Homewood Acres a fire department in name only, but officials hope to change
BY CASEY TONER firstname.lastname@example.org January 1, 2013 8:42PM
Chief Bryan Rouson (left) and firefighter/paramedic Joe Rutkiewicz at the Homewood Acres Volunteer Fire Department Friday, December 7, 2012. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 3, 2013 6:01AM
If there’s a fire in the tiny, unincorporated community of Homewood Acres, no one counts on the Homewood Acres Volunteer Fire Department for help.
It’s been several years since the single-station company has been able to respond to a fire in the one-square-mile area nestled between Country Club Hills and Homewood. Some of its firefighters are not state-certified, the department itself lacks certification from the Illinois State Fire Marshal, and it is caught in an ugly political brawl between the department’s former and current leadership.
“The reputation here is we’re a bunch of drunken hillbillies,” Fire Chief Bryan Rouson said. “That’s what we have to overcome.”
Meanwhile, the residents who once entrusted their homes to the Homewood Acres firefighters no longer can even vote for the department’s ruling board because of a board-initiated change in the bylaws this year.
The village of Hazel Crest is providing firefighting services to Homewood Acres residents through a mutual-aid agreement, but it is now reconsidering that deal.
With the department seemingly mired in dysfunction, Rouson is pushing on. Through a referendum measure, he wants to turn the department into a taxpayer-funded fire protection district and get the long-dormant department operational and responding to local fires by the spring.
The Homewood Acres Fire Department was founded as a nonprofit organization in 1945, staffed by volunteer residents looking out for the safety of their community, according to officials.
It runs on a $40,000 yearly budget, paid for by the rent from a cell phone tower erected in the station’s back yard that generates about $3,200 per month.
About 30 firefighters volunteer for the department. Ideally, they would be in charge of a one-square-mile area off the northeast corner of Pulaski Road and 183rd Street that has 70 homes and 296 residents.
The department had been completely inactive for at least six years when former Chief Ed Boomsma reopened the firehouse in 2010. Boomsma retired in May, and Rouson was appointed the new chief.
The department’s bylaws had been tweaked two months earlier, and the residency rule was eliminated, to allow Rouson, of Tinley Park, to take over.
Letting an outsider become chief shattered the department’s insular network of the past, Rouson said.
“Because they were all neighbors and friends, it hampered progress,” Rouson said. “By having a fire chief live out of the community, it takes that out of the equation.”
The board also changed the voting laws in February so that only sitting board members — and not residents — could vote for those running for office. In effect, that makes the current board permanent.
Homewood Acres resident Greg Lambert took issue with the change, which he didn’t vote for.
“Yeah, it bothers me,” Lambert said. “Shouldn’t we have say so on what’s going on?”
Residents still can nominate people for board seats, but they won’t have the final say. Boomsma said he tried to nominate board members in August, but the sitting board members moved up the meeting time to prevent him from doing so.
“If they don’t want me to be chief, that’s fine,” Boomsma said. “But if you tell me I can’t vote for my firehouse in my community, that’s why I’m mad.”
The older voting rules reflected a time when each homeowner in Homewood Acres paid a small yearly fee to the department and voted regularly, Rouson said. Residents haven’t turned out to actually vote for the board in years, Rouson said.
“They should be able to have a voice, but they haven’t participated,” Rouson said. “They haven’t been here.”
But Boomsma, not mincing words, claimed the board lacked the authority to change its bylaws without input from residents.
“That’s like taking the Constitution of the U.S.A., putting it in the hands of (late deposed Libyan dictator) Moammar Gadhafi and letting him have control of the United States of America,” he said.
Back on track?
Rouson’s plan is to get the department functional and fighting fires by the end of May.
He said he is spending 60 hours a week training firefighters and the department has spent $60,000 to buy all new equipment.
In addition, Rouson and the board are working to turn the nonprofit group into a taxpayer-funded fire protection district via a referendum. The board is looking to collect 50 petition signatures in order to get the measure on the April ballot.
Getting money from the community would be a big step for the department, which according to Illinois State Fire Marshal spokeswoman Milly Santiago is not recognized by the state.
Santiago said the state fire marshal stopped recognizing the Homewood Acres Fire Department as valid in October, after the department failed to provide proof of funding and other documentation. The information was requested in June 2011, Santiago said. Boomsma was the chief at the time.
While Homewood Acres firefighters technically still can fight fires in their community, Santiago said her office cannot certify the firefighters’ training.
Rouson said he never was told about the issue and blamed Boomsma and his allies who, he says, alerted the state fire marshal’s office about the deficiencies after the leadership change even though the department hadn’t functioned for years.
In any case, the village of Hazel Crest is still responding to all fires within Homewood Acres, but it may not in the future.
Hazel Crest village manager James Whigham said the town’s fire department entered into an agreement with the Homewood Acres Fire Department in 1995 to help each other fight fires. A mutual-aid group of more than 20 suburban departments also responds to larger fires in Homewood Acres.
Because the Homewood Acres Fire Department is not fulfilling its end of the deal, Hazel Crest attorneys are working to determine whether the contract still is valid.
“For whatever reason, they’ve let their department deteriorate internally, technically or equipment-wise or whatever,” Whigham said. “They need to get their act together. That seems to be what the crux of the problem is.”