Park Forest fire chief stepping down after rewarding career
By Susan DeMar Lafferty firstname.lastname@example.org March 10, 2013 11:28PM
Chief Robert Wilcox at the Park Forest Fire Department in Park Forest, Illinois, Friday, March 8, 2013. Wilcox is retiring after 40 years in the firefighting business. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 12, 2013 6:19AM
Robert Wilcox was just 17 years old when he became a volunteer firefighter in Bishop, Texas, It didn’t take long for him to realize that’s what he wanted to do.
“The best thing about being a firefighter is that you are there with people in their darkest hour,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you think it’s a major event, to them it is, and you have to make it better. You have to bring order to the situation.”
“It’s very humbling to be able to do that. People will remember those acts of kindness forever. That’s what drives you to do better. If you don’t do it right, the consequences could be tragic,” Wilcox said.
Fast forward 40 years. After thousands of calls and burning buildings — and even a few cats up a tree — Park Forest Fire Chief Wilcox will retire March 29. Deputy Chief Bruce Ziegle, a Park Forest resident, has been named the new chief.
As Wilcox’s office walls could attest, it’s been a rewarding career for him.
Since relocating to Illinois in 1976, Wilcox served with fire departments throughout the area — Fort Sheridan, Highland Park and Highwood, before settling into Matteson for 21 years and Park Forest for seven years.
He was “one day away from working at a paint plant in Evanston,” when he was landed one of three openings for a firefighter in Fort Sheridan.
The chief said he took an atypical route to the fire service, earning a bachelor’s degree in fire science at a time when few did. But it opened the door for him to become the youngest fire chief in Illinois — at the Highwood Fire Department, when he was in his late 20s. He stayed four years before going to Matteson.
Wilcox, a Matteson resident, later earned a master’s degree in management and public administration. He retired as fire chief in Matteson in May 2005 and accepted a position as Matteson’s deputy village administrator, a position he held for six months. Five months later he became chief in Park Forest.
Under his leadership, Matteson was the first suburb to require sprinklers in new homes — the first one was installed in the Wilcox home.
“Residential sprinklers are the single most important thing we can do to prevent deaths. It gives the homeowner time to get out,” he said.
As Matteson chief, he was instrumental in combining the three separate dispatch centers in Matteson, Olympia Fields and Richton Park into one — SouthCom — for a more cost-effective operation.
Since coming to Park Forest in 2007, Wilcox convinced village officials to adopt the same residential sprinkler ordinance and to join SouthCom. He reorganized the department, with greater emphasis on fire prevention.
During Wilcox’s tenure, calls for fire service decreased each year since 2007, dropping by close to 33 percent, from 1,105 in 2007 to 743 in 2011, according to Park Forest village administrator Tom Mick.
Fires have decreased nationally, as well, Wilcox said, because of fire prevention efforts.
It’s just one of many changes he’s witnessed during his career.
The fire department today has become “one stop shopping,” he said. “People call us when they don’t know who to call.”
“It’s hard to leave because I love it. But I feel like it is time for me to go and give someone else a chance,” Wilcox said. “This is a young person’s game. This job is extremely hard on your body.”
As he retires, Wilcox knows he cannot sit still and must be “mentally busy.” He will continue with consulting work, spend time with his two grandchildren, and see what opportunities come his way.
“For three decades, Bob Wilcox has been a leader within the ranks of public safety officials in the south suburbs,” Park Forest Mayor John Ostenburg said in a press release. “On behalf of the citizens of Park Forest, I express to him deepest thanks for his commitment to health and safety in our community and in our region.”
During his career, there have been many achievements and many horrors that will never leave him. Despite the plaques on the wall, the one accomplishment of which Wilcox is most proud is that he never lost a fireman.
A constant reminder is painted on his office wall: “Go in together. Stay together. Come out together.”