Chesterton stops fire service on I-94 to Pine Township

Chesterton Fire Department

Chesterton Fire Department

At 12:01 a.m. Sept. 15, the Chesterton Fire Department stopped being the first responder to calls on a 3.8-mile stretch of Interstate 94 in Pine Township.

The Town of Chesterton executed this step because they wanted the township to sign a contract and pay $15,000 a year for handling the calls on I-94.

Pine Township Trustee Tammy Watkins said that she would have been “glad to sit down with the town council” to negotiate the issue but was rebuffed.

The Pines Fire Department Inc. will now permanently handle the calls on I-94.

“I really didn’t have a choice,” Watkins said. She said she believes the response “will take the same amount of time.”

Matt Smith, the Pine Township Advisory Board chairman who has been at odds with Watkins, said that he finds the situation with I-94 “dangerous and scary.”

A volunteer firefighter for Beverly Shores, Smith said that “common sense” would dictate that response times would be longer because of lack of easy access to I-94.

The Chesterton Town Council on Sept. 13 voted to proceed with stopping service unless the contract was signed.

“We have not received anything from them. We should no longer be answering their calls,” said Councilwoman Jennifer Fisher, who proposed the action.

The council had asked that Pine Township pay $15,000 per year for the Chesterton Fire Department to respond to the stretch of I-94 from the Brummitt Road overpass to County Line Road at the border of LaPorte County. Chesterton Fire handled those calls because it has easier ramp access to I-94 than any department in Pine Township.

Chesterton Fire Chief Eric Camel said he made repeated attempts to contact Pine Township Trustee Watkins since early May to try to get the situation resolved.

The town wanted a contract with Pine Township because of potential liability issues involved with responding to calls on I-94 outside of Chesterton. Camel said the town has responded to 27 calls on the Pine Township stretch of the interstate this year. There were 13 calls last year and 47 in 2019.

Smith said that he and the other two board members wanted to discuss the Chesterton contract with Watkins but she cancelled three scheduled meetings for various reasons. Smith said he believed that Chesterton made a “reasonable offer” to be paid for responding to I-94 calls.

Watkins said that Chesterton has been the first responder to I-94 in Pine Township for years but it’s only now that payment is being asked. The township cannot afford $15,000 and she wanted to negotiate the issue. She also said she exchanged emails but received practically no phone calls from Chesterton officials on the issue.

The Township Advisory Board and Watkins have had their differences since she started her term as trustee in January 2019. A major point of contention was when Watkins awarded the contract for the township’s fire service to the Pines Fire Department Inc. Robert Watkins, Tammy’s husband, is the chief.

“I adamantly opposed it as a conflict of interest and she didn’t get board approval,” Smith said. The contract was awarded without the advisory board’s vote, Smith said.

Tammy Watkins said that people need to understand the recent history of firefighting in Pine Township. The volunteer fire department of Pine Township voted to disband in 2017.

The Beverly Shores Fire Department took over service in the township and wanted to charge the Town of Pines $60,000 for fire coverage. Tammy Watkins said she helped her husband, a retired Michigan City firefighter, start the Pines Fire Department Inc., offering fire coverage for $21,500.

Tammy Watkins is the secretary/treasurer for Pines Fire Department Inc. and her son, Michael Watkins, is the assistant chief. She said the 16 firefighters are each paid $200 a year.

“We’re not making bundles of money off of this,” Tammy Watkins said.

The township’s fire service was competitively bid as the Beverly Shores Fire Department also made a proposal. Tammy Watkins said the advisory board didn’t show up for the bid opening. She said that Pine Township’s legal counsel reviewed the issue and she awarded the bid to Pines Fire Department Inc.

Tammy Watkins said that Smith has ties to the Beverly Shores Fire Department and the prior Pine Township Trustee Andrew Himan held positions with the Beverly Shores Fire Department. Pine Township has 2,700 residents.

“It’s a small town. It’s not like you’re going to have a whole lot of options for fire protection,” Tammy Watkins said.

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