Plan to close fire station irks residents near Downers Grove

A proposal to combine the resources of the Lisle-Woodridge and Darien-Woodridge fire protection districts is being touted as a way to enhance service and improve firefighter safety.

That's providing little comfort, however, for residents near Downers Grove who will lose their neighborhood fire station if the intergovernmental agreement is approved.

The Darien-Woodridge fire board last week unanimously supported the "automatic response agreement" that would have both districts operate as a single entity when responding to emergency calls. Lisle-Woodridge's board is expected to take a deciding vote on the deal Tuesday.

"The advantage for us is we're going to have more efficient use of staffing and resources," said Keith Krestan, Lisle-Woodridge's interim fire chief. "Instead of our five stations and their three stations, it's going to be seven stations. And we're going to intermix our resources - our engines, our trucks, our ambulances and our people."

The plan calls for Darien-Woodridge Station 88 at the southeast corner of Belmont Road and 59th Street to close on May 1. Officials say the closure would be for a trial period that would end Dec. 31, 2018.

Some residents served by that station fear it will never reopen.

"There is no way that this agreement is going to benefit me," resident Carl Witt said. "I've got a station right now that's a half block away from me."

Fire officials said Witt and his neighbors would be served by other stations, including a Lisle-Woodridge facility that's less than two miles away. As a result, response times to those homes would go up.

Officials, however, insist the quality of service would improve.

Now, Darien-Woodridge is able to assign only two firefighters to its engines and ladder truck. By closing Station 88 and shuffling staff, the department would be able to assign three people to its fire vehicles. Lisle-Woodridge already does that.

"This is the best thing from a fire chief's perspective for everybody involved," said Darien-Woodridge Chief Steven Gorsky, adding it's "unfair" to residents and "patently unsafe" for firefighters to have fewer than three people on a fire suppression vehicle.

While the arrangement might sound like a money-saving move, Darien-Woodridge board members say it's about safety.

"We know it's safer for the firefighters," board President James Palatine said. "And we really believe strongly that it will be more safe for the citizens. Otherwise, I wouldn't take part in this."

Lisle-Woodridge and Darien-Woodridge officials spent more than a year developing a "functional cooperation" plan after a 2016 study by the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association examined what the impact would be on emergency services if the districts operated as one.

Krestan said the departments "weren't ready" for consolidation at this point, so they decided to start with cooperation.

"We're two very similar organizations," Krestan said. "It makes sense that we look and see if this can work. And if it works, then maybe we move to the next step."

While the deal has been in the works for years, residents served by Station 88 said they were only recently notified about the plan.

DuPage County Board member Liz Chaplin, who lives in the area, said neighbors were notified about the closure in a leaflet that arrived in the mail less than a week before the vote by Darien-Woodridge.

"There was never any discussion with the neighbors on closing the fire station," she said. "There was no real community outreach."

While residents were able to ask questions and address the Darien-Woodridge board for nearly 90 minutes before the vote, some called it "a formality."

"This is a foregone done deal," resident Jim Gracey said. "This is happening, and we have absolutely no say about it. I'm angry about that."

Art Thompson, a district vice president with the Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois - the union that paid for the 2016 study - said no one went into the talks with the intention of closing a fire station.

"The idea was how could we better utilize the resources we have to better serve the community," he said.

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