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Penn Township Fire Department Claims $200,000 Spent By Town Of Osceola

Jan. 12--OSCEOLA -- Penn Township Fire Department officials say more than $200,000 was spent last year to respond to about 180 emergency medical calls in the town of Osceola, which didn't pay anything for those services.

And now Penn township officials -- who say they've tried for years to get Osceola to pay for emergency medical services -- are so fed up that they've told the town they might quit serving it altogether if it doesn't agree to a contract.

Penn officials say volunteers at the Osceola Fire Department have dwindled in recent years, and sometimes no first responders are available for emergencies.

According to a statement from Penn township Trustee Doris Portolese, Osceola officials have been put "on notice that it will no longer respond to EMS calls within the Town of Osceola if prompt and productive discussions are not commenced immediately to determine the method of sharing the cost of EMS services between the two government bodies."

Penn officials say if the township were to abandon Osceola, St. Joseph County would be responsible for having the South Bend Fire Department provide advanced life support services for Osceola through an existing contract. South Bend has a contract with the county to provide service to areas in which other local governments can't.

An EMS contact offer was made by Penn to Osceola in mid-December, but the town still hasn't responded. Calls on Wednesday to several Osceola officials were not returned.

To make matters worse, Osceola recently lost its EMS certification with the state for 2017 after apparently failing to submit paperwork needed to get recertified, Penn officials say.

Until the issue is corrected, Osceola can't provide basic life support services or respond to any medical calls. As a result, Penn has been left with responding to all calls in the town. The town is not required by state law to provide emergency medical services.

Penn's emergency responders are only responsible for serving residents in unincorporated areas of the township, who pay a fire tax for emergency services.

In 2013, Penn Township increased its staffing to provide an advanced life support ambulance to serve unincorporated township residents. Osceola residents have also received such services since that time, but no formal agreement was ever made with the township. Before 2013, the county was responsible for providing services for Penn.

Penn officials say that since 2013, the number of calls it has responded to in Osceola has consistently climbed while the number of volunteers at the Osceola fire department has dropped.

The 180 calls that Penn responded to last years represent 10 percent of the 1,800 total calls it responded to. "We calculated that we spent an excess of $200,000 to make those 180 calls," John VanBruaene, Penn's fire chief, said Wednesday.

Penn officials hope Osceola will agree to a contract to avoid having ambulances travel to the town from a South Bend fire station on York Road.

"The response time would be greater," VanBruaene said.

South Bend Fire Department EMS Chief Andrew Myer confirmed that if Penn Township were to stop serving Osceola, a county-owned ambulance at South Bend's York Road station would step in to respond to calls.

"Per the contract, if we get the call we're going to take it," Myer said, adding that emergency responders from Clay Township and Mishawaka might also respond to calls in Osceola under the scenario. "I still have to meet with my colleagues in Mishawaka and Clay Township to figure out what roles they might play."

Al Kirsits, Penn's battalion fire chief, said Osceola's fire department has failed to provide a level of response needed to ensure its residents are properly served.

"They didn't respond at all to many calls last year," he said, "and there were many other calls where only one person came and arrived late at the scene."

tbooker@sbtinfo.com

574-235-6070

@Tbooker24

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