By Bob Uphues
Brian Basek thought he'd be comfortably retired from his job as North Riverside fire chief right now, but it looks like he'll be on the job full time until at least May.
With a dispute between village management and union firefighters dragging into a third year and a contested election looming in April, Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. has found it hard to find a fire chief candidate willing to take a possible short-term gamble.
"I've found it very, very difficult to find a qualified replacement with such a short guarantee on how long the job will last," Hermanek said.
So, Hermanek has chosen a different strategy, one that required him convincing Basek to stay on the job about six months longer than he'd anticipated. On Jan. 3, Hermanek hired Thomas Gaertner as the department's new deputy chief.
Gaertner, 53, who retired in 2015 as fire chief in neighboring Broadview and had served since that time as deputy director of the Northeastern Illinois Public Safety Training Academy (NIPSTA), is considered a potential replacement for Basek down the road, Hermanek said.
"I was very pleased to be able to get such a highly qualified and respected person," said Hermanek. "He'll be a tremendous asset to the village. I'm very excited about it."
Gaertner's first day on the job was Jan. 4. He's working full time on what is now a month-to-month contract that pays $7,000 per month, according to Hermanek.
North Riverside's fire department has operated without a deputy chief for about seven years. The position was eliminated during the economic downturn that saw a number of belt-tightening measures undertaken by the village.
As part of his agreement to stay on as chief, Basek requested a deputy to help with the day-to-day operations of the department. Gaertner, who previously served as coordinator of the NIPSTA Fire Academy, will also help with training.
"He's been swamped," said Hermanek of Basek. "It's too much for one person."
Basek was supposed to retire Nov. 30, 2016 after 35 years as a member of the North Riverside Fire Department. He was named chief in 2013.
But after a search for candidates to replace him stalled, Basek said he got a call from Hermanek 10 days before he was set to retire, asking him to stay on a while longer.
With village management and union firefighters continuing to negotiate a new contract, Basek said he didn't want to leave the village without anyone in place.
"I agreed to stay on and postpone my retirement," Basek said.
Gaertner spent 29 years with the Broadview Fire Department, serving for five years as chief before retiring. He began his association with NIPSTA, which provides public safety training for more than 20 north suburban municipalities, in 2009 as its fire academy coordinator.
After retiring from Broadview in 2015, he was tapped as NIPSTA's full-time deputy director, the No. 2 administrator for the agency.
In that role, said Gaertner, he was responsible for day-to-day operations of the academy. About 400 instructors reported to him.
"It's a busy place," Gaertner said.
But Gaertner said he missed the fire service and felt that if the right opportunity came along, he'd consider moving back to a municipal department. North Riverside fit the bill.
"This was a good fit for me," Gaertner said. "In my gut it felt like the right thing to do."
Asked if the rocky relationship between Basek, the village administration and the union firefighters concerned him, Gaertner said he was up for the challenge.
"Hopefully we can come to some kind of compromise and get beyond some of that turmoil," Gaertner said. "I want to work with the union and also give Brian some support that I'm sure he desperately needs."
Although Gaertner lives in Mount Prospect, he's familiar with North Riverside. While a firefighter in Broadview, he lived in the Beverly section of that village. His two daughters attended Komarek School and one of them attended Riverside-Brookfield High School.
The Broadview and North Riverside fire departments also have a mutual aid agreement and respond to incidents in each town.