Rantoul officials have mulled full-time fire department, but cost would be too high

Paxton firefighters, with their ladder truck (right) were among the area departments that assisted Rantoul firefighters (ladder truck at left) in fighting the New Year's Day blaze on South Tanner Street, Rantoul.

For more than 30 years the small Piatt County village of Bement employed a rare arrangement for its fire department — a full-time fire chief.

The late Steve Rittenhouse worked a shift of 24 hours on, 24 hours off — living at the firehouse during his “on” hours. He also worked a township job, current Fire Chief Tony Price said. He was paid an annual salary of about $36,000 by the fire protection district.

In earlier years, Bement also employed several firefighters on a part-time basis so the firehouse was permanently staffed.

Such an arrangement is rare in Illinois. Some larger towns employ a combination full-time chief and volunteer department or an all-full-time department or, like area communities, including Paxton and Rantoul, an all-volunteer department.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Paxton Mayor Bill Ingold said of his town’s department, headed by Fire Chief Denny Kingren.

Ingold said there has been no discussion of changing from the all-volunteer arrangement in the Ford County community of about 4,200.

“It would be too expensive,” he said.

In nearby Rantoul (population 12,769), the subject has been discussed but never advanced very far for the same reason — the cost.

Mayor Chuck Smith said he remembers the topic being discussed in the late 1990s when he was a member of the village board.

“There has been discussion in the past on many levels,” Smith said. “We ran the economic numbers versus our budget. At that time it wasn’t feasible to do. With a small town like this, that’s an ongoing cost, and we’ve had budget issues for many, many years, and it’s not feasible for us.”

He said he and former Village Administrator Jeff Fiegenschuh also “kicked around the idea” of a full-time fire chief, which he said is “probably more doable than having a full-time fire department.”

The benefit of a full-time chief, Smith said, is “to make sure we are having everything in order when we have a fire ... or to meet the demands of working with other communities under mutual aid.”

Smith said being a full-time chief probably wouldn’t be for everyone.

“Even though (Rantoul Fire Chief) Kenny Waters is doing a great job, I don’t think he would want his job to be full-time chief,” Smith said.

But having at least a few full-time fire staff on the village payroll might be advantageous in the future, especially if Rantoul grows.

“We’re not there yet,” Smith said. “Our growth hasn’t been the growth we would like to see happen. With (construction of a) sports complex and (resulting economic growth) we might be able to balance that between full-time and part-time.”

The next big expense for Rantoul is likely to be the purchase of a larger ladder truck. Rantoul’s 75-foot ladder truck would not be able to handle a fire in an upper floor of the Holiday Inn Express, for example.

Waters said he doesn’t think a change to a full-time department will happen any time soon.

“Not unless the village has an extra $4 million,” he said.

Rantoul’s arrangement is different than Paxton’s. Rantoul pays for the department facilities upkeep, equipment and firefighter pay, whereas Paxton’s fire district pays for its costs.

Rantoul firemen are paid for calls they answer and if they attend the department’s two training sessions a month.

Former Rantoul Mayor Katy Podagrosi said while she doesn’t remember the topic of a full-time department or chief coming up formally before the village board, she did research the topic once.

She said the volunteer department has done such a good job that changing the set-up was not imperative.

“Also, I found that many much-larger cities across the country operated much like we did,” Podagrosi said. “Being a fireman in Rantoul was like belonging to a special, elite fraternity. I wonder if some of the camaraderie might be lost with drastic changes.”

Kingren, who has been Paxton fire chief since 2002, said every state seems to handle fire department staffing differently. He said when he and his wife were visiting her parents in Oklahoma, he learned that most of that state’s fire departments have full-time paid chiefs plus a few other full-time firefighters with volunteers comprising the rest of the department.

He said Mahomet and Savoy also have full-time chiefs.

He doesn’t look for the system to change in towns like Paxton, with its 32-firefighter department, unless something fails.

Paxton and Rantoul, on occasion, respond to each other’s fires calls via mutual aid. For a massive fire in the 100 block of South Tanner Street in Rantoul on New Year’s Day, Paxton was called in to assist with its 105-foot ladder truck.

Kingren said he believes Paxton’s department runs well, but he said he can see where having a full-time chief would be an asset “to allow somebody to make a little bit better documentation of what needs to be done.”

Kingren said being a firefighter takes an understanding spouse. Firefighters — fire chiefs even more so — are gone a lot. He estimates he puts in about 20 hours a week with the department in addition to his full-time job.

“It plays a little bit of havoc on a marriage because you care so much about it,” said Kingren, who has been with the Paxton department since 1973.

Kingren said Paxton fire volunteers are paid by the district, which gives the leaders a certain amount to divide among the firefighters.

“Ours is ... divided according to activities and fires that are attended,” he said. “The penalty money is then used for the department needs. Food and drinks etc.”

Ingold said the Paxton firefighters “do a terrific job here in town.”

“Everything the firefighters do is a community effort. They built their own building; they helped to get their own trucks. And it’s all volunteer. There’s 32 men and women who are a terrific benefit to Paxton and the surrounding area,” Ingold said.

Bement Chief Price said most people wouldn’t have been willing to handle the work arrangement that Mr. Rittenhouse did. A spouse likely wouldn’t have cared for Price spending 24 hours at the firehouse and then 24 hours at home.

“He told me once, ‘It’s a solitary job,’” Price said.

After Mr. Rittenhouse died about five years ago, the Bement district trustees opted to go to an all-volunteer department. Until the ‘80s, the district also employed a few paid firefighters but ended that when the state of Illinois said the district also had to provide benefits, which the district couldn’t afford, Price said.  

“The pluses (of a paid staff) is you’ve got someone always at the station,” Price said. “When there’s a call the chief can immediately get in the truck or EMS vehicle and go. Not only that, the tornado siren, which is located there at the fire department, he can always be available to do that. It will be a lot faster response.”

Price sees the benefit of a full-time chief.

“During the day, Bement is basically a bedroom community,” he said. “During the day you’ll be lucky to get one person to respond (to a call). So we call mutual aid. On any fire we have automatic mutual aid with Ivesdale.”

Piatt County ambulance calls are answered by Kirby Hospital, Monticello. But because it can take some time to get to rural calls, each town’s fire department also has a staff of fire-responders.

dhinton@rantoulpress.com