North Riverside Firefighters Union Local 2714 raised some eyebrows last week after posting a Facebook update, since amended, announcing that union personnel were manning the department’s ambulance after the third-party contractor, Paramedic Services of Illinois (PSI), couldn’t provide sufficient personnel.

The Jan. 5 Facebook post, which had been shared 125 times by Jan. 10, also made its way to a local Facebook group, North Riverside Open Forum, where the person who shared it – a firefighter in another town – twisted the knife.

“Well, I guess we get what we pay for, right?” wrote Andy Chorley in sharing the post on North Riverside Open Forum. “Thank you to the members of local 2714 for stepping up. Always going above and beyond to serve us. We need to hire more full time FF-Paramedics and get rid of this private contract. Thank god nothing catastrophic happened during this down time.”

Village Administrator Sue Scarpiniti, taken by surprise at the post, said she reached out to the union’s president, Chris Kribales, who assured her the union meant no swipe at PSI and agreed to amend the initial post (whose language the Landmark was unable to verify).

The post as amended referred to the matter as an opportunity for the administrator and union to work together to solve an immediate, temporary problem.

“Local 2714 is very appreciative of the opportunity to work with the Fire Chief and the elected officials of North Riverside to work collaboratively for an opportunity to best serve the citizens of our Village,” the union’s amended Facebook post states. “We look forward to continuing that collaboration!”

Asked for comment, Kribales directed the Landmark to the union’s legal counsel, Jerry Marzullo, who issued a statement Jan. 10 that was similar to the amended Facebook post, adding, “It is no surprise to state that Local 2714 stands ready and willing to work with village officials to provide, in addition to current fire suppression services, the EMS professionalism, excellence, and care to the community, which is what the community deserves. We look forward to any discussion with the village to make that happen.”

According to Fire Chief Bob McDermott, a paramedic fell ill, leaving North Riverside with just one contract paramedic for the ambulance, which needs at least two personnel to operate.

PSI did identify a replacement, McDermott said, but that person would not be able to arrive for at least a few hours. Rather than put the ambulance out of service and rely on neighboring departments to provide mutual aid, McDermott and Village Administrator Sue Scarpiniti decided to have an on-duty union firefighter who is also a certified paramedic man the ambulance until a PSI replacement arrived. Kribales was called in to take that firefighter’s place on the engine.

Scarpiniti said that in her 20 years with the village, there’s never been an occasion where a union firefighter has had to step into the paramedic role. The union contract forbids such a thing.

The Facebook post came at a sensitive moment, with the administration and union just starting negotiations on a new contract. The most recent contract – which was agreed to in 2019 after five years of turmoil during which a prior administration attempted to privatize firefighting services – expired April 30, 2021.

Ambulance staffing appears to be an issue in the negotiations. PSI signed a new five-year contract to provide paramedics to the village in 2019. At the time, village trustees – including now-Mayor Joseph Mengoni – expressed openness to evaluating the possibility of in-house paramedics.

“I can’t comment on that issue,” said Scarpiniti. “The village is taking a hard look at everything. Bringing paramedic services in house requires more staffing and comes with a higher price tag. We’ve looked at it but can’t comment on it.”

Because firefighting and emergency medical services have been separate in North Riverside, there was a time when few union firefighters were certified paramedics. But for the past several years, as older firefighters have retired North Riverside has required applicants to be firefighter/paramedics.

As a result, seven of the 12 shift firefighters are now certified paramedics, as is McDermott.

“We were hoping to beef up the caliber of applicants and provide us with options over time,” Scarpiniti said. 

This story has been changed to clarify that the union firefighter shifted into the role of paramedic was not union president Chris Kribales. The union member who staffed the ambulance was already on duty. That firefighter/paramedic slid over to man the ambulance while Kribales was called in to take his spot on the engine.