Photo by Jeff Vorva
George Sheets had served as fire chief for both Chicago Ridge and Oak Lawn.
“Double Duty” Fire Chief George Sheets, who has been leading the fire departments of both Chicago Ridge and Oak Lawn for the past four years, notified officials in both communities last week that he will be retiring.
Sheets said in his resignation letter that he planned to retire in July, but following an executive session after the Oak Lawn Village Board meeting on Tuesday night, Village Manager Larry Deetjen accepted his retirement effective immediately.
Deetjen said Sheets' resignation and the decision by Chicago Ridge officials to end the intergovernmental agreement to share the fire chief necessitated the executive session. Sheets, who lives in Oak Lawn, was not at the village board meeting and his name was not mentioned during it.
In a statement issued Wednesday morning, Oak Lawn Mayor Sandra Bury said, "The village manager accepted Fire Chief Sheets' retirement effective as of midnight Tuesday, and immediately appointed Robert Tutko as acting fire chief for Oak Lawn. The village will be conducting a search for a permanent fire chief over the coming months."
Tutko had been deputy fire chief.
Although Sheets said two years ago that he was planning to retire ‘in the next few years,” this decision seems to have been made suddenly. There had been rumors that he was going to be fired last week in Chicago Ridge, but that could not be confirmed, and Sheets firmly denied them on Friday.
“That is not true. I was not fired. This is nothing more than a simple retirement. This is the right time for my family and myself,” he said.
Sheets was hired as Oak Lawn fire chief in 2009, and joined the Chicago Ridge department four years later when the two villages decided to share a chief, an experiment that saved both communities money.
Sheets will be leaving Chicago Ridge soon, but he did not say exactly when.
“I am just wrapping up a few things now,” he said last Friday, when he was reached at his office in Chicago Ridge.
“I’ve been at this for 36 years, 22 of them as a fire chief,” said Sheets, 54.
“I’ve had enough. I’m tired. I’m exhausted. I just don’t have the energy to do it.”
“Between the two villages, I work with 12 trustees and two mayors, and a village manager (in Oak Lawn), who all have varied opinions, wants and needs.”
“Most fire chiefs do not get the fantastic opportunities I have had. This has been a joy to work at both departments,” said the chief.
In resignation letters sent to both Chicago Ridge Mayor Chuck Tokar and Village Manager Larry Deetjen, Sheets said he had been “tremendously challenged” by the work, and thanked both the village officials and “the citizenry” for making his accomplishments possible.
He added that he was at peace with his decision, and making it felt like “having a ton of bricks lifted off my shoulders.”
His retirement apparently did come as a surprise to Oak Lawn officials.
When asked for comment on Tuesday, Oak Lawn Village Manager Larry Deetjen issued a statement saying that “Officials on Thursday, Feb. 8, received official notice from Chicago Ridge that they were terminating a Shared Use Intergovernmental Agreement’ entered into by both municipalities in 2014 and renewed in 2017. The agreement provides for Chicago Ridge to fund approximately $40,000 of the Chief’s wages and benefits in exchange for professional executive fire-rescue administration services. This sudden termination of this agreement is a financial and policy issue as well as a personnel issue for Oak Lawn. The Chicago Ridge decision resulted in Oak Lawn’s Governing Body holding an Executive Session tonight (Feb. 13) to fully consider the matter.”
Whatever the case is, Sheets said he felt he was leaving both departments in good hands.
“We have done some tremendous things in Chicago Ridge, to have a union president create an annual award named for me, says a lot,” referring the award that was first presented last year.
The Missouri native began his career in 1981 with the Missouri Fire Service, moving up from firefighter to lieutenant and captain before taking leadership positions in fire departments in Portage and Kalamazoo, Mich. He was chief of fire and EMS services in Beaver Dam, Wis., before coming to Oak Lawn with his wife and two children.
“Chicago Ridge is running on all cylinders. We have three captains who are superb,” said Sheets.
He counts the 2015 opening of the second fire house at 10658 S. Lombard Ave. as one of his biggest achievements. Originally it was only open 12 hours a day, but since February 2017, it has been open 24/7, staffed by part-time firefighters.
Much of the work that needed to be done on the long-shuttered firehouse was also completed by firefighters who volunteered their time. Getting the part-time and full-firefighters in Chicago Ridge working together on shifts was another achievement credited to Sheets.
Engineer Joe Bandy, secretary treasurer of the Chicago Ridge firefighters union, a 16-year veteran of the department, had good things to say about Sheets on Friday as well.
“I’ve had a good relationship with him. We have had a very good working relationship with him,” said Bandy.
Asked what he most appreciated about Sheets, Bandy said, “His ability to use his expertise to listen to us and work with the village board to accomplish the tasks we wanted to do for this department.”
“What I intend to do first is travel and relax,” said Sheets.
He added that he is also considering going back to school to get a PhD.