NORTON: The city’s fire chief said a church destroyed by flames early Thursday could have been saved if his department had been staffed at the time of the first 911 call.
“It was a small fire that had plenty of opportunity to grow before we could get there,” Chief Mike Schultz said of the blaze that started about 11:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Father’s House Church on Wadsworth Road. “Our efforts were pretty much hampered right out of the gate because we had a longer response time and no personnel.”
Schultz said it took more than 10 minutes before a fire truck was able to get to the site.
After 10 p.m., there are no firefighters on duty at the Norton fire station.
When a fire levy failed in March for the second time, Schultz said, the department cut back shifts. The station is not staffed from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. The levy also failed in November of 2011, leading to nine firefighters being laid off.
Voters will see another levy request on the Nov. 6 ballot.
“We sent out an ‘all call’ to anyone who was available, but the first firefighter had to come to the station to get his gear and a fire truck, the second firefighter got to the scene four minutes later and the third truck had three firefighters,” Schultz said. “They got there two minutes after the second fire truck.”
Schultz said one Norton firefighter was hurt when part of the church roof collapsed. He said the firefighter sustained back and hip injuries. He was treated and released at Summa Barberton Hospital.
“He’s still pretty sore and won’t be back to work for several days — not until his doctor clears him,” Schultz said.
Twelve area fire agencies assisted Norton. It took several hours to get the flames under control.
No fire hydrants in the immediate area also compounded efforts to extinguish the blaze.
“The firefighters brought water tankers, but had to go to the fill station to refill,” Schultz said. “The closest fill site is at the middle school and west of I-76 in Wadsworth. There are no hydrants from the top of the hill on Wilbanks Drive to the city of Wadsworth.”
There is no fire damage estimate yet.
Levy on ballot
Schultz said the fire does not appear to be suspicious at this time. He said state fire marshals are investigating the cause.
Efforts to reach Mike Guarnieri, pastor of the Father’s House Church, were unsuccessful. He founded the church in 1996.
Mayor Mike Zita, who is a former volunteer firefighter, said everybody who could have been there was — including himself.
“I did a lot of dragging, pulling hose lines from one fire truck to another,” he said. “It’s one thing to try to lend a hand, but you also have to know how to stay out of the way.”
Zita also stressed the importance of the fire levy. He said he is sending letters out to the community asking for their support at the ballot next month.
“Right now, everything is hanging on our heartstrings after 10 p.m.,” the mayor said. “EMS calls are handled by a private ambulance company, and if they aren’t available, the call goes out to the nearest fire department.”
There are only two full-time firefighters in the Norton Fire Department. The rest of the firefighters are part time and are paid hourly with no benefits.
“It’s frustrating. If we keep going like this, we are going to cost someone’s life,” Schultz said. “This fire was a loss, and luckily there was no one in the church at the time of the fire. Fortunately, it wasn’t a residential structure and people weren’t in the house asleep. It could have been a lot worse.”
Marilyn Miller can be reached at 330-996-3098 or firstname.lastname@example.org.