Posts Tagged Oak Lawn Fire Chief George Sheets

Oak Lawn Fire Department news (more)

Excerpts from the

Oak Lawn’s former Fire Chief George Sheets submitted his resignation recently after the mayor and board of trustees butted heads with the chief on questions of policy regarding the ongoing labor negotiations with the Oak Lawn Professional Fire Fighters Local 3405.

According to sources close to Sheets, the former chief vehemently disagreed with the board majority’s edict that he support a reduction in the minimum manning number as well as other hard line stances. The same sources said that he agreed that a reduction would be acceptable but the board’s number was  too low and other ideas were morale killers that wouldn’t be approved in arbitration or in a court case.

Sheets had been a stalwart supporter of the mayor and the board majority even allowing the mayor to use his name in a political mailer in which he disavowed his own public comments regarding the fire department. Despite that support, sources close to Sheets said that the pressure of working with a board that micromanages the department had gotten to him and the last year has been one in which he was seen as disloyal.

Sheets also served as chief of Chicago Ridge but recently questioned the arrangement noting that he had 15 bosses including two mayors, one village manager, and 12 trustees. In addition to the union negotiations, he reportedly disagreed with the board’s decision to rescind its SAFER Grant application.

Sheets told several individuals that he believes the members of the department need to be treated with respect during negotiations and the hard line demands of the village manager and the board are unreasonable.

thanks Dan

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Oak Lawn Fire Department news

Excerpts from the

Oak Lawn Fire Chief George Sheets, who has pulled double duty as chief of neighboring Chicago Ridge, is out as the fire chief of Oak Lawn. The specifics of how, why, when, and where are being sorted out but the who in the story so far is Sheets. Chicago Ridge’s Mayor sent a letter to Oak Lawn’s Village Manager Larry Deetjen last Thursday informing him that Chicago Ridge was ending the arrangement that has been in place since July of 2014 and which allowed both village leaders to pat themselves on the back for thinking outside the box. Tokar’s letter did not have an explanation although according to Chicago Ridge sources, Tokar met with Sheets and another employee of the village last week. Shortly thereafter, Sheets met with Oak Lawn’s village manager. Sheets has been chief in Oak Lawn for nine years and has 36 years of fire service in various fire departments.

Sheets appeared in a controversial piece of literature paid for by Mayor Sandra Bury’s campaign in 2017 and is considered a favorite of Deetjen. However, Sheets dropped the other shoe and announced to the fire department that he is retiring as of July 2018. But wait, there’s more because on Tuesday the village manager is asking the board to approve an agreement that removes Sheets as chief but places him in some kind of advisory role that doesn’t exist in the Illinois Municipal Code for a fire department employee. That’s a very long transition period and not standard operating procedure. If you’re confused, stay tuned because the village board will be asked to vote for this agreement even though it isn’t on the agenda for Tuesday. If you look at the agenda, it states, Action on Executive Session Items.  Who’s hiding what and where are they hiding it?

thanks Keith

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Fire departments share fire chief

Excerpts from the

Oak Lawn and Chicago Ridge have shared a fire chief since 2014, and by mutual agreement between the neighboring villages, Chief George Sheets will continue wearing two hats for at least four more years.

The Oak Lawn Village Board passed the new intergovernmental agreement to continue the arrangement last week without much comment, and the Chicago Ridge Village Board followed suit at its meeting on Tuesday.

Oak Lawn, being the larger community, covers two-thirds of Sheets’ salary, in addition to benefits, and Chicago Ridge is responsible for one-third. The exact salary agreement was not available this week, but it costs the Chicago Ridge about $50,000 annually. Sheets, who lives in Oak Lawn, said the agreement calls for the Chicago Ridge portion of the salary to increase by 5 percent each year.

The relationship between management and members of the firefighters union in Oak Lawn has been difficult at times in recent years, primarily due to staffing and other issues that have led to lawsuits. But everyone in Chicago Ridge seems to agree that having Sheets on board has worked out very well.

Prior to the vote on Tuesday, Chicago Ridge Fire Lt. Chris Schmelzer, president of the Chicago Ridge Firefighters Union Local 3098, sent Tokar a glowing recommendation letter regarding Sheets’ value to the department, and asked him to share it with the trustees.

Schmelzer cited several accomplishments that have been achieved under Sheets’ leadership in Chicago Ridge, including the introduction of a part-time firefighter program in which part-time and full-time staff work together. This has also allowed for the opening of the Lombard Avenue fire station. That station initially opened part-time, but was expanded to full-time this year, providing ambulance service to the main residential section of the village.

Last year, there was talk that he might leave the Chicago Ridge role after seeing projects through to completion, including the part-time program and the opening of the Lombard Avenue station.

He splits his days between the two villages, and their close proximity allows him to travel between his offices quickly.

thanks Dan

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Oak Lawn Fire Department news

Excerpts from the

For years, Oak Lawn’s administration and its firefighters union have waged a bitter and expensive legal battle over minimum apparatus and shift staffing requirements.

The administration argues that the department can safely and effectively run with three on an engine and a total of 19 firefighters per shift. The union contends that four to an engine — as is stipulated in the parties’ collective bargaining agreement — and 21 individuals on duty at all times — as a grievance arbitrator decided in 2008 — represent the minimum staffing necessary to keep firefighters and the community safe.

Unable to make any headway in discussions on the topic, the parties have turned to an arbitrator to adjudicate recent labor contracts. If the arbitrator, whose ruling on the current contract is expected in November, sides with the village and permits a reduction in staffing, it would mean nearly $1 million in annual savings on overtime, officials have said. It also would mean a less safe work environment for firefighters and the public, union president Vince Griffin contends.

The National Fire Protection Association, which releases national firefighting codes and standards, recommends that fire engine companies be staffed with a minimum of four members, as Griffin would prefer. One firefighter should staff the pump, another should secure the water supply and two should advance the hoseline, according to the NFPA’s guidelines.

Maintaining four to an engine also enables adherence to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s two-in, two-out rule, which mandates that firefighters never enter a burning building alone. When two firefighters do enter a dangerous situation, there always should be two others on the outside who can back them up or rescue them, if need be.

In practice, however, fire departments vary in their observance of the NFPA’s standards. Because the standards are not law, but rather recommended best practices, departments pick and choose which they wish to follow.

I would say the majority of the fire departments in the United States follow at least some of the NFPA standards,” said Ed Conlin, a retired Massachusetts fire lieutenant who now serves as the NFPA’s division manager of public fire protection. “Which ones (they follow), it’s hard to determine, because departments can cherry pick not only the document they want to use, but also the section of the document they want to use.”

Suburban Illinois departments rarely follow the NFPA’s suggested minimum apparatus staffing, Oak Lawn fire chief George Sheets said. “All of our surrounding communities are responding with less than 4 (on an engine),” he said. “The entire state of Illinois, with the exception of maybe five departments, is running with less than 4.”

While Sheets says he’d love to be able to continue staffing four firefighters per engine, he doesn’t believe it’s necessary given the village’s smaller building stock and its membership in MABAS, the state’s mutual aid system.

Only one of a list of 14 comparable communities agreed upon by village officials and the union as part of the current arbitration process staffs four to an engine. The rest run with 2 or 3, according to a court exhibit provided by Oak Lawn’s legal counsel.

“Those communities are larger than us in some respects, so that gives you a real compelling comparison of other communities that operate with less, that are larger and more densely populated and have infrastructure we don’t have,” Sheets said. “When you look at the Southland area, there’s no department that comes close to the staffing of Oak Lawn.”

He argues the total number of firefighters that assemble at a scene, rather than the number on any given apparatus, is what really matters. NFPA standards recommend that a minimum of 12 firefighters respond to fires at single-family dwellings; 23 for open-air strip malls; 27 for garden style apartments; and 40 for high-rise buildings.

Sheets said that when you take into consideration the 21-per-shift staffing that Oak Lawn currently employs and add to that the mutual aid provided by neighboring departments, it’s typical for there to be between 30 and 40 firefighters present for any working fire in the village.

Reducing per-shift staffing from 21 to 19 — either by reducing the staffing per apparatus or removing an apparatus altogether — would not make a significant dent in the overall fire response, Sheets and other village officials argue.

Only about 30 percent of the fire department’s 8,000-plus calls each year are for fires, and the vast majority of those end up being false alarms, he said. In Sheets’ estimation, Oak Lawn battles only about 10 working fires annually. Rather than staff four to an engine all the time, he’d prefer to place a fourth ambulance in service to respond to the village’s growing number of medical emergency calls.

“We could have jump companies where, depending on the type of call, the people jump on the appropriate piece of apparatus,” Sheets said. “That’s what 99 percent of departments in the state and country do — they have jump companies and the flexibility of taking a piece of apparatus based on the call.”

Griffin, however, argues that any reduction in staffing would have a detrimental effect on safety, and said he’d be doing a disservice to Oak Lawn residents and fellow firefighters if he conceded to any reductions.

thanks Dan

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Fire departments will no longer share fire chief (more)

Excerpts from the

George Sheets has been fire chief of both Oak Lawn and Chicago Ridge for nearly two years now, and the arrangement has worked out so well that all talk of giving up one of the positions has gone by the wayside.

“This was a concept that had never been done before is done now,” said Sheets, who became Oak Lawn fire chief in 2009, and added Chicago Ridge in July 2014, following discussions between Mayors Sandra Bury of Oak Lawn and Chuck Tokar in Chicago Ridge. His salary is shared by the villages, saving Chicago Ridge about $65,000 annually

“Some people doubted it would work. But it has been a success story,” said Sheets during a wide-ranging interview on Monday, when he discussed the improvements made to the Chicago Ridge department while cutting costs as well.

Last summer he considered going back to Oak Lawn full-time, after he oversaw the opening of the second Chicago Ridge fire station on Lombard Avenue, and the successful implementation of the part-time firefighter program. But now, he said, with the encouragement of Tokar and the village trustees, he has decided to there is no need to change what isn’t broken.

“We’ve been able to increase personnel by 50 percent, while saving the village $350,000 over the past year in the operating budget,” he said. The refurbished Lombard Street station is staffed 12 hours a day by both part-time and full-time firefighters, with everyone going through the same training.

‘It has worked out better than people thought. We’ve got labor-management harmony too,” he said.

“I’m not a micromanager. I expect excellence, but I let them do their jobs, and my door is always open for suggestions,” said the chief. This style has led to improved morale, according to many in the department.

There are now 21 full-time firefighter/paramedics, including three lieutenants, and 13 part-timers on staff. The village also has about a dozen paid on-call firefighters.

“It has been a great learning experience. We all work together and all these guys have been very helpful,” said Alec Kowalczyk, a part-time firefighter from Palos Heights, who hopes to become full-time eventually.

The success of the fire department’s advancements actually earned the village of Chicago Ridge the James Baird Leadership Award for 2015 from the Illinois Public Employer Labor Relations Association.

Sheets said that with the opening of the new fire station, a second ambulance was put in service, reducing response times by nearly two minutes, and by purchasing a quint last year for $650,000, he said the village actually saved more than $2 million in replacement costs.

“Any time you implement change, there is going to be concerns, But (with Sheets) there is no personal agenda and no political agenda,” said firefighter/paramedic Victor Kiman, explaining the friendly relationship between management and labor.

“Years ago, it was contentious. It seems to be really improved. The communication channels back and forth are always open. That helped a lot,” said Lt. Bob Eggert.

thanks Dennis

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Oak Lawn management continues to fight the firefighter’s union (more)

Excerpts from an editorial in the written by Oak Lawn Village Manager Larry Deejten:

On Feb, 27, the Daily Southtown ran a story regarding Oak Lawn firefighters and a state board ruling that ordered back pay of $3.2 million with a 7 percent interest rate compounded. Respectfully, immediate clarification is needed for all your readers, not just Oak Lawn taxpayers.

Sadly, the Oak Lawn model of delivering fire-rescue services is broken, and the Oak Lawn fire union officials quoted in the article have resisted changes asked by management for a system that has not changed staffing protocol for 25 years. No industry in America could have survived that steadfast resistance to change without filing for bankruptcy.

The taxpayers of Oak Lawn through their mayor and trustees have not had a voice due to legislation signed by former Gov. Quinn after approval by a general assembly that gets sizable campaign contributions from the International and Illinois Firefighter Associations. One fire union alone donated over $450,000 in 2014. Structural and political impediments to change have been in place in spite of pleas from nearly every major Illinois town and the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association and the Illinois Municipal League.

Oak Lawn fire union representatives will bolster their stance on staffing by citing “workplace safety,” that “staffing needs are dictated by the teamwork nature of firefighters” and “increasing workload.”

Oak Lawn takes great pride in supporting its police and firefighters. More than 60 percent of the village’s main operating fund goes for public safety. Unfortunately, the fire union’s resistance to change is costing the village more than $2 million per year in state-mandated firefighter overtime, or more than $36,000 per firefighter.

Gov. Rauner has called for shared sacrifice to get our state economically competitive and fiscally strong again. Budgets need to be balanced and pensions funded at levels in line with the taxpayers who pay those benefits. It will take all parties working together to achieve that goal, and local elected officials must be given the tools to manage their operations.

In Oak Lawn’s case, surrounding communities use alternative models for providing fire-rescue services that work quite well at lower cost. Like any business striving to survive in a highly competitive and changing environment, “best practices” must be used.

Some key issues for consideration:

•Oak Lawn is not “0 for 7” in lawsuits filed against it by International Firefighters Union Local 3405. Oak Lawn respects the law but also its obligation to appeal decisions when deemed not to be in the public’s interest. There is changing political leadership over time and different judges, arbitrators and other officials who decide every case on its merit. In the back pay decision, a state employee seriously erred in directing the village to pay firefighters — who average $89,000 in wages — $3.2 million in back pay for work never performed and for no improvement to public safety.

•More than 70 percent of Oak Lawn firefighters neither live nor pay property tax in Oak Lawn. the union leader who was pictured and quoted in the Southtown story resides in Glen Ellyn, where the median household income is $87,904 as opposed to Oak Lawn’s $54,828 and the ability to pay for fire-rescue services is more than twice Oak Lawn’s households’ ability.

•Why not stop appealing decisions in favor of firefighters and just hire more firefighters to staff fire stations with 22 positions around the clock? The village has prudently avoided spending more than $3.6 million cumulatively since 2008 and will avoid further costs annually by not filling vacant positions and incurring overtime that’s a wasteful expenditure of taxpayer money. For every firefighter, Oak Lawn pays an average of more than $120,000 per year in pay and benefits and must account for an average pension that will be worth a total of $1 million. The financial impact of the ruling by the Illinois Labor Relations Board, if upheld, is not a one-time payment but carries a recurring cost of more than $600,000 per year compounded over time. In five years, another $3 million in unnecessary costs will be borne by Oak Lawn taxpayers.

•Is safety compromised by deploying fewer firefighters when their workload is increasing? Absolutely not. In technical terms, the utilization rate on a typical workday is low, and our fire Mutual Aid System accounts safely for non-typical days. Firefighters have a tough job, and our firefighters and paramedics do a fine job for our community. Fire Chief George Sheets is a well-respected professional and would never allow anything that puts either our residents or firefighters in harm’s way.

•Oak Lawn is blessed to belong to MABAS, one of the country’s top two fire mutual aid systems. We and 11 other communities work together to back up each other in times of major emergencies that require more resources. This system allows the village to bring in over 100 firefighting personnel to combat a large emergency situation.

In summary, the recent state board ruling is a setback, but we have a right to appeal and would be derelict in our duty if we did not do so. It’s hard to understand why a village the size of Oak Lawn would be forced to pay 74 firefighters $3.2 million in back pay plus interest for work that was never done. This amount is 21 percent of the village’s current property tax levy, and it has no funds to make that payment.

Oak Lawn is a fair employer with a workforce turnover rate far below industry standards nationwide. We are appealing the board’s ruling because we think it is unfair and incorrect. We hope all our employees would understand that.

For additional information and the village’s comprehensive statement, readers can go to, where wages for all village employees in 2014 are listed.

thanks Dan

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Oak Lawn chief supports hiring

The Oak Lawn Leaf has an article stating that the Oak Lawn fire chief supports hiring more firefighters:

Oak Lawn’s Fire Chief George Sheets appeared at a recent village budget hearing and told the mayor, manager and trustees that he supports the hiring of 16 additional firefighters in order to eliminate the $2.5 million dollars in overtime spent by the village every year as it has fought court orders regarding its contract with the firefighters union.

Sheets said that the hiring of the 16 firefighters/paramedics would resolve the issue of overtime for at least the next two years.  It is the first
time that any member of the administration has discussed the possibility of compromising on the stand developed over seven years ago by former Trustee Tom Phelan and implemented by Village Manager Larry Deetjen.

Sheets’ statement mimics the position outlined by [some trustees] who have noted that the administration continues to wage legal battles that it has already lost on the issue of minimum manning.

Deetjen, [the mayor and other trustees] have continued to attack the minimum manning provision in the contract instituted under the late Mayor Ernie Kolb. Those legal battles have proven to be futile with the administration’s efforts to reduce the number of firefighters being denied each time.

Under Village Manager Larry Deetjen’s recommendation and the village board’s support, the village has allowed the firefighter employees to be reduced from 100 to 72 over the years.  The firefighters have supported keeping the “minimum manning contract language” the same while the village agreed with the daily shift of 21 employees, it sought to add language stating that would have allowed the village to staff only three firefighters to an engine if staffing fell below 21 daily employees, “for any reason”.

The language was rejected by the union, which has battled over the issue of minimum manning and had to file an unfair labor practice. The Illinois Labor Relations Board ruled against the village and that decision was upheld by the Illinois Appellate Court in 2011.

The firemen have complained previously that the village is wasting millions of dollars in overtime pay as a result of its failure to hire new firefighters.  Mayor Sandra Bury has countered arguing that the minimum manning provision agreed to through the collective bargaining process was devastating to the village.

Trustee Robert Streit (Dist. 3) has previously denounced Mayor Sandra Bury’s attacks on the firefighters noting that the village was told its
position was wrong in 2011 and chose to continue to fight the issue, making it virtually impossible to negotiate any issues with the firefighters
union.  While Streit has claimed that he can’t support a position that the courts have consistently ruled against, other Trustees, such as Terry
Vorderer and Mike Carberry have made comments supporting the fight over minimum manning despite the court rulings.

At the budget meeting, no elected officials indicated whether they would support Chief Sheets’ recommendation.

thanks Dan

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Oak Lawn fire chief to add Chicago Ridge to his duties (more)

The Southtown Star has an article about the new arrangement between Oak Lawn and Chicago Ridge for sharing the services of a fire chief:

Oak Lawn Fire Chief George Sheets will have full responsibility over the Chicago Ridge Fire Department, but staffing remains the job of the Chicago Ridge mayor and trustees, according to an agreement approved by each village board.

The SouthtownStar obtained copies of the agreement through Illinois’ freedom of information law.

Under the unusual arrangement, approved by Chicago Ridge on July 15 and Oak Lawn on July 8, Sheets will have “all of the traditional powers and authorities” and will be in charge of “all personnel, equipment, apparatus and staff vehicles” for the Chicago Ridge department through 2016.

Its staffing “shall continue to be the sole and exclusive responsibility” of the mayor and trustees, but Sheets is in charge of discipline of fire personnel, the agreement states.

It says Chicago Ridge, which has 13 firefighter/paramedics, will pay one-third of Sheets’ annual salary because he is expected to spend “no less than one-third of his time at the Chicago Ridge Fire Department providing managerial and administrative duties.”

Sheets became Chicago Ridge’s fire chief July 15, so the village this year will pay one-third of his salary over 5.5 months, or $37,695. Chicago Ridge will continue to pay a third of his salary during 2015 and 2016, the length of the existing contract.

Under the agreement, Sheets’ job in Chicago Ridge can be “discontinued at any time and for any lawful reason’ by the mayor. However, if that were to happen, Chicago Ridge would be liable for paying Sheets through 2016.

He and/or Oak Lawn would have to give Chicago Ridge at least 30 days notice if they decide his tenure there should be concluded.

The villages agreed that Sheets is not eligible for civil service protection or pension, workers compensation, health insurance or disability benefits through Chicago Ridge, continuing to receive the benefits as a full-time employee of Oak Lawn.

Also, any lawsuit that may be filed regarding Sheets’ actions in one village would not include the other village as a defendant.

thanks Dan

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Oak Lawn fire chief to add Chicago Ridge to his duties

The Southtown Star has an article about a replacement for the Chicago Ridge fire chief who resigned recently:

Oak Lawn Fire Chief George Sheets is getting a new job, but he’s not leaving his current one.

Under an agreement unanimously approved Tuesday night by the village board, Sheets will remain as chief while also overseeing the Chicago Ridge Fire Department through 2016.

The Chicago Ridge Village Board is expected to approved the agreement at its July 15 meeting, Oak Lawn Village Manager Larry Deetjen said.

Deetjen said Chicago Ridge Mayor Chuck Tokar approached Oak Lawn with the idea of Sheets becoming fire chief in both villages. Tokar could not be reached Tuesday night regarding Sheets taking over as the village’s fire chief. The move comes a few weeks after Chicago Ridge Fire Chief Robert Muszynski resigned, citing “personal differences” with the village’s elected officials, specifically Tokar, over possible changes the village is considering for the fire department.

His resignation came at the urging of Tokar, several Chicago Ridge trustees have said, but the board accepted Muszynski’s letter of resignation last month.

Muszynski’s resignation occurred several weeks after the village board encouraged Tokar to look at whether firefighting and/or ambulance service could be provided more efficiently — a move that has Chicago Ridge firefighters worried about losing their jobs. The changes under consideration could include hiring a private ambulance service or eliminating the fire department and joining a fire protection district, Tokar has said.

Last month, firefighter/paramedic Christ Schmelzer, president of Chicago Ridge Professional Firefighters Local 3098, said there was a “lot of tension in the firehouse” with Muszynski’s departure and the potential changes to the department.

Deetjen had no comment about Chicago Ridge exploring other firefighting or ambulance options but did say “there’s ample opportunity to run fire departments more efficiently.” He said he expects Sheets to hit the ground running, saying he will soon meet with Chicago Ridge’s 13 firefighters to “get to know them better.”

thanks Dan

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Fatal Oak Lawn fire claims 2nd victim

CBS Chicago has an article about a house fire in Oak Lawn last week that resulted in one fatality and one serious injury. They are now reporting that the injured person has also died.

 A second woman has died following a house fire that killed a 73-year-old woman early Saturday in the 10100 block of Lawrence Court, Oak Lawn Fire Chief George Sheets said Tuesday night at the village board meeting.

The Cook County Medical Examiner’s office identified her as 74-year-old Mary Bruce. She was pronounced dead at 11:03 a.m. at John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County, the medical examiner’s office said.

On Saturday, firefighters found Kathryn Lomec dead on her living room couch after they responded to a fire at her house about 2:40 a.m., authorities said. They said Lomec’s caretaker was found unconscious and lying in a hallway and was taken to Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn in critical condition.

Sheets said earlier that the fire was contained to the living room and extinguished quickly, and one firefighter suffered an elbow injury. He said smoke alarms inside the home were not functioning. The cause of the fire has not been determined, and Oak Lawn fire investigators and the Illinois State Fire Marshal’s office are investigating.

thanks Dan

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