Ogle-Lee Fire Protection District marks 50th anniversary

‘They're there for their families and their community. And you don't see a lot of that anymore’

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ROCHELLE — November 2023 marked the 50th anniversary of the Ogle-Lee Fire Protection District’s formation in 1973. 

The district provides protection for approximately 135 square miles surrounding the City of Rochelle and is comprised of four separate stations within the rural areas surrounding Rochelle in Creston, Flagg Center, Hillcrest and Steward. The OLFPD has partnered with the city since 1974. The Rochelle Fire Department responds to all of Ogle-Lee’s calls and Ogle-Lee responds to RFD’s larger calls. RFD Chief Dave Sawlsville serves as the OLFPD district chief. 

The OLFPD has 65 paid on-call members. RFD has 22 full-time firefighter/paramedics and 21 paid on-call and six part-time members of the team.

“This team provides Rochelle and the surrounding areas with approximately 114 people trained to help whenever they're called upon,” Rochelle Mayor John Bearrows said. “I really appreciate this. It's probably one of the strongest rural districts anywhere around and all of the people can be very thankful that we have it to protect us.”

Former RFD Chief and OLFPD District Chief Tom McDermott said the story of the Ogle-Lee Fire Protection District's inception started in 1930 when the City of Rochelle purchased a Boyer community fire truck and started a subscription rate for people who lived outside the city limits because they had no fire protection. 

McDermott, who also serves as a city councilman and as a historian for the Flagg Township Museum, said that concept wasn't ideal for rural homes and went over poorly. From 1949-1959 the system involved an hourly charge per call outside of the city limits. The first public meeting to form a rural fire protection district was held in 1958 and a committee was established to set boundaries. 

In 1960, there was a State Inspection Bureau ruling that there was no competent response for fires out of the Creston Fire Department. In 1962, Rochelle raised its out-of-district response rates, which stood until 1973. The Village of Hillcrest contracted with Rochelle for fire service in 1965. In 1972, Bill Lower made efforts to form fire protection for rural homes by fee or district. Villages were not included in that effort. The city paid for the cost of the referendum in 1973, which passed. 

In 1974, Steward and Creston were added to the district and the district contracted with the City of Rochelle to respond to fires that same year. A Flagg Center Station was built in 1979. McDermott was named district chief in 1985 and served until 1993. After a move to separate the district, a change was made to Jim Asselborn as district chief for a short time in 1993 before McDermott became district chief again in 1993. The Hillcrest station was built in 2000.

Back in 1973, the original OLFPD trustees were Jack Connolly, Irvin Becker and Elmer Raleigh, along with Attorney Phil Nye. 

“The foresight of those founders saw the importance of providing fire and emergency medical care to the rural areas of Rochelle,” Bearrows said. “Most recently, the partnership has grown even more as a joint venture by the OLFPD and the city to construct a regional training facility in Rochelle which will benefit all health and safety personnel. I want to thank the current OLFPD trustees who continue to support and carry out that vision that everyone saw was needed in 1973.”

McDermott said the city’s partnership with Ogle-Lee is needed for guaranteed response to rural areas outside of Rochelle. Ogle-Lee firefighters work day jobs and need to leave them and get to the fire station when calls come in. With the partnership, when a call comes in, RFD immediately mobilizes to the scene of rural calls. 

The former RFD chief said the partnership’s importance to fire safety in the area can’t be overstated. 

“It's lowered the fire protection insurance for the whole district,” McDermott said. “It helps the city, too. When we need mutual aid or help in Rochelle, they're there. When there's a building fire in Rochelle, 4-5 firefighters is not enough. Our volunteer situation is pretty poor right now. We can get there with our fire engine and our second crew with another vehicle and we can call Creston, Steward, Flagg Center and Hillcrest and they will all send an engine and staff. That gives us access to 60-70 more firefighters, four fire engines and a few medical vehicles. It's really been a great thing.”

Rural fire protection districts that work with nearby cities are not uncommon, but those that work as closely together as RFD and Ogle-Lee do are uncommon, McDermott said. Firefighter/paramedics are trained the same and have the same training officer in RFD’s Tyler Carls. That training will continue to improve with the new fire training facility. RFD and the OLFPD share a radio frequency as well. 

RFD’s full-time firefighter/paramedics receive the bulk of the training and work, but McDermott praised Ogle-Lee’s paid on-call staff. 

“They know their skills and limits,” McDermott said. “They get there and they do it. And they do it continually. And they do it for not much money. It's a hell of a system and a good system. It's basically volunteers. Rochelle has almost lost its volunteer firefighters/paramedics due to unions and rules and stuff like that. But Ogle-Lee is still the old-time, like 85 percent of the firefighters in America. They're there for their families and their community. And you don't see a lot of that anymore.”

When asked about notable fires involving Ogle-Lee and RFD in the past 50 years, one stood out to McDermott from his time as chief, when a senior citizens apartment building east of the hospital caught fire. RFD arrived on scene and got ahead of the fire, and Ogle-Lee arrived and helped evacuate over 100 residents from the building.

“Ogle-Lee took care of it and I never had to worry about it again,” McDermott said. “I saw their firefighters putting on their masks and going in and escorting elderly people out and putting them in ambulances and transporting them to nursing homes and hospitals in town. That was the value of the joint training. And we didn't have to worry. That's my favorite call, because as a little town we accomplished a hell of a lot in the first 45 minutes and it went so smoothly with so little effort. That wouldn't have worked without Ogle-Lee. Other mutual aid would've been 30-45 minutes away.“

McDermott said the system RFD and Ogle-Lee have in place can sometimes even work better than it’s designed to.

“There's something about having people sitting at home that are listening to radio traffic and what's going on, and by the time they get toned out, they're en route,” McDermott said. ”They heard it, went to the station and got ready and waited to get called out. The system works even better than it's supposed to work. There's no rule that says Ogle-Lee personnel have to listen to their scanners. But the beautiful thing about having the same radio frequency is that they can. And they do.”