With a staff of 21 firefighters and six paramedics, Fire Chief Steve Glinke keeps watch over a small, suburban community where there are no high-rise buildings and the cemeteries are home to more residents than the neighborhoods. So when he put in a bid to provide emergency services to one of the largest veterans’ hospitals in the country, Glinke said there was a lot to consider.
“Obviously there is a need for new revenue,” Glinke said of the village as a whole. “The other side of that coin is, do we have the resources to bring that revenue in without sacrificing our day-to-day services.”
Federal officials at the Hines Veterans’ Affairs Hospital, a sprawling 147-acre campus with 47 buildings, decided Forest Park can serve as the primary responder in case of a fire or other emergency. A five-year contract worth roughly $1.8 million was agreed to earlier this month, some 70 percent of which Glinke expects to go directly into the village’s coffers.
But with the department being called outside of the village’s borders to 5th Street and Roosevelt Road, can residents count on Glinke’s crew to save their lives? According to the chief, the answer is a resounding yes.
Beginning on Aug. 20, 2006, the village entered into a month-to-month agreement with Hines after the federal hospital severed its long-standing contract with Broadview. Since that date, Forest Park’s firefighters have been called to two actual fires at Hines. Both, Glinke said, were put out within minutes and without much fanfare.
Meanwhile, about 90 percent of the department’s responses to the VA hospital since August of 2006 have been for false alarms.
“Our average call-time over there is 15 minutes,” Glinke said. “We can be back in any part of town in under five minutes.”
Of course, that’s not to say that a more serious-and time consuming-incident isn’t possible.” In fact, Glinke said the entire facility presents a multitude of challenges that his department wouldn’t otherwise face in Forest Park. The main hospital at Hines is a 16-story facility with 1,500 beds. Building 1 originally served as the campuses’ hospital but now carries a variety of uses. That four-story structure is nine-tenths of a mile long.
Toss in the added risks of a patient population with a host of mobility limitations, spinal injuries and mental illness, and Glinke said the potential for catastrophe is obvious.
“They have a hazardous material risk that is completely new to our operation,” Glinke said. “We don’t deal with radiation and nuclear [cleanup].”
To make sure his department adequately responds to Hines’ needs, firefighters are receiving on-site training at the facility. Additionally, Forest Park has an agreement with 14 neighboring fire departments to pay them $200 every time they’re called to assist at the VA.
To cover Forest Park’s emergencies, Glinke is contracting with Oak Park and Riverside. Each of those departments will receive $20,000 a year. Since his department began working with Hines in August, Glinke said he has never had to call on those neighboring communities to respond to an incident in Forest Park while his crew was at the VA facility.
“That’s an insurance payment,” Glinke said of the annual payment.
The $1.3 million in net profit the village is anticipating over the course of the agreement represents about 50 percent of the fire department’s annual budget. As with the revenue generated by any department though, that money will go to the general operating fund. Glinke will have no say in how those dollars are spent.
“This is not the fire department’s money,” Village Administrator Mike Sturino said. “This is the village’s money.”
According to Sturino, it’s not a good idea to create a “bounty system” in setting department budgets, though earmarks can provide an incentive.
As for potential uses of the roughly $250,000 in revenue the village is expecting each year, Sturino said those funds could easily be absorbed by payroll, liability insurance and healthcare expenses.
The village is currently in negotiations with the firefighters’ union over a new contract. It is the only remaining union group yet to reach a compromise.
“Labor costs are eating up our new revenues,” Sturino said.
The hunt for new money outside of what’s collected in property taxes has been successful over the last five years, but steadily climbing costs only increase the pressure to continue doing so. Between 2001 and 2006, the village’s budget increased by 38 percent, or roughly $5 million. During that period, the village decreased its dependency on property taxes by almost 5 percent.
Less than 18 percent of the roughly $5 million in new spending came from property tax revenue.