By Bob Uphues
After hiring three firefighters to fill vacancies left by retirements, the village of North Riverside needs to create a new hiring list for its fire department. So, last week the village placed a help-wanted ad in the local newspaper, directing potential candidates to a place online where they could submit their applications.
In doing so, the village said it is seeking "firefighter/paramedics."
According to both Fire Chief Tom Gaertner and Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr., the resulting hiring list will comprise candidates who will be paramedic/firefighters – a first for a village that has long separated the two duties.
Traditionally, union firefighters in North Riverside – even ones with paramedic certification – don't perform full paramedic duties. And contract paramedics – even ones who are certified firefighters – don't fight fires.
North Riverside pays about $500,000 annually to a company called Paramedic Services of Illinois (PSI) to provide it with six paramedics – two per 24-hour shift. The department also presently employs 13 firefighters, five of whom are certified paramedics, according to Gaertner.
Of the 13 union firefighters, at least four have more than 20 years of service with the department. Another four have 18 or more years of service. In the next few years, the percentage of union firefighter/paramedics likely will increase.
So, with the village now actively recruiting only firefighter/paramedics for full-time union jobs, where is the North Riverside Fire Department headed?
Both Gaertner and Hermanek said the reason to seek firefighter/paramedics is to improve service to residents. Specifically, said Gaertner, he'd like to be able to guarantee that the department can staff its front-line engine with a paramedic capable of rendering advanced life support, in addition to its front-line ambulance.
That way, if the ambulance is on another call and the engine gets to a medical call first, that paramedic can provide advanced life support without having to wait for the ambulance to arrive.
Right now, the union firefighters, even ones with paramedic certification, perform only basic life support, though they assist paramedics when needed.
"My primary reason for doing it was to get the engine staffed with at least one [paramedic], so we can provide better care if and when the ambulance is tied up on another call," said Gaertner.
Asked if the requirement that its firefighters also be paramedics means North Riverside is heading toward a new staffing model for the department, Gaertner demurred.
"That I don't know," he said. "I think it's too soon to tell on that."
Hermanek cautioned against leaping to conclude that North Riverside is heading toward the day when it will be staffed only with firefighter/paramedics and that it will no longer need to hire paramedics from a private firm, as it does now.
Part of the reason for his caution, Hermanek said, is that the chasm between the village's vision for the department and the union's remains unbridged.
Union firefighters have been working without a contract since May 1, 2014, the year the village attempted to privatize the department's firefighting services through legal action. After almost four years in court, that attempt failed.
Both sides are slated to appear before an Illinois Labor Relations Board arbitrator on June 29.
Hermanek says if the village parts ways with PSI, it would have to hire six full-time firefighters to make up for the loss, something will village consistently has said it can't afford due to the added pension liability.
North Riverside Firefighters Union Local 2714 President Chris Kribales said the union has pushed for manning ambulances with lower-cost, part-time firefighter/paramedics that would be hired by the village, similar to the model adopted by the Bensenville Fire Protection District.
Kribales argues that the talent pool exists to support such a model and that it could also help the village identify new full-time firefighter paramedic candidates as more senior staff retire.
Whether or not the village chooses to maintain its relationship with PSI or not, Kribales called the village's shift in philosophy toward recruiting only firefighter/paramedics a victory for residents.
"We love it," Kribales said. "That's going to be giving a higher quality service to residents."