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The Landmark View

North Riverside's union firefighters recently won a battle they may not have thought they'd ever have a chance to fight when the village quietly rolled out a request for applications to build a new hiring list for the department.

For the first time, the village is asking that candidates be firefighter/paramedics, not just firefighters. The resulting list of candidates will all have the ability to do both jobs. 

And with a fire department stacked with employees approaching or with more than 20 years of service, it's more than likely that throughout the next decade the North Riverside Fire Department will be staffed entirely by full-time firefighter/paramedics.

Which leads to the obvious question: If the department is going to be staffed entirely by firefighter/paramedics, will there be a need in the future for the village to employ a private paramedic service?

Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. isn't convinced, because he doesn't want to add any more full-time firefighters, and their pensions, to the village's budget. The firefighters' union has proposed using part-time paramedics – hired by the village and not through a private company – as a solution to that problem, one they say has been employed effectively by the Bensenville Fire Protection District.

That appears to be a reasonable enough solution to explore further. But the village has long asked for firefighters to give way on something called "substitution," where officials see another way to save money.

Essentially, the way it works now is that two people per shift are allowed to be off at the same time – allowing for sick days, vacation time, etc. When that happens now, the village must call back a union firefighter to cover the shift, resulting in overtime costs that are astronomical – in recent years a half-million dollars or more.

The village would like just one person per shift to be able to call off and for paid-on-call firefighters to be used as substitutes.

This has been a non-starter for the firefighters' union in the past. It's a foot in the door to greater use of non-union employees in union positions.

But there's a reality here that needs to be faced by everyone. The firefighters' union has won its fight for preservation in the face of the village's attempt to privatize it. It has won so soundly that the village is, without even being forced to, recruiting firefighter/paramedics to fill its full-time ranks.

Costs for salaries and pensions are real issues for North Riverside, particularly in an environment when its sales-tax lifeline appears to be under attack, with the loss of Carson's, Toys R Us and Tony's Finer Foods in just a matter of weeks or months.

A state arbitrator will eventually settle the dispute that hardened in the wake of the 2014 privatization bid. But a new contract will need to be negotiated soon after, and both sides need to approach those discussion with a sense of financial reality as well as fairness – most of all to residents, who both rely on firefighters and paramedics, and also help pay the bill.

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