Oak Lawn fire chief welcomes new challenge
By Steve Metsch firstname.lastname@example.org July 9, 2014 6:08PM
Oak Lawn Fire Chief George Sheets | File photo
Updated: August 11, 2014 2:09PM
Oak Lawn Fire Chief George Sheets said Wednesday he was “very apprehensive and nervous” when first approached about also becoming fire chief in neighboring Chicago Ridge.
“But I was very excited to have this opportunity to evaluate both departments, to look at their strengths and weaknesses. We work closely together right now,” he said.
Chicago Ridge has 13 firefighters at one firehouse; Oak Lawn 74 operating out of three stations. Earlier this year, the Chicago Ridge Village Board instructed Mayor Chuck Tokar to find ways to make the fire department more cost efficient.
Oak Lawn trustees on Tuesday night approved an agreement to allow Sheets to take over the Chicago Ridge department through 2016. Chicago Ridge trustees are expected to approve it at their July 15 meeting. Under the agreement, Chicago Ridge would pay a third of Sheets’ salary, or $37,695 per year, Oak Lawn village manager Larry Deetjen said.
Sheets, 51, is confident that he will succeed in guiding the two departments simultaneously and was quick to quell any fears that Chicago Ridge firefighters may have regarding their jobs.
“I know the firefighters over there are apprehensive about not knowing what’s going on. I can say that the mayor (Tokar) has said there will be no layoffs, there will be no outsourcing,” Sheets said. “So that should provide firefighters with some sense of stability and relief that the new guy coming in does not have a mandate to outsource or lay off any firefighters.”
Chicago Ridge Fire Chief Robert Muszynski resigned a few weeks ago, citing “personal differences” with other village officials, specifically Tokar, over possible changes to the fire department. Tokar wants to reopen the firehouse at 107th Street and Lombard Avenue without hiring the seven to eight firefighters that Muszynski said were needed.
Tokar did not return a call to his cellphone late Tuesday or a message left for him Wednesday at the village hall.
The hiring of Sheets as Chicago Ridge fire chief follows the village board’s decision to explore ways to run the fire department at less cost, including considering privatizing ambulance service or joining a fire protection district — moves that have firefighters worried about losing their jobs.
Firefighter Chris Schmelzer, the firefighters union president, said he’s not sure what to expect from Sheets but is encouraged to hear that layoffs and outsourcing are not part of his plan.
“Typically, when they bring in an outsider, it’s to be a hatchet man, to make the changes nobody else can. ... Change is scary, but it’s not always bad,” he said.
Sheets said his focus will be on improving cost efficiency and to “make sure the citizens are being serviced, to make sure we have proper training and the employees are engaged in what goes on in the organization. That’s what I did here in Oak Lawn.”
Sheets said having him oversee both fire departments may seem odd “but it’s been done elsewhere.” He said the departments have unofficially shared equipment for years and expanding on that could mean “huge cost savings” for both villages, he said.
Deetjen said it’s “premature” to think that Oak Lawn firefighters would man the Chicago Ridge firehouse or vice versa. Sheets said there are no plans for that.
Chicago Ridge Trustee Bruce Quintos considers Sheets “an advisor, a consultant at this point. I’m waiting to see what he’s going to say, ‘you guys need to do this or that.’ It remains to be seen what comes out of this, but we need to get that station (107th and Lombard) open, and it’s got to be done the right way.”
Tokar has discussed possibly staffing the 107th Street firehouse with part-timers, Schmelzer said.
“I told him that’s open for negotiation. ... I know they can’t afford to hire eight firefighters to staff that house. That being said, we’re still short two firefighters, and we still work overtime almost every day,” he said.