Most Riversiders probably aren’t aware, but as of Jan. 1, for the first time ever, the village of Riverside began staffing both of its fire stations around the clock, seven days a week.
Prior to the beginning of 2023, the village had only staffed its main fire station 24/7 every day of the year, and two contract paramedics from Paramedic Services of Illinois continue to staff the ambulance at all times.
What’s changed is that Fire Station 2 at 59 Pine Ave., north of the railroad tracks, is now also staffed around the clock, every day by three firefighters, which is the minimum staffing required to operate the fire engine housed there.
“We planned for this during our budget cycle [last fall],” anticipating staffing needs would be more than we [previously] had,” said Village Manager Jessica Frances.
Riverside, which has never employed a roster of full-time firefighters, had been moving toward more intense fire department staffing for years. The only full-time fire department employee is Public Safety Director Matthew Buckley, who also oversees police operations.
The fire department also has permanent part-time employees in the form of Deputy Chief James Mulligan, who works full time as a firefighter in Carol Stream, and Battalion Chief Dan Tabb, who is also Riverside’s public works director.
In 1998, Riverside began staffing Fire Station 2 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday to bolster the number of personnel immediately available in the event of emergency medical or fire calls.
The department extended its weekday staffing of Fire Station 2 to 6 p.m. beginning in 2013, and then saw a more pressing need for additional personnel during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the village ran a specific ambulance for COVID-related calls.
In the event of a fire, Riverside has always depended on a roster of paid-on-call firefighters, who must live within a certain distance of the village, to respond to fire emergencies. Those firefighters were paid for the hours they worked in response to those calls.
While Riverside still uses the paid-on-call model to try to adequately staff a fire scene, they now have at least one engine that can respond immediately, in addition to putting out the usual calls for mutual aid from neighboring fire departments.
Shifts at Fire Station 2 are typically 12 hours, but can be as much as 24 hours depending on firefighter availability, said Buckley, and are usually staffed by personnel on off days from their full-time firefighting jobs.
When manning those shifts, those firefighters are now considered paid-on-premises employees, who are paid at a different rate than the paid-on-call rate.
On Feb. 16, Riverside trustees updated the village’s employee handbook to clarify paid-on-premises employees are not eligible for paid time off or paid sick leave benefits. If any paid-on-premises employee works at least 20 hours per week, however, they then are eligible for Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund (IMRF) benefits. IMRF is the pension plan open to non-union village employees.
While the scheduling software is still being fine-tuned, the plan is to monitor paid-on-premises staffing to ensure no employee ends up working full-time hours. The plan is to make an app available to the village’s list of paid-on-call firefighters so they can claim shifts.
Staffing Fire Station 2 around the clock means the village is looking to bolster its ranks of firefighters eligible to take those shifts.
Right now, Buckley said, Riverside has a list of 24 firefighters. He’d like to grow that number by another 15. Anyone interested, however, must already have basic firefighter certification.
The change in the fire staffing model comes with a cost. During the 2022 fiscal year, the village had budgeted spending about $1.4 million for fire department operations, and ended up spending about $1.5 million.
The 2023 fire department budget is $1.8 million. Part of that increase reflects the 24-hour staffing at Fire Station 2. A good deal of that increase, however, is due to a large, expected increase in contract paramedic services.
In its 2023 budget, the village projected a $217,000 increase in its contract paramedic costs compared to 2022. The village has issued a Request for Proposals for those services, and those proposals are due back to the village in March.