As River Forest and Oak Park seek to trim their budgets, jobs have been cut every which way, and at the villages’ fire departments, things are no different. The two departments are operating at a minimum, getting by with one of the oldest tools in the firefighting box: cooperation.

They operate under a system called mutual aid, a system in which departments from neighboring towns help each other in situations of great need.

“To fight a structure fire takes 15 to 17 firefighters,” River Forest Fire Chief Jim Eggert said. “River Forest is not ever going to have 15 to 17 firefighters.”

Eggert and the River Forest Village Board are exploring making that collaboration official, splitting fire departments off from towns in the area to form a separate firefighting entity: a fire protection district.

The idea, Eggert said, is that the fire district would be an independent taxing body focusing exclusively on the essentials.

“Fire protection districts have one responsibility: fire protection and life safety,” Eggert said. “Right now, we’re out testing fire hydrants – this would be much more efficient.”

John Rigas, River Forest village president, said he thinks it could work for River Forest.

“I think at a minimum, you have to explore it, just to make a decision based on the pros and the cons,” Rigas said. “There’s no doubt that you have to evaluate it based on the economic condition.”

Right now, Rigas has talked to Forest Park, North Riverside, Elmwood Park and Oak Park about the possibility of sitting down to discuss the idea. Oak Park Village President David Pope is reaching out to Berwyn to discuss the idea, as well.

“If you take all these communities together, and you draw circles around them in a radius that’s required for each fire station, you may find yourself able to reduce the need,” Rigas said. “I think everyone is in the same position financially: We’re all looking to see if we can save money and provide a good level of service. The unique thing about fire protection is it’s a true science: Everyone fights fires the same way.”

But new Oak Park Fire Chief Tom Ebsen isn’t convinced it would work.

“We are pretty much covering our town as efficiently as possible right now,” Ebsen said. “To me it also makes more sense to do this a couple of years ago, when we had more administrative staff.”

Until recently, Ebsen said, Oak Park had administrative staff in place that could have worked well as an umbrella for the system, including a full-time training coordinator and a full-time fire prevention bureau. But when the recession hit, those jobs were among the first to be cut.

He admits, though, that some of the biggest savings remaining would be at his job level, chief.

“Right now, Oak Park is at bare bones, we’re at core emergency services,” Ebsen said. “There would be some administrative savings – obviously you wouldn’t need three chiefs, but I almost see it as a net wash.”

Eggert said it won’t be easy to get the project off the ground. A lot of people have to be on board with the project for it to catch on: the towns’ fire chiefs, fire unions, and governments need to sign on – and then it has to be voted on by residents.

But he’s got experience to make it work. Eggert was the chief of another fire protection district for 10 years: the Tri-State Fire Protection District in the southwest suburbs, which covered Willowbrook, Darien, Burr Ridge, and unincorporated DuPage County.

“I think we would be remiss if we didn’t give people that information,” Eggert said. “All I want to do is to open our minds, throw stuff up on the wall, and see what sticks.”

The good and the bad

Pros

  • Autonomous: The district has specific, focused responsibilities
  • Economies of scale: Administrative costs and overhead would be reduced by combining into one operations hub
  • Closest unit response: Eliminating jurisdictional boundaries could improve response times in emergencies
  • Separate taxing authority: As an independent body, village governments would no longer be obligated to juggle the departments’ budgets themselves.

Cons

  • Lack of control: Villages would no longer have control over the departments
  • No short-term financial gain: Many of the cost savings don’t show up until about 5 years after consolidation
  • Loss of some fire services: Villages would need to figure out who takes care of things like tree removal and fire hydrant testing in the absence of the departments
  • Legislation: Illinois law isn’t conducive to consolidating existing departments, and issues arise with labor unions about pensions, insurance and seniority
  • Liquidation of Assets: Municipalities need to agree to transfer their investments in the departments, including fire stations

According to River Forest Fire Chief Jim Eggert.


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Ben Meyerson

Ben was Wednesday Journal's crime, parks, and River Forest reporter, until he kept bugging us enough to promote him. Now he's managing two of Wednesday Journal's sister papers in the city, Chicago Journal...