NEW RIG: Randy Bohaty of Raymond, a retired firefighter who was on the Lincoln Fire Department, looks over the new pumper truck at the Valparaiso Fire and Rescue Department’s burger night on Sunday. (Staff Photo by Suzi Nelson)

VALPARAISO – As a line of cars cruised through the Valparaiso Fire Hall to pick up burgers and hot dogs that were hot off the grill, they also got a chance to check out the fire department’s newest vehicle.

The Valparaiso Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department held a Burger Night fundraiser on Sunday at the station. Fire Chief Todd Mailand estimated 1,200 people were served during the first-ever event.

“It was amazing,” he said.

Hundreds of cars drove through the fire station in two lines to pick up their food. Deliveries were also made in a fire vehicle.

The event was a free-will donation, and by Monday night Mailand said they still did not have the final count on how much money was raised. The money will help pay for the new pumper truck that was on display the event.

The price tag for the new truck is about $460,000, Mailand said. Funds were raised through municipal bonds and by fundraisers like the burger night.

The pumper will bump the department’s 22-year-old rig to second string.

“We’re not going to get rid of our old one, we’re just adding to it,” Mailand said.

The pumper carries four fire fighters, one more than the old truck, and three of the seats contain air packs that the firefighter can put on in the truck.

“All around it’s just a better truck,” said Mailand.

The new rig will have a smoother ride and will be a safer vehicle for firefighters as they head out to fires, which is the truck’s primary task, according to Safety Officer Mark Nelson.

“It’s basically our truck for structure fires,” Nelson said.

By replacing the old truck, the department will get a better Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating, Mailand said, which is used to determine local homeowner insurance rates.

“It helps everyone in our community,” he added.

Helping the community is the goal of every member of the fire department. Mailand said there are 29 on the roster, with three applications pending approval.

“We have a very, very solid department,” the chief said.

Most of the new applicants are people who lived in Val before moving away for college. Now they’re coming back to their hometown and joining the department, according to Nelson.

Several of the department members work in or near town, meaning the response time for the Val department is very quick. That includes farmers, business owners and village employees.

“I would stand our department up to any paid department with our response times,” Mailand said.

Nelson said the members live in all areas of the fire district, so they can get to a call quickly in their personal vehicles to assess the situation before the fire trucks arrive.

Valparaiso is often called to come to the aid of neighboring departments when they can’t get enough people to go on a call.

“In the middle of the day, Ceresco, Raymond, they call us,” Mailand said.

Just as the Valparaiso Fire and Rescue Department supports its neighbors, the local businesses also support the department. Mailand said Brad Andelt, firefighter and owner of Harry’s Bar in Valparaiso, closed up the bar so he and his family could come and help at burger night. In nearby Touhy, the staff at Tuffy’s Bar was sending people to Val for the burgers and hot dogs.

“Local businesses are backing us 100 percent,” Mailand said.

Burger night was so successful, the department is definitely planning to do it again.

“We had a lot of people requesting another one,” said Mailand.

The department had hoped to show off another new vehicle during burger night, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed its completion.

The chassis for a new Ford 550 pickup that will be fitted out to be a rescue truck was held up in production when the Ford plant shut down because of the coronavirus. Delivery date was supposed to be in May, but will now likely be in July, Mailand said.

The rescue truck carries equipment like the air system to fill air packs, the Jaws of Life and other tools needed for motor vehicle collisions, fires and other calls. It will replace a 1999 Ford that is having brake problems, the chief said. They can no longer get parts to fix the brakes.

“It’s huge safety concern, and that’s why we elected to replace that one,” Mailand said.

The pandemic not only delayed the arrival of the new truck, but has also had an impact on the department. They have to be sure personal protective equipment like masks and gloves are in place for every call.

“We’re going masked up and protected when we go up to people,” Nelson said.

When they go on a call, the dispatcher provides information on the patient that also helps them prepare.

“So we’ve got more heads up when we arrive on the scene,” said Nelson.

So far, there have been only a couple of calls where COVID-19 was a possibility, but in those cases the tests were negative for the virus, according to Nelson.

The department has had no problem getting hard-to-find gear like masks and gowns, Nelson said, because several members have connections to supplies.

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