Excerpts from the ChicagoTribune.com:

Oak Lawn Fire Chief Michael Mavrogeorge is well aware of the contentious history that exists between his new employer and the rank-and-file members of the department he’s been charged to lead. The 47-year-old Mavrogeorge, who left his job as fire chief and emergency management director of St. Louis Downtown Airport to take over Oak Lawn’s fire department last month, said some very highly respected fire chiefs and firefighter union leaders even advised him against accepting the position for that reason. But after weighing the job offer for several weeks, he ultimately decided to take it, opting to embrace the challenge of leading a department whose relationship with village management has been rocky in recent years.

Oak Lawn and its firefighters have been at odds over minimum manning requirements since 2008, when the union filed a grievance against the village after it began staffing engines with three people, rather than four, as is stipulated in the contract. Unable to reach a compromise on contract language in the years since, the parties have relied on an arbitrator to adjudicate their labor disputes.

Despite offering $5.6 million to buy out the contested contract language and threatening to cancel a $1.35 million Federal Emergency Management Agency grant awarded for the purpose of hiring seven new firefighters, the village again failed to win concessions from the union this past year before the expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement. As a result, it appears likely that an arbitrator will once again settle the terms of the next contract.

In February, the village made good on its threat to abort the federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant — which officials said would have put Oak Lawn on the hook for $930,000 in matching funds — after the union declined to accept the village’s desired concessions, which involved the introduction of a new employee wage scale.

Union president Vince Griffin called the village’s decision to cancel the grant very unfortunate, both politically and financially for the village, and rejected assertions that the union had been intransigent and unwilling to compromise.

Mavrogeorge, who said he has experience getting groups with competing interests to work together, wasted little time wading into the minefield of labor relations in Oak Lawn. During a speech at the June 12 meeting where he was sworn in as chief, he told the village board and residents that change within the department was necessary.

“Today’s EMS and fire service is not the service of 50 years ago, 25 years ago or even 10 years ago. The most successful and effective departments across the nation understand this and the importance of innovating and changing to address new challenges and threats,” he said. “Evolution is the key. The reality of today’s EMS and fire service environment nationally is that approximately 75 percent of what we do involves medical care. Less than 3 percent of what we do involves working fires.”

“Let this department be as diverse as our community. Let us be the leader in recruiting women into the EMS and fire service, and cultivating them into the future leaders of this department,” he said. “Let us move forward from the past and into a new, brighter future. Let us understand what we were, what we are and most definitely and importantly what we can become with a new vision and willingness to evolve to address future challenges and threats. Let us work together to accomplish these goals.”

Mavrogeorge, who said he believes department staffing levels should be the purview of management, not a matter of collective bargaining, concluded his speech by promising to work with both sides to develop a sustainable staffing and deployment model that would balance the economic considerations of the village with the need to maintain safe operations for firefighters and the community.

He said that he wasn’t concerned if his speech had alienated some firefighters.

“You should be asking about the citizens of Oak Lawn and what is in their best interests, not focused on alienating the union,” he said. “These are all professionals who know that the status quo is broken. The years of labor strife have not been in the best interest of the citizens of Oak Lawn or the firefighters. I would hope that the members of the department will join me in finally putting an end to the labor strife and finding common ground that management and the union can agree on.”

Griffin, the union president, called it a misnomer to cite the proportionally higher number of EMS calls to which the department responds as a justification for downsizing the department.

“We go on a high number of calls,” he said, noting that Oak Lawn was one of the busiest departments in the state last year. “You still need personnel to respond to EMS and respond to any variety of calls we go on. To say fire service is now EMS-based and we don’t need personnel, I’d tend to say the more calls you go on, the more personnel you need to mitigate all emergency situations.”

“The only plan we currently have is to get to know everyone, understand what we were, what we are currently, and what we can become,” Mavrogeorge said. “Our goal is…to become the leader in providing pre-hospital emergency medical care; community risk reduction; and fire protection services with all employees being held to the highest level of ethical conduct, integrity, and public service.

thanks Dan and Keith