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Article posted: 6/25/2012 12:12 PM

DuPage towns form new firefighting alliance

By Katlyn Smith

In the heart of a Wheaton neighborhood, thick smoke poured out of a vacant home.

Teams of firefighters quickly set to work. They adjusted their gear that weighs almost 70 pounds, burst into the home and searched for the source of the smoke.

Turns out it was pumped out of a machine on the first floor.

The occasion was a training drill last week of a new alliance that encompasses the Wheaton Fire Department and fire protection districts of Carol Stream, Winfield and West Chicago. The group calls itself the West Suburban Fire/Rescue Alliance.

It's not a consolidation, but an opportunity for the fire officials to reduce costs and improve efficiencies by sharing training, coordinating dispatching and creating common protocols. The alliance also plans ahead for big events that will affect them all. It even improves teamwork and camaraderie among departments, its leaders say.

The Wheaton Fire Department officially became the final member of the alliance on June 18 when the city council approved the intergovernmental agreement and bylaws.

Before the alliance, multi-department training occurred every couple of months, Wheaton Fire Chief Gregory Berk said. And when firefighters reached a fire, each agency used its own operating guidelines and procedures to battle a blaze.

Now, the alliance has established a uniform set of guidelines and created a committee that releases a monthly bulletin with schedules for multi-department training at the end of each month.

"By building this relationship, you're seeing that they're now becoming cohesive and prepared to work with each other without hesitation, with immediacy," Berk said.

The genesis of the alliance goes back to March 2010, when the four chiefs from each agency met to try to iron out ways to boost efficiency in a time of tight budgets.

Since then, they and four deputy chiefs have been meeting weekly and are eyeing expansion. Berk said the alliance is currently in talks with several neighboring municipalities.

The alliance also has set up a uniform set of dispatch guidelines on how each agency responds to fires within and outside of its community.

The DuPage Public Safety Communications, or DU-COMM, a Glendale Heights-based regional service, handles 911 calls for the four municipalities and reprogrammed a software system for the alliance when it went live in February, Berk said.

Now, when DU-COMM receives a call for an emergency within the four communities, it dispatches the closest available fire station of the 10 in the alliance, he said.

If there's a working fire, an alliance task force deploys to the headquarter station of the affected community to plan for any additional emergencies that may arise, Berk said. The task force includes three fire engines, a truck company, an ambulance and a chief officer.

"We take that task force of equipment and we now look at where are the voids," Berk said. "We start deploying that task force to cover everything so that next call is going to get answered."

In the fall, Berk said the alliance expects to study equipment needs and whether there are ways to share resources. In Wheaton, the city council still approves the fire department's budgeting and purchasing of equipment.

The chiefs plan to determine the alliance's success by doing benchmark studies on data such as response time at the six-month and one-year marks.

In addition to day-to-day operations, Carol Stream Fire Chief Rick Kolomay says the alliance was formed with an eye toward preparing for major events that can test security such as the recent NATO summit and the Ryder Cup international golf competition at Medinah Country Club in September.

Kolomay said of the NATO preparations, "We felt very whole because we were all on the same page already."

Berk added, "Instead of waiting and reacting to something happening, we're trying to plan ahead and say, 'If this were to happen, here's how we're going to address it.'"

In the firefighter culture, Kolomay stressed the alliance also builds inter-department relationships, trust and chemistry.

"That," he said, "translates into the field."

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