There are few government obligations as basic as fire and ambulance service, and the Barrington Countryside Fire Protection District has a delicate but all-important transition to make in how those services will be provided for a 48-square-mile area beginning Jan. 1.
Fire district trustees have no margin for error when they replace their decades-old contract for service from the Barrington Fire Department with equipment and staff of their own.
The success of the transition will affect residents in parts of Barrington Hills, South Barrington, Lake Barrington, Inverness and unincorporated Cook, Lake and McHenry counties.
The likely parting of ways between the fire district and the village of Barrington stems from a disagreement over the amount of personnel and equipment needed by the district.
District trustees argue their jurisdiction needs more of both -- and are willing to use their own tax revenue to pay for it. But Barrington officials disagree and have refused to authorize the additions.
If the split goes through, Barrington Village President Karen Darch said she envisions an arrangement in which both agencies would have their own personnel but work together more closely than departments who have a traditional mutual-aid agreement.
Barrington Village Manager Jeff Lawler said this could include a station from either department taking primary responsibility for the calls closest to them, regardless of jurisdiction.
Village leaders watching closely
Regardless of the reasons, the potential for change in a formula that has worked for years has other local leaders, like Inverness Village President Jack Tatooles, paying close attention.
"My concern is that I need to be assured somehow that my residents who pay taxes to Barrington Countryside are going to be adequately protected," Tatooles said. "I'm ready, willing and able to participate, and I'm actually requesting to have some participation in the process."
Lake Barrington Village President Kevin Richardson said he'd prefer to see the two boards find a way to continue working together, but he is confident both know what's best for their own constituents.
"I hope two groups of smart people can keep figuring out a way to provide this service at an affordable cost," Richardson said.
New Barrington Hills Village President Martin McLaughlin said he hopes the fire district, which serves a large portion of his village, is making adequate preparations for the transition.
"Nothing ever goes as smoothly as you hope, it just doesn't," McLaughlin said. "Planning may help prevent most of the unknowns."
New South Barrington Village President Paula McCombie said she too is holding out hope for a new agreement between the fire district and Barrington but is sure a seamless transition is possible if necessary.
"I have confidence they're going to do the right thing for the people who are their constituents," McCombie said of the district's trustees. "At this time, I'm not concerned that it's going to negatively impact our village."
Gearing up for Jan. 1
Fire district attorney Richard Curran said the district has a statutory responsibility to provide constant service. Trustees, he said, are taking that responsibility very seriously -- including hiring the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association as consultants for the coming transition.
"The obligation is very clear-cut," Curran said. "There's no question that we have to be in a position to provide the service (on Jan. 1). We have to be up and running."
Unlike most taxing bodies where the buck stops with the voters, however, the fire district is run by five appointed trustees. The Barrington Township board in Cook County appoints three of the trustees, while the Lake County Board appoints the other two.
Barrington Township Supervisor Gene Dawson said that once appointed, fire district trustees are entirely autonomous. Nevertheless, if he saw any reason to be concerned about their handling of the current situation, he would quickly arrange to speak with them.
But he hasn't had to.
"Those people are very knowledgeable people," Dawson said. "I'm sure they've researched this whole process. We want to provide safety and security for the residents."
The fire district will keep its fire stations in Barrington Hills and Lake Barrington, as well as half the equipment it co-owns with the village of Barrington.
Replacing its firefighter/paramedics will be a little trickier, though.
The district already has put out requests for proposals for contracted personnel, as opposed to the unionized firefighters who work in Barrington. While rare in the region, that model has worked well for the Fox River Grove Fire Protection District, officials there say.
One of the biggest differences, Fox River Grove Fire Chief Robert Kreher said, is that his firefighter/paramedics get 401(k) retirement plans instead of pensions. He hasn't seen the differences result in high turnover or a lack of qualified candidates.
"The guys, they love to work there," Kreher said of his staff. "Maybe it's just the work environment. These are guys that know the area and know the job."
Kreher and Fox River Grove Fire District Trustee Bill Yocius believe the Barrington Countryside Fire District would have no problem recruiting qualified staff members under a similar formula.
"Absolutely not," Kreher said. "There are several hundred people just in our area that would be willing to do that job. Certainly, I'd be willing to help (Barrington Countryside) out any way I can."
Fox River Grove's fire district requires its staff to live within a mile of the district, something Barrington Countryside probably won't mandate, district board President Tom Rowan said.
Instead, Barrington Countryside would likely adopt a paid-on-premise contract that would pay its staff members to come in to regularly man its two stations. Rowan believes employee loyalty can be built even in a nonunion department by creating an environment in which the firefighters are fairly compensated and treated with respect.
But today's union members believe any change from the current agreement between Barrington and the fire district would be a backward step for public safety and cost efficiency.
Local union President Eric Brouilette said that seems so obvious to him and his colleagues that they believe Barrington and the fire district eventually will agree to continue their current relationship.
"I have to be confident that a deal is going to happen," Brouilette said. "The benefit is cost going down and service going up. You're getting the most bang for your buck with consolidation."