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Fire issues still burn in Chicago Ridge

  • Written by Bob Rakow

The Chicago Ridge Fire Department remain at odds with village officials over a variety of hot-button issues including what the firefighters union describes as a “staffing crisis.”

 

“We are currently faced with more issues than I care to count,” Chris Schmelzer, president of the Chicago Ridge Firefighter's Union, wrote in an Dec. 13 email to Trustee Bruce Quintos obtained Monday by the Reporter.

 

“First on the list is the absolutely outlandish possibility of staffing a second station using only current personnel resources. To staff a firehouse with two people is unsafe, reduces services to the entire town, and just simply doesn't make sense,” Schmelzer wrote.

 

In an interview Monday, Schmelzer said poor communication between Fire Chief George Sheets and the firefighters remains a serious problem.

 

“There is no communication. We’re coexisting. We’re doing things under threat of discipline,” said Schmelzer, who added the teamwork that existed at the house has transformed into a ''dictatorship.''

 

Sheet was unavailable for comment Monday, but at last week’s village board meeting he said firefighters’ feedback is included in all his decisions.

 

Mayor Chuck Tokar said Monday that plans to reopen the Lombard Avenue fire station by Christmas have been delayed until the end of January.

 

But he contends that the decision is a good one.

 

The station will be open 12 hours a day during the period that the fire department receives the most calls, Tokar said.

 

The decision to reopen the Lombard station was made because it is located closer to the village’s residential area than the fire station in the village’s industrial park.

 

Additionally, providing ambulance service from the Lombard Station would reduce the number of times service is provided by neighboring communities—a service for which residents must pay, Tokar said.

 

But union officials said there are drawbacks to the plan to decrease response times.

 

“While some residents may see a short decrease in response times for an ambulance, under the new plan, fire protection is eliminated within the entire town every time we get an ambulance call.

 

“The new plan calls for two ambulances to respond to every call, reducing fire response within the village by 100 percent. Nobody is left to answer the next call,” Schmelzer wrote in his email. “To blindly place all of the village's already limited resources into an ambulance response is short-sighted at best.”

 

He added that two firefighters who retired in 2014 and were not replaced, a move that places a strain on the department.

 

“We run with a four-person minimum per shift, as anything less than that would be unsafe, according to all applicable consensus standards, past practice and common sense. Two of the three shifts are currently staffed with four people, creating overtime whenever a member is off,” he said.

 

“The bottom line is that our fire department has been defunded by two positions,” said Quintos, who cast the lone vote against the village’s 2015 budget for that reason.

 

“With all but one member having over 10 years seniority on the department and having the commensurate accrued time off, someone is scheduled off the majority of the time. On these shifts, overtime is created every single time someone is off,” Schmelzer said.

 

Tokar would not respond to Schmelzer and Quintos’ remarks.

 

“Don’t believe everything that you hear,” he said, adding that decisions regarding the fire department with “the input and cooperation of the union.”

 

“I understand the union’s position, but I represent the taxpayers of Chicago Ridge,” Tokar said.

 

The union also has issues with the village’s recent decision to purchase a quint, a fire apparatus that has a pump, water tank, fire hose, aerial device and ground ladders.

 

Purchase of the quint led the fire department to remove from the fleet an aerial truck and two pumper trucks, one that is badly rusted and requires significant repair, Sheets said.

 

Those vehicles will be sold and the proceeds will be used to help pay for the quint, he said.

 

The quint will cost $685,000, which will be offset by the $250,000 the village expects to receive for the sale of the three vehicles it is removing from the fleet. A $350,000 state loan could be used to pay for the bulk of the balance, Sheets said.

 

“To spend three quarters of a million dollars on a vehicle that will, according to the new response plan issued by the department, only be staffed with two people seems like an improper use of resources,” Schmelzer said.