Days after he and his crew were given a standing ovation at a Village Board meeting, Evergreen Park Fire Chief Ronald Kleinhaus answered a few questions to give Patch readers a little more insight into the department and its leader.
Tell us a little about your job and the department as it exists today.
As fire chief I am responsible for the day-to-day operations of the fire department. Our department is divided into five divisions: operations, training and public education, support services, vehicle maintenance and data and communications. Each division has a chief officer assigned as the division head, and is responsible for the division’s operations and budget. Our department is staffed 24 hours a day by 10 personnel working 12-hour shifts. In addition to providing fire suppression and advanced life support (paramedic) ambulance service, our department offers a comprehensive fire prevention and public education program to our village.
Tell us a little about the history of the department. Doubtless it started as a volunteer force, right?
The fire department was staffed by a volunteer force from its inception until approximately 1972. Calls for service were increasing and it was becoming difficult to provide the required manpower without staffing the fire station 24 hour a day with part time personnel. The initial on-duty staffing was three personnel to staff the ambulance, and at the time, a “mini” pumper that was built by members of the department. The staffing was increased to four personnel and remained that way until the paramedic program was initiated in 1983, with the addition of the paramedics on-duty staffing was increased to seven. Again, in order to provide the best possible protection to the village, respond to an increased call demand and meet national manning levels, the staffing was increased to 10, adding one additional position each year from 1998 – 2000.
Tell us about yourself.
My family moved to the village in 1963. I attended District 124 elementary and junior high schools and graduated from Evergreen Park High School in 1974. After graduating high school I enlisted in the U. S. Air Force as a fire protection specialist, spending just over three years on active duty and 10 years in the Air Force Reserves. I have been married to my wife Liz for 35 years (36 in May) years. We have two grown children, Kimberly and Michael, and one grandson.
Tell us about your career as a firefighter. What led you to become a firefighter, as opposed to any other occupation?
My dad joined the fire department in 1964 and was a member for about 14 years before he hurt his back and could no longer work as a fireman. I have his helmet and his original application to join our department framed in my office, and I think about him everyday I come to work. When I was younger he would take me with him on visits to a Chicago firehouse, he would ride along and to go to fires, I got to sit in the cab of the rig and watch with the firehouse dog. That experience pretty much made up my mind as to what I wanted to do when I grew up. I joined the fire department as a cadet from 1972 until 1974 when I enlisted in the Air Force, when I was discharged in 1977 I returned as a firefighter. Over the years I have been fortunate enough to have been promoted through the ranks, I was appointed assistant chief in 1998 and chief in 2007.
In your years as a firefighter, what was the most exciting or rewarding incident/day? What happened and why?
Exciting things, kind of hard to narrow down to one in particular, extra alarm fires over the years, Fox Auto Rebuilders, a gasoline tank truck fire, Butera Foods and a couple of fires in the Plaza, the Paramedic program starting in 1983 to name a few. Besides being appointed chief, the most rewarding was the day my son Mike became a member of the fire department, now the third generation of our family to do so.
What was the low point? The most frustrating day?
A little over 30 years ago we had a fire in a sandwich shop on Kedzie Avenue. The fire had been burning for some time before it was discovered. When we arrived, the building was fully charged with smoke from the floor to the ceiling and the fire had extended into the dropped ceiling. Tragically, not only did this fire result in the first fatality I had ever experienced in my career, a family friend and long time resident of the village, but some of our members were seriously injured when the roof and ceiling collapsed while fighting the fire. We were extremely fortunate that we did not have a firefighter fatality as a result of that fire, and also that we have not experienced any serious injuries to our members since.
What's ahead for you and the department? Future plans?
We were recently notified by the Insurance Services Office that as a result of their recent survey of the fire department, water department and emergency communications center, that our villages rating had been upgraded to a Class 2, becoming one of 57 communities surveyed throughout the State of Illinois to receive a Class 2 rating. In order to receive this rating, significant improvements were made at a substantial expense by the village administration to upgrade the village water system, fire apparatus and training facilities. In order to maintain this rating, and to continue to provide the best possible service to the community, we will continue to make improvements to our operations and training program. Additional enhancements to our training facility are in progress and we have submitted an apparatus replacement plan for discussion with the Mayor and Board of Trustees.
If there's one thing you want everyone in the village to know and remember, what is it?
A fire department's most important resource is its people. To paraphrase the statement I made in our annual report, I am proud of our accomplishments, and prouder of our people as we strive to make our village a better and safer place to live and work. The members of the fire department are here 24 hours a day, ready to respond at a moment's notice to serve and protect our village.