Anthony L. Bednarz recently retired as Riverside’s Fire Chief after 30 years of service in that position and 45 years with the department in order to accept an offer to serve as fire chief in Western Springs.
When I asked Tony to sit for an interview, he characteristically and unhesitatingly said, “Sure!” As his final hours as a Riverside employee ticked away we looked back on his life and career. What follows has been reconstructed from my notes.
Lonnie Saachi: Let’s start with some biographical information. Where are you from and what’s your educational background? Any family?
Anthony Bednarz: I was born at MacNeal Hospital in Berwyn and resided at 97 E. Quincy here in Riverside as a youth. I attended St. Mary’s grammar school then went on to Fenwick High. I also attended the University of Illinois for a year.
Later I received an associate’s degree from College of DuPage in fire science and was a member of their first class of graduates in that program.
In 1967, I married Marianne Krier of Western Springs (where I’m now returning to work) and we raised four children together: Krista, Lisa, Charles and Paula. I also have eight grandchildren.
LS: How did you get involved in the Riverside Fire Department?
AB: My dad was in the department since about 1940, so I kind of grew up with it. And I knew enough about it to want nothing to do with it.
But after my time in the Army, I decided that the fire department might be a good fit after all. I joined the department in 1961 as a paid-on-call fireman. It didn’t take me long to realize that I wanted to be chief. I started taking all the night courses I could at College of DuPage while also working at the hardware store [Bednarz Ace Hardware on East Burlington Street] and starting a family.
The COD courses in fire science were some of the earliest offerings of that type, and out of 14 graduates in my class, all but one became chiefs. I advanced through the ranks, from lieutenant to captain to assistant chief. President Louis Komoros offered me the chief’s job and on August 1, 1976. I became what I believe to be the youngest chief in the state. And I still take continuing education courses now.
LS: What other jobs have you had? What about that hardware store?
AB: After Fenwick, my dad was forced into early retirement and started a home improvement business. I did that for three or four years, then went into the army infantry. I also worked at Community Chevrolet in Berwyn as assistant parts manager. When the old hardware store on Burlington went up for sale, I talked my parents into buying it and worked there with them.
LS: How has the Riverside Fire Department evolved since you’ve been there?
AB: Originally a volunteer force, the department was established as a paid-on-call operation in 1901. As far as we can tell, it’s the oldest paid-on-call department in the state. Today it’s called a “combination” department?”paid, paid-on-call and part-time.
When I became chief the department had only one other officer. It had been neglected, and the rolling stock was in poor condition. The entire organization had to be rebuilt. I picked a new staff, and the village boards were cooperative in helping me modernize and bring it up to date. The department is now known as one of the best in the area, very active and progressive.
LS: What events come to mind as the most significant during your tenure as chief?
AB: I’d divide that answer up into emergency and non-emergency items. The biggest non-emergency issues were getting our emergency medical response system in place in the 1970s and steadily building up our ISO class status to a “3.” The ISO, or Insurance Service Office, rates communities for insurability risk, thus affecting our rates. We had been a “5” and have now improved it to a “3.”
Besides the floods of the mid-1980s, when I think about emergencies, three events stand out. One was the fire at the Avery Coonley estate in the late 1970s. A main fuse box feed had shorted out. When we arrived on the scene, flames were shooting out of the building. We knew we had a major fire on our hands!
As firemen, we’re not big fans of Frank Lloyd Wright’s construction. It’s very flammable and the open construction allows the fire to build and spread quickly.
The worst emergency, and it’s a tragedy that I’ll never forget, was the accident at Harrington Park. The second-grade Little League kids were there when a driver came in off of Delaplaine and plowed right into them.
I was the first emergency responder on the scene. I immediately called for an ambulance and for the police to seal off the area. I had to walk the field and perform real triage. That was the worst part of it.
It resulted in three fatalities and seventeen injuries. The incident was terrible, but I’m very proud of how it was handled.
Another emergency I’ll always remember was an accident on First Avenue involving a tanker truck, a fire and three cars. The tanker was on fire and the driver was trapped inside the cab. I noticed the pressure refill valve leaking, which meant the whole thing could blow any second.
I had to leave him in there still alive, as we could not get him out without special equipment. He called me every name you can imagine. He later died of his injuries in the hospital.
LS: This brings to mind some of the other responsibilities that you’ve had in Riverside. Tell me about them.
AB: Where do I start! Emergency management is a big part of my job. It used to involve natural disasters; 9/11 changed that. I’ve been involved in disaster planning for a long time and we had discussed terrorism before. We knew it was coming. Now we plan for natural disasters and terror.
We’re currently planning for avian flu. The dollars from Homeland Security are getting to the right places, and it’s all about making sure we’re ready if it hits. The cities get the bulk of the money. Riverside is not an actual target, but we’re on the fringes. Guess who’s the backup if Chicago gets hit?
I was also Public Works director for over two years. Katy [Rush, Riverside’s village manager] was only on the job for three months when the Public Works director resigned. The village manager asked me to take the position.
It was a challenge, but one that I eventually had to give up, because I didn’t feel I had the support I needed. And more planning?”I’ve been involved in giving Riverside a new water system and the recent remodeling of the fire and police departments.
LS: What’s a typical day like for Riverside’s fire chief?
AB: Forty percent of the time is dealing with personnel issues. The rest involves day-to-day operations and planning.
I also serve on the West Suburban Transportation Committee, which decides how state and federal monies are allocated to street projects. We were able to get two-and-a-half million dollars to fix our streets, which we never had before.
LS: Why are you leaving Riverside’s fire department for Western Springs? Was Riverside getting stale?
AB: I was always planning on going out on top, not when they told me it was time to go. I did everything I could here. I figured another two or three years, then go play some golf.
Western Springs came along as a fluke. I had worked with their village manager before, and he called me up asking for help in recruiting a fire chief. When we looked at the list, I jokingly said, “The only one that fits it is me.”
He asked if I’d be interested and the rest is history. Actually, I love a challenge. They’ll be building a new station, so I’ll be involved with that. And they have the same system as we do, paid-on-call, with which they wish to continue.
LS: Any comments on Riverside’s new chief, Kevin Mulligan?
AB: He’s been here over twenty years and also works at Pleasantview, where he’s a lieutenant. He’ll spend three-quarters of his time here.
Education-wise, he makes me look weak. He has a bachelor’s, a master’s and is certified as an executive fire officer. He has a great staff and will have the same responsibilities that I had, fire chief and emergency management.
LS: Tony, thanks for the interview and your many years of service to the village. Any final thoughts?
AB: There’s one thing I want to make sure you get in here. I couldn’t have accomplished what I did without the great staff that I’ve had from the start to the finish. I’ve been blessed with very competent people.