Chicago Ridge fire chief resigns; officials look to changes
By Steve Metsch firstname.lastname@example.org June 27, 2014 10:20PM
The mood is tense at the Chicago Ridge Firehouse regarding potential changes being considered by village officials eager to cut spending. | Steve Metsch~Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 29, 2014 2:15AM
Citing “personal differences” with the village’s elected officials, Chicago Ridge Fire Chief Robert Muszynski has resigned over differences about changes the village is considering for the fire department.
Muszynski’s resignation comes a few weeks after the village board encouraged Mayor Chuck Tokar to look at whether firefighter and/or ambulance service could be provided more efficiently. Now, firefighters say they’re worried about their jobs.
Changes could include hiring a private ambulance service, joining a fire protection district or adding a second ambulance atthe former fire house at 107th Street and Lombard Avenue, Tokar said.
Three older fire trucks are stored there and mainly used for training by paid-on-call firefighters, he said. The on-call firefighters sometimes are used when the village is busy with another call.
The main firehouse opened five years ago in an industrial park on Chicago Ridge’s west side, roughly two to three miles from the heart of the village’s residential area. Tokar and the board are concerned the distance may waste precious moments for ambulance calls that sometimes are answered by neighboring communities.
Adding a second ambulance would necessitate hiring up to eight more firefighters, Muszynski said. That’s not in the cards in part because it would push the village’s annual pension levy upward of $1 million, Tokar countered.
“We can’t afford to hire seven or eight to staff that 24/7. That’s way too expensive,” Tokar said.
When it became obvious that Muszynski would not budge, the board demanded his resignation through Tokar. The chief submitted his resignation letter Monday, citing “philosophical differences.”
Muszynski was not at his home when a reporter visited Friday afternoon, nor did he return a call seeking comment. Deputy Chief Scott Durling, now the acting chief, declined comment.
Firefighter/paramedic Christ Schmelzer, president of Chicago Ridge Professional Firefighters Local 3098, said “there’s a lot of tension in the firehouse.”
“We basically fear for our jobs. No one has come over and told us to not worry. Everybody is running around scared,” he said.
Muszynski, 58, formerly of the Skokie and Schaumburg fire departments, was hired as chief in early 2011. Tokar said he was pleased with his performance as chief.
There’s no intention to lay off any full-time employees, Tokar said. Nevertheless, the fire department could be more efficient, he said.
Ambulances from Alsip, Bridgeview, North Palos or Oak Lawn answer a “large number” of Chicago Ridge calls, he said. Another ambulance would keep more money in Chicago Ridge and help residents, he said. To slash costs the department could cut the number of firefighter/paramedics per call from two to one and stop sending a fire truck to every ambulance call, Tokar said.
In a June 4 interview, Schmelzer said there are 12 firefighter/paramedics and one lieutenant in the union, down from 17 a few years ago.
Local 3098 said in a letter that last year the fire department had 2,424 requests for service, with 1,599 of those for an ambulance. The department handled 87 percent of those calls, and outside agencies only were called in when they were busy on other calls, according to the letter.
The letter does say there “are admittedly upsides” to a protection district but urges “all facets of any potential merger must be examined.” Meanwhile, the village’s letter sent last week to residents hints that big changes are possible, saying they would “have no problem” with a fire department staffed by part-timers.
Both sides are in the midst of contract negotiations, which often can filled with heated exchanges and accusations.
The starting salary for firefighters is $45,000 Schmelzer said, but there’s been only one new hire in 10 years. Low staffing has forced overtime, and the village paid $45,000 in overtime over six weeks, Schmelzer said. The village said the highest base salary with benefits is more than $100,000 annually, counting overtime.
“I try to talk logic with the trustees. A lot of them cry broke over the pension thing. There’s more to the cost of an employee than just a salary,” Schmelzer said.
Tokar said he plans to talk with more fire department efficiency experts on ways to improve things in Chicago Ridge.
“I’m not a firefighter, I’m not a chief, I want to bring in someone who can explore our options and present things to the board. We can look at it and say, ‘That’s a good idea’ or ‘That’s not going to work,’ ” he said.