The latest in DuPage County’s efforts to consolidate services is now officially underway and could have long-term effects for the county’s fire departments as early as this year.
County Board member Gary Grasso presented a concept four years in the making, calling for a voluntary, regional fire organization to pool services and cut costs during the county’s Judicial and Public Safety Committee meeting Tuesday morning.
“The good news is that society and the fire departments and districts have somewhat put themselves out of business,” Grasso said. “The incidents of bad fires is very low, principally in DuPage County. Could a catastrophe happen any day at any time? Absolutely, and we have to be prepared for that. But the day-to-day fire service is driven by (emergency medical response).”
Should the plan, or some iteration of it, be adopted by area fire chiefs, it would create a quadrant system split by Interstate 355 and Interstate 88. Each quadrant would be led by an autonomous board of fire chiefs and contain a major hospital.
The boards would work to share and streamline services, buy equipment and standardize practices as much as possible. They, in turn, would be overseen by another executive board, which would facilitate further countywide cooperation.
Grasso pointed to the West Suburban Fire/Rescue Alliance, which includes Wheaton, Winfield, West Chicago, Carol Stream and Bloomingdale, as an example.
He said he and fellow board member and committee Chairman Grant Eckhoff had been working with local fire chiefs, firefighter’s unions and mayors to ensure their plan was as amenable to major stakeholders as possible before moving forward.
Originally, Eckhoff said, he hoped to consolidate all the fire departments under one entity but received pushback on the idea.
Should the plan get full buy-in, it could offset the rising cost of pensions, equipment and other expenses, Grasso said, and could even lead to the unified fire district originally sought.
“The whole thing is driven by economics,” Eckhoff said. “We’re trying to get ahead of the curve and present an opportunity for people to come together to save costs.”
The next step of the process is sitting down with stakeholders to begin discussing the project in greater detail. Its success will only go as far as the departments are willing to take it, Grasso said.
“We’ve always taken the position from day one until today and going forward after today that this is going to be driven by the professionals and by the chiefs,” he said. “Not by the politicians, not by the mayors, not by the County Board ... this project will not be successful unless chiefs and rank and file eventually get behind it.”
Elmhurst Assistant City Manager Mike Kopp, who is the city’s former fire department chief, said there is a lot of cooperation and shared practices between entities currently but more would be better.
He asked the County Board members present Tuesday to reach out to their local fire departments to pitch the idea.
“I’ve talked to a number of fire chiefs, and it’s hard to argue the fact that we could become better fire departments,” Kopp said. “If we’re all working from the same sheet of music, it’s going to be a lot better.”
Note to readers: A previous version of this story misstated the name of the Judicial and Public Safety Committee.