12 firefighters resign over departmental shake up

One of those who resigned in solidarity with his colleagues said he expects the number of resignations to climb to about 20


 

By Zak Koeske
The Daily Southtown

MERRIONETTE PARK, Ill. — The Merrionette Park Fire Department is apparently in revolt after the village didn't reappoint three senior department officials and a longtime department secretary at its board meeting last month.

At least a dozen members of the paid on-call department have resigned since Deputy Chief Pat Carter, Capt. Tom Ziolkowski, Lt. Jim Carter and secretary Katie Quinn Schneider had their posts rescinded, village officials said.

One of those who resigned in solidarity with his colleagues, firefighter Tony Calzaretta, said he expects the number of resignations to climb to about 20 by week's end.

"There was no reason given to them. They have an impeccable service record," Calzaretta said of the senior officials who were not reappointed. "They were just not reappointed out of nowhere."

Calzaretta said it's generally a given that village employees, who are reappointed by the mayor on one-year contracts each spring, will be retained unless they've engaged in some sort of misconduct. In instances where the village does rescind someone's employment, it typically provides an explanation. That, however, did not happen in this case, he said.

"These guys were just not reappointed," said Calzaretta, who had more than seven years with the department. "Those guys never had any contacts with the mayor. There was no meeting, there was no nothing like that. That was just it."

The moves coincided with the installation of Thomas J. Wendt as the new fire chief on Monday.

Wendt, a part-time fire lieutenant in Calumet Park and the former chief of the Dixmoor Fire Department, replaced longtime Chief Leonard Edling, who retired at the end of April.

Considered an "outsider" by longtime members of the department, Wendt joined the Merrionette Park Fire Department a couple months ago, around the time Edling announced he would be stepping down.

The department's senior members, all of whom had been with the village for far longer than Wendt, were not offered or asked to apply for the position of chief, Calzaretta said.

While firefighters believed from the beginning that Wendt had the inside track to replace Edling and had not been opposed to his appointment, it was still shocking that three of the department's senior officials were let go without explanation around the time he was installed.

"The sole reason why all of us [resigned] was because those three guys weren't reappointed with no reason given," Calzaretta said. "So, whether it is connected (to Wendt's hiring) or not, I have no idea, but all I know is the main reason we left is because those guys did not get reappointed."

Village spokesman Pete DiCianni said he could not comment on why the senior department members had not been retained because it was a personnel matter.

"They're all paid on-call employees," he said. "Those are positions that can be not reappointed or terminated at any time for any reason."

Calzaretta said there had been no sign that department veterans would not be reappointed and was at a loss to explain their ouster.

"There were some concerns voiced among ourselves about an outsider being brought in that's never worked for that department," he said. "But there were no actual problems between the membership and [Wendt]. No arguments or anything like that."

In a statement released Tuesday, Mayor Dennis Magee said the village was "thankful to outgoing members of our fire protection community for their service," but did not otherwise acknowledge the resignations.

He said the village was confident that the remaining fire department members and any new hires would continue to serve and protect the village without interruption.

"As Mayor, my number one priority is to protect our residents and I assure you our community is safe under Chief Wendt's leadership," the statement reads.

DiCianni said the mayor chose Wendt as the new chief because of his "vast amount of leadership experience" and the fact that he lived in Merrionette Park.

He characterized the fire department resignations as "sour grapes" and said that many of those who resigned did not regularly respond to calls anyway.

According to data provided by the village, eight of the 12 firefighters who resigned had responded to less than 10 percent of emergency incidents this year. Three had not responded to any emergency incidents and one had responded to only 1 percent of calls, the data show.

"It seemed like these employees, these firefighters were already thinking of leaving because they weren't coming down to help with emergency incidents," Wendt said.

Calzaretta said paid on-call fire department members — who, like himself, often hold multiple other jobs — are expected to make 20 percent of emergency calls. He acknowledged that some members respond to few calls, but said relying on response rates was an imperfect way to judge a member's contribution to the department.

"Some members spend a lot of time [at the firehouse], but don't hit 20 percent because calls don't come in when you're there," said Calzaretta, who has responded to 24 percent of calls this year, according to village data. "I wouldn't dispute that some of the guys were low, but . . . it's not our fault that sometimes these calls don't come in when you're around."

DiCianni said the department, which previously employed 36 members to cover a town of 1,900 people, had been "over bloated" and that even with the resignations could still adequately respond to emergencies.

"There's plenty of manpower on hand," he said. "It's a pretty small community and Chief Wendt feels he has plenty of resources to run the department and keep the community safe."

To make up for the loss in manpower, Wendt said in a note to the mayor that he plans to present the names of seven new fire department applicants at the village board meeting in May.

He also plans to restructure the department's operations by staffing the firehouse with two members at all times to respond to minor incidents. Additional manpower can be summoned for larger incidents, as necessary, he said.

Previously, the firehouse was unmanned, and firefighters simply responded to pages from dispatchers when emergency calls came in, a process Wendt called "really inefficient."

"Everyone would respond from their homes to the fire station, get whatever apparatus is supposed to go out and respond to the incident," Wendt said. "So now, when I have staffing in the firehouse, it's going to cut those response times way down."

In addition to being inefficient, the department's previous response procedure also had the potential to prove costly, because dozens of firefighters might respond to a minor incident that did not require all of them, Wendt said.

"If I had an ambulance call, 30 people could come down and I'd have to pay 30 people for the ambulance call," he said. "The way we're restructuring this, 30 people won't come. It's more fiscally responsible."

Three years of budget documents show that Merrionette Park paid around $150,000 annually to its firefighters, not including a $40,500 salary for the chief.

"What I want to see is No. 1 great service to our residents, which we're providing," Wendt said, "and No. 2, fiscal responsibility."

Calzaretta, who continues to work full-time for one fire department and part-time for another, expressed regret over the situation in Merrionette Park because he had considered it his "home department."

"That place was my heart and soul," he said. "You have to live within three miles of the fire department to work there, so you're working with your best friends. You're working with literally family, in some guys' cases — brothers, cousins, lifelong friends. It's almost like a fraternity."

Calzaretta said even if the village hires new firefighters to replace the ones who left, the mass resignation would have major implications for the department — both logistically and morale-wise.

"You can replace people, but when they don't have direct experience with that community, with that area, with those rigs, with that gear, it puts them in a bad predicament," he said. "You also have a total morale loss."

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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