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Berwyn fire chief will miss ‘engaging with second family’

Denis O’Halloran retires after 33 years with the department

Fire Chief Denis O'Halloran, after more than 33 years with the Berwyn Fire Department, has retired. He was chief the past 11 years. Photo by Steve Metsch
Fire Chief Denis O'Halloran, after more than 33 years with the Berwyn Fire Department, has retired. He was chief the past 11 years. Photo by Steve Metsch

BERWYN – Denis O’Halloran won’t miss having his radio turned to fire calls instead of music. Nor will he miss middle-of-the-night wake-up calls. And he surely won’t miss long hours spent in sub-zero cold or broiling heat.

What the retiring Berwyn fire chief will miss is “engaging with my second family, the firefighters.”

“I’m going to miss listening to them, about their lives and their children’s lives,” O’Halloran said. “I’m going to miss helping people. I made a lot of friends here in the business world and in the schools and the city.”

After 33 years and eight months working for the Berwyn Fire Department – the past 11 years as chief – O’Halloran’s last day on duty was April 2.

“It’s time for new ideas, fresh ideas. I’ve been here a while,” O’Halloran, 58, said.

After a few years as an EMT, he became a Berwyn firefighter in August 1985. He was later promoted to lieutenant and then to deputy chief/shift commander. After nine years in that role, he was named fire chief in March 2008.

“One of the best parts of this job is you can help people when they’re having a bad time,” he said. “We do the best we can to at least stop the bad day and help them recover. When you have a fire or a bad medical event, it affects people and the firefighters. You take that home with you.”

Mayor Robert Lovero called O’Halloran “a devoted employee and leader” when declaring March 26 “Denis O’Halloran Day.”

O’Halloran has seen the number of calls nearly double from 4,000 to 5,000 a year to around 8,000. Most of those are medical. About 250 are structure fires each year, he said.

The department “is more involved in the community” under the leadership of O’Halloran, who made sure firefighters attended block parties and read to students at schools.

Before he became chief, he started a Citizens Fire Academy, which teaches residents about the training firefighters go through, “from setting splints to climbing fire ladders to using the jaws of life in a staged car accident.” It meets each autumn.

The mayor’s declaration honoring O’Halloran included some humor, a key ingredient in every firefighter’s life.

One noted O’Halloran achieving “sniper status with his uncanny ability to flick his boot off at someone and hit them from distances of up to 15 feet.”

“Get their attention. Give a little soccer kick and hit them in the shin,” he said.

The resolution said, “Denis was quite the ‘firehouse chef’ in his early days on the BFD. His chicken and rice recipe was given an award by the brick layers union as ‘the best substitute for mortar.’”

O’Halloran smiled and, in his defense, noted if his recipe was in the oven and a fire call came, “You’ve got to go.”

“They forget that anything with rice will absorb the moisture. You could have probably built a house with it. These guys are ruthless. You make one mistake, it stays with you forever,” he said with a laugh.

Many memories will stay with him forever.

In 1976, while in high school, he skipped church to watch the impressive fire at the Berwyn Lumber Yard.

“People on Oak Park Avenue with hoses were covering their roofs,” he said.

The biggest fire he worked was the one at the World’s Largest Laundromat on Cermak Road.

“We were able to save all the buildings nearby” although firefighters could not go inside for fear the truss roof may collapse, he said.

Other memorable fires were at a RE/MAX office and the Seneca Restaurant, both on Cermak.

“Hot weather fires are brutal. But you can cool down. Cold weather, once you get cold, it’s hard to get warm,” he said.

He and other Berwyn firefighters went to New Orleans to help with the “horrible” cleanup after Hurricane Katrina.

Despite once tweaking a knee, he managed to avoid major injuries, unlike last summer when – at a charity softball game – he tore the hamstring off the femur in his left leg while trying to stretch a single into a double. He’s just finished physical therapy.

O’Halloran is glad his career was spent working in his hometown.

In 1974, he graduated from St. Leonard Grammar School. In 1978, he graduated from Morton West High School, where he played football. He attended the 40th reunion on crutches in September after his softball injury.

His next move depends on his only child, daughter Jenna, who will soon graduate from Georgia Tech.

“I’m going to wait and see where she winds up in life,” he said.

“For many years, I had a side job as a fire investigator. Before that, I had a roofing and siding business. I’ve got a lot of work to do on my house,” the Willow Springs resident said.

As O’Halloran concentrates on home improvements, hunting, golfing and fishing, the fire department has a new chief. Thomas A. Hayes’ first day was April 3. Kris Coniglio is the department’s new assistant chief.

A cake-and-coffee reception for O’Halloran was held April 2 at the fire house in Berwyn City Hall.

“It won’t be a final goodbye,” he said. “It will be a goodbye.”

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