anything else you’d like to add?
If I do get the chance to take the position [of fire chief], I’m going to push even harder to go out and talk to different groups and associations. I like teaching people. Down at Whispering Trail, I’ve been working with them a lot to show them why we need the road a little wider and why we need better access, so I put them right up in the truck and take them for a ride. You can understand it better if you see it for yourself, rather than just having someone tell you something.
If you’d like Rittenhouse to speak to your community group or homeowner’s association, call him at (231) 223-4443 or email [email protected].
Read more about the Grand Traverse Rural Fire Department in this recent story published by the Traverse City Record-Eagle.
A NOTE FROM JANE: I started Old Mission Gazette in 2015 because I felt a calling to provide the Old Mission Peninsula community with local news. After decades of writing for newspapers like the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, and magazines like Family Circle and Ladies' Home Journal, I really just wanted to write about my own community where I grew up on a cherry farm and raised my own family. So of course, I started my own newspaper. Because the Gazette is mainly reader-supported, I hope you'll consider tossing a few bucks my way if I mention your event, your business, your organization or your news item, or if you simply love reading about what's happening on the Old Mission Peninsula. Check out the donation page here. Thank you so much for your support. -jb