Forest Park’s fire chief, Bob McDermott, remembers wanting to be a firefighter since he was 3 years old.
“There was never a doubt in my mind about what I wanted to do,” said McDermott, 53, who is retiring from the Forest Park Fire Department at the end of September and taking over as chief in North Riverside, an unplanned opportunity that came up almost immediately after he announced his retirement.
Born and raised in Forest Park, his mother used to take him to the fire station for tours and to visit the firefighters.
As he got older, he didn’t just want to be a firefighter; he wanted to be a Forest Park firefighter. At 19, he was finishing his fire service degree at Triton College, when Shayne Ryerson (who later became chief) convinced the chief at that time to hire McDermott as a reserve fireman, even though the minimum age was 21.
He worked in that capacity for Forest Park and part time for the Stickney Fire Department. In July 1988, he was hired full-time in Forest Park.
“I felt like I won the lottery,” said McDermott. “I had wanted to work with these guys for a long time.”
He was promoted to lieutenant in 2000 and deputy chief in 2003, the same year Steve Glinke was promoted to chief.
“I learned a lot from Steve,” said McDermott. “Just from watching him work, he taught me a lot. He was a great teacher, very patient.”
When Glinke resigned as chief, McDermott was appointed to the position in June 2016. McDermott had already taken on many responsibilities, since Glinke had been serving in a dual role as a full-time fire chief and part-time director of public health and safety since 2010.
“Steve gave me a lot of latitude to do things the way I wanted,” said McDermott about his time as deputy chief. “My management style is a lot like his.”
McDermott said he has served as either chief or deputy chief for 17 years, and a reboot was due.
“In every organization, at some point it’s time for a change,” said McDermott. “I’ve served as chief and deputy chief since 2003.”
McDermott won’t go far. He’s taking the position of fire chief in the North Riverside Fire Department, a position he wasn’t looking for. In fact, he planned to continue working as a paid on-call firefighter for the village of LaGrange.
“There was a hole in my retirement plan, and that was that I hadn’t planned anything,” said McDermott, who announced his retirement on a Tuesday. The next day, North Riverside called and asked if he’d come in to interview.
“It kind of fell into my lap,” said McDermott, who will be working part-time in both departments until the end of September, when his retirement from Forest Park is official.
McDermott said the recent COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the most difficult experiences in his 32 years in Forest Park.
“The pandemic has been the most mentally fatiguing experience I’ve had in the firehouse,” he said. “Everything up until that point had some historical basis for decision-making. With this, there was nothing.”
Although the department has had plans in place for a biological attack since 9-11, it was the first time the threat seemed real. The fear that firefighters would contract COVID-19, reducing the numbers of first responders, was constantly on his mind. He set up daily check-in phone calls through MABAS, a mutual aid system between fire departments, with chiefs from River Forest, Oak Park and surrounding departments.
“We’d talk about how many calls we were getting. If anyone was sick. What kind of PPE we had or needed,” he said.
The Forest Park department had a decent stockpile of PPE but ordered more. There was a disconnect between first responders and the Cook County Department of Public Health, which refused to provide information about infected residents to the local fire departments, and information coming in from so many different sources.
“At first, we were told to expect half the population to get sick,” said McDermott. “We were preparing for a worst-case scenario.”
The department was and is prepared, and things have settled down, he added. The initial fear is gone, though everyone’s still on high alert. But he never doubted the department.
“What makes a job the best is the people you work with. Here? I’ve been surrounded by great people. It’s really like a family.”
He remembers his first fire — on the roof of Ferrara Pan, a relatively small fire, he said. He remembers people he’s worked with who are no longer with the department, including the late Frank Chiero, whom he considers a mentor. “He was an incredible person,” said McDermott.
He mentioned others: Rovert Santelli, Phil Barnes, Don Olson and Shayne Ryerson. And those he’s worked with aren’t likely to forget him either.
Glinke speaks fondly of “Mac.”
“You can work your entire career and not meet a fireman like Bob McDermott,” he said. “He’s one of those guys who seemed destined for the job — a true believer.”
Glinke described McDermott as “whip-smart, funny as hell and undeniably the best fire chief to ever serve in Forest Park,” crediting him for many operational service improvements over the past 15 years and for his decision-making skills.
“He has the gift of quickly filtering distractions and making strategically appropriate tactical decisions on the fireground, earning the trust and respect of seasoned firefighters and peer chiefs throughout the metro area,” Glinke said. “I’ll miss his good counsel, patience and treasure the good times and bad because I had the great fortune of serving with one of the great ones.”
Village Administrator Tim Gillian said he wishes McDermott nothing but the best, but he understands his decision to move on.
“He’s spent his entire adult life in service to the community of Forest Park,” said Gillian, adding, “He deserves every accolade he gets.”
Throughout his career, and especially during the past six months of the pandemic, Gillian said McDermott’s contributions to the village have been “invaluable.”
“I will forever be grateful for his leadership,” he said.
Mayor Rory Hoskins said McDermott will be missed. “He’s a great guy, and a great fire chief. I’m not surprised someone else snapped him up so quickly.”
Commissioner Joe Byrnes, who has known McDermott for 47 years both personally and professionally, said, “Bobby’s got an infectious personality. He’s got a great, dry sense of humor.”
Byrnes also commended McDermott for his demeanor, saying he’s only seen him get angry twice, but both times he calmed down quickly.
“He’s very patient,” said Byrnes, “a guy people can look up to. Nobody can say a bad word about him.”
Byrnes also noted that the department is set for continued success.
“What Bobby [McDermott] and Steve [Glinke] did as chiefs was ensure they had quality people in the fire department who could step up and step into a leadership position,” said Byrnes. “We’re in a good position with good quality people that Forest Park can be proud of promoting.”
Looking back on his time in Forest Park, McDermott said he wouldn’t have changed a thing.
“I’m probably the luckiest person alive,” he said.