River Forest’s new fire chief not only has experience running a fire department but also is familiar with the western suburbs.
Tom Gaertner, whose appointment as fire chief was approved unanimously at the Jan. 10 village board meeting, grew up in neighboring Broadview and served as fire chief there as well as in North Riverside.
Because he was in North Carolina and unable to attend the meeting, Gaertner took his oath of office via Zoom from Jonathan Keller, village clerk. He will serve until May 12, 2025, when the term of Village President Cathy Adduci also ends. He replaces Kurt Bohlmann, who served as fire chief since 2017 and announced his retirement in July. His last day was Sept. 20.
When Gaertner joined the Broadview Fire Department in 1986 as a firefighter/paramedic, he followed in the footsteps of his father, who was a firefighter there for 28 years.
“I basically grew up in the firehouse,” he said.
Gaertner moved up the ranks, serving as lieutenant for five years and captain for three before being appointed chief in 2011. He served in that capacity, retiring in 2015.
He also served in North Riverside in 2017 and 2018, as deputy chief for 11 months and chief for seven months.
Related experience includes serving as a fire service training instructor at the Arlington Heights Fire Academy; task force leader/training officer for the state of Illinois Urban Search and Rescue Team, Illinois Task Force One; inaugural fire academy coordinator and deputy director of the Northeastern Illinois Public Safety Training Academy; Deputy fire safety director at Restore Construction in Melrose Park; and lead instructor at RescUSA Inc. in Niles.
Gaertner explained that his work for RescUSA prevented him from attending the Jan. 10 village board meeting. Instead he was serving as a member of the standby rescue team on a project in North Carolina that involves replacing gates on a dam.
“We hope they don’t need us,” he quipped.
He “probably” will continue working with RescUSA, which he joined in 2015, noting it “keeps my skills up.”
After graduation from Proviso East High School in Maywood, Gaertner joined the U.S. Air Force, serving as a firefighter at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota and assistant fire chief at Florennes Air Force Base in Belgium.
He furthered his education with an associate’s degree in fire science from Triton College in River Grove and is completing work on his Bachelor of Arts degree in history from the University of Illinois.
In explaining his return to school at a later age, Gaertner said he wanted to further his education, noting, “I like to stay on top.”
“I think it will be a really good fit,” he said of the River Forest position, adding that he was familiar with the village because several aunts and uncles lived there when he was growing up.
“I think it’s going to work out well,” he said. “I’m really excited about it and really looking forward to it.”
Adduci said Gaertner was one of three finalists interviewed by the village board, noting there were “a lot of good candidates.”
“He’s the perfect fit for us,” she said, pointing to his experience and familiarity with the area. “He has all the skills we’re looking for.”
The new fire chief will be paid $139,500. Interim Fire Chief Robert Nortier will continue in that position for the time being to help with the transition.
Gaertner’s hiring follows the appointment of Brian Murphy as village administrator in December, a position that was vacant since the departure of Eric Palm in February.
“We’re happy to have the two positions filled,” Adduci said. “I think we’ve got a great team.”
Gaertner will be back in the area this week and his first day on the job will be Tuesday Jan. 18.