Take a look inside Highland Fire Station No. 1
It was 1978. A gallon of gas cost 63 cents, and a gallon of milk was $1.71. “Laverne and Shirley” was the top show on television, and most people had never seen a remote control.
In that same year, Steve Plocher of rural Highland became the newest member of the Highland-Pierron Fire Department. At the end of this month, he will retire from the organization where he has been a firefighter for 41 years and served as Chief for the last 20 years. Just as the rest of the world has seen many changes in the last four decades, Plocher has witnessed countless changes in the fire service: Particularly in regards to equipment, training standards, and community fire prevention.
Plocher followed in his father’s footsteps when he joined the Highland-Pierron Fire Department in August of 1978. Orville John Plocher had been one of the first to join the department after its inception in 1950, serving until 1987 and retiring as a captain. At that time, Plocher was promoted to captain under Chief Harry Mueller.
When Mueller retired in 1982 after 32 years as the first HPFD chief, Denis Thole, assumed the position of chief and promoted Plocher to assistant chief. In 1999, Thole retired and the Board of Trustees appointed Plocher to chief. When Plocher retires May 31, he will have served a record 41 years with the volunteer fire department.
“When I started, we didn’t run medical calls because there wasn’t even an ambulance around yet,” Plocher said.
The department today runs over 300 calls each year, with more than 50 percent of the emergency responses being medical assists.
“But we had fire,” he added, “and we don’t see much fire anymore.”
He credits the decrease in fires to the push towards fire prevention efforts, as well as safety features for early detection such as smoke detectors which were not common in households until the 1990s.
“Plus we had barn fires all the time, usually related to hay and spontaneous combustion or heat lamps for livestock. Not many people today have hay or livestock,” said Plocher.
The change in safety features with vehicles over the last 40 years has also been significant, particularly for someone who has been responding to motor vehicle accidents for that span of time.
“Today’s seatbelts and airbags have completely changed accidents,” Plocher said. “We often pull up to a scene that appears horrific expecting the worst, and find the occupants uninjured or with only minor injuries. At least that’s the case when they choose to wear their seatbelts.”
Plocher joined the Highland-Pierron Fire Department when the firehouse in Pierron had only two trucks, and a third truck was stationed in Highland with the city fire department. At that time, each volunteer firefighter was issued a plectron — a shoebox-sized appliance that would get plugged in within the home and alert the men for an emergency.
Eventually, the department bought two pagers that would rotate among the firefighters and allow an emergency call to be heard wirelessly outside the home. Today, every member is issued a personal pager to wear on their person and all officers are also issued two-way handheld radios.
In 1983, Highland-Pierron Fire Department built the fire station currently situated on Woodcrest Drive in Highland. Then in 1999, when Plocher assumed the role of chief, a new firehouse was constructed in Pierron to provide room for four apparatus and a meeting room area. In Plocher’s tenure, the department has gone from owning three response vehicles to now possessing seven, which doesn’t completely reflect the improvement of those vehicles in that time.
The first fire engines Plocher operated carried 500 gallons of water and used a 500 gallon-per-minute pump; today’s engines boast 1,000 gallons of water with a 1,500 gallon-per-minute pump. The first tender run by Highland-Pierron Fire Department carried 1,500 gallons of water to the district which is largely rural with very limited water supply; today, the department operates two tenders that each carry 3,000 gallons of water and feature quick dump capabilities which allow the apparatus to fill and unload quickly.
“The quick dump capability changed fire scenes,” Plocher said. “We used to have to put water on the fire until we ran out, then the truck would leave to go get more. By the time it got back, the fire would have flared up again.”
At that time, mutual aid was uncommon and most neighboring departments didn’t have the equipment such as large-capacity tenders to contribute to an incident. Today, an incident of any size or duration will draw additional help from mutual aid departments and the sharing of equipment is essential.
Plocher was in the first group of Highland-Pierron firefighters to complete the First Responder class in 1983, a hands-on course taught by a paramedic from Edwardsville Fire Department that trained the volunteers on basic medical assessment and intervention. Plocher was also in the first group to complete the Firefighter 2 course developed by the Office of the State Fire Marshal, completing the course in 1993.
That same year, Plocher took classes on arson investigation and became a member of the Eastern Madison County Arson Team in response to an influx of local arson incidents. One of Plocher’s first actions as chief was to require all new firefighters to also complete the Firefighter 2 course, although considered progressive at the time.
“It was a great class that ensured everyone would have the same skills,” he said. “Back when I first started, people were not well-trained but had a lot of hands-on experience that could get any job done. Today, people tend to have less experience so training almost drives the department.”
The changes and improvements Plocher has been involved in during his time at Highland-Pierron Fire Department are countless. Fire gear has evolved from a set of long, pull-up boots with a long coat to a full set that now costs over $3,000. Air packs that used to be made of steel and employ demand regulators are now marvels of technology.
The first “Jaws of Life” that was a manual version of the lifesaving tool has progressed to lightweight, battery-operated equipment the department has invested in twice to make a set available at each firehouse. Plocher led the purchase of a new engine in 2005 with the first 1,500 gallon-per-minute pump, brush truck in 2005, custom-cab rescue truck in 2007, second brush truck in 2007, engine with compressed air foam system in 2012, and new tender in 2012.
Additionally, he has encouraged firefighters to train beyond the minimum standards, advocated for statewide training to be offered locally, invested in the Madison County Firemen’s Association, Bond County Firemen’s Association, and Madison County Chiefs Association, served on dozens of boards and committees within the fire service, continually supported the upgrade of equipment as technology improves, and most recently spearheaded the construction of a new fire station being built east of Highland that will replace the station currently on Woodcrest Drive.
Plocher continues to farm west of Pierron with his wife, Connie. On the farm, they raised four daughters who all grew up with the sound of the plectron and their dad’s pager alerting to an emergency.
“We never knew differently,” says his daughter Jessica Zobrist, who has served on the Highland-Pierron Fire Department since 2006. “Sometimes it was during dinner, and other times he would leave for a call in the middle of the night and we never even knew he had left. Growing up around the station and knowing there was an opportunity to help our community encouraged me to do the same.”
The department will see other changes at the end of May, along with Plocher’s retirement. Assistant Chief Dennis Wernle, who has served as a volunteer since March of 1987, will also be retiring.
“It’s still fun and still challenging,” Plocher said, “and I’m still learning. Even after all these years.”
Captain Phil Decker will officially assume the role of chief June 1, as appointed by the Board of Trustees earlier this year. Decker has been on the department 13 years and has been transitioning into his new position since the appointment was announced.
“I am humbled by this opportunity and look forward to serving our community in this new capacity. I am grateful for the leaders who have paved the way, especially Chief Plocher,” Decker said.
He continued, “I am honored to serve alongside the most devoted group of men and women, who make up the Highland-Pierron Fire Department.
Highland-Pierron Fire Department will host a retirement party in August in conjunction with an open house for the new firehouse currently under construction to give area firefighters, fire service officials, family, friends, and the public an opportunity to see the new facility and offer appreciation to Plocher for his years of service.