The North Riverside Fire Department garage. in North Riverside. | Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer

North Riverside trustees upended a nearly 40-year operational policy on Oct. 17, voting to abandon its practice of outsourcing paramedic services to a private company in favor of staffing its fire department with union firefighter/paramedics.

The move coincided with trustees voting unanimously to approve a new five-year contract for firefighters and lieutenants who are members of North Riverside Firefighters Union Local 2714, retroactive to May 1, 2021.

The deal appears to mark the end of what has been a contentious relationship between union firefighters and village administration going back more than 15 years, and it represents a complete rejection of a bid to privatize the entire department, including firefighting services, which the village began in 2014 and ended after a fruitless court battle in 2018.

“This is definitely the right decision on an operational level,” said Village Administrator Sue Scarpiniti. “I’m hoping this is a starting point for repairing the relationship [with union firefighters], and definitely we see it as a step in the right direction.”

Paramedic Services of Illinois (PSI) has provided contract paramedic services to North Riverside since 1984. The village board most recently renewed its contract with the firm for five years in 2019.

PSI’s presence has been a political albatross for the village administration, with independent Trustee H. Bob Demopoulos making it his personal quest since being elected to the board in 2011.

He has made ditching contract paramedics in favor of union firefighter/paramedics a staple of his bids for re-election in 2015 and 2019 and when he ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2017. In 2015, in the midst of the court battle over privatizing the department, Demopoulos dubbed his political party Save Our Firefighters.

Asked if he felt vindicated by the village board’s decision on Oct. 17, Demopoulos said while he’s been pushing for the change for years, it’s not about him.

“It’s not a win so much for myself, but for our firefighters and the village in general,” Demopoulos said in a phone interview. “This was the right way to go for the future.”

In 2019, Mayor Joseph Mengoni along with Trustee Terri Sarro broke ranks with their party’s longstanding policy of simply rejecting the thought of union firefighters, saying they were open to bringing paramedics in-house if it made financial sense.

According to Scarpiniti, what pushed the village board to accept the union’s proposal to bring paramedics in-house was a request by PSI to renegotiate its contract with the village due to financial pressures the company has faced in order to staff its needs.

In the past couple of years, it has been a challenge for PSI to fully meet its commitment to provide North Riverside with six paramedics – two per shift. Paramedics have been known to double up on shifts to keep the ambulance in service and their ranks bolstered by fill-in medics.

In its 2022-23 fiscal year budget, North Riverside earmarked $508,000 for PSI paramedics. However, Scarpiniti said, PSI proposed charging $200,000 more annually. Instead, the village triggered a clause in its contract with PSI and on Oct. 12 sent a letter announcing it was terminating its deal with the firm in 30 days.

With the cost of contract paramedics no longer viewed as a such a great savings, the entire village board agreed to end PSI’s contract.

“I never gave up on [bringing paramedics in-house],” said Mengoni. “When the administration presented, not too long ago, the board with all the figures, we couldn’t afford it. But knowing what’s going on the labor market and what’s going on with PSI and other contract companies, it narrows the [financial] gap.”

Starting Nov. 12, PSI’s paramedics will be out and the village will begin using part-time union firefighter/paramedics from other municipalities to staff its ambulance as the village begins to hire six more firefighter/paramedics to bring staffing up to five per shift from the current three.

The Silver Spanner program, which firefighter unions use to help municipalities eliminate contract paramedics in favor of in-house firefighter/paramedics, will be in place for no more than three years, according to a collective bargaining summary obtained by the Landmark.

Short staffing has led to exorbitant overtime costs in recent years. In 2019-20, fire department overtime was nearly $850,000. In the past two years overtime costs topped $550,000 each year.

The new arrangement will eventually be able to keep a lid on overtime, and the new contract includes an “overtime containment mechanism” capping the number of shifts where two firefighters can be off at the same time. It also limits when higher-paid lieutenants can fill in for firefighter/paramedics.

Included in the new contract are base pay raises of 2.5 percent in the first year and 2.75 percent for the final four years. Employee health insurance contributions will gradually rise from 15 percent in the first year to 19 percent by the end of the contract, which expires April 30, 2026.

“This is probably the biggest thing in the [Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois] in the last 10 years,” said Chris Kribales, president of North Riverside Firefighters Union 2714. “We went from getting fired and replaced by [PSI] to replacing them. … This is a great feeling.”