'It's pretty devastating': Losing territory and revenue, Elk Grove Twp. fire department closes shop
The Elk Grove Township Fire Department answered its first call in 1979. On Sunday, it finished its last shift.
In the wake of annexations by surrounding communities that have shriveled its territory, tax base and revenue, the fire district bowed to the inevitable Sunday morning and discontinued fire and emergency medical services.
"We have been fighting for a long time," fire district President Carlos Maldonado said. "And we were fighting until last night at 11 (p.m.), trying to see how we can extend the life span of the department and keep it operational."
"Too many things have happened in the last couple of months that have impacted drastically the source of revenue for the department," he said.
Chief Kieran Mackey informed the fire chiefs of the Mount Prospect, Elk Grove and Des Plaines fire departments in a letter Friday. Emergency calls that would have gone to the fire district now will be routed to those three agencies, depending on the location of the call.
The fire department, which operated out of a station at 1415 E. Algonquin Road in Arlington Heights, served more than 5,000 residents, most in unincorporated areas northwest of O'Hare International Airport.
Firefighters have said the end of operations could mean longer response times for those previously served by the department.
"Our community needs us. When they call for us, we're there," said Hilary Ellis, one of the Elk Grove Township firefighters. "So they're losing us and our quick times and quick responses. The other departments have to take a little longer to get there."
At Sunday's closing ceremony, firefighters boarded their rigs, including a tearful Brittney Copano, who climbed into the tender truck she calls "Bertha."
Then a crowd of current and former firefighters, fire officials and district trustees stood in the garage of the fire station and listened as the dispatch center decommissioned the department.
The district will continue to exist for now, with a budget and a tax levy. Dissolving it would have to be approved by referendum.
In the meantime, litigation pitting the district against Mount Prospect and Elk Grove Township continues. The village and township are asking a court to block the district from selling its assets, including its station, vehicles and other equipment.
Over the years, the fire department has provided valuable training and served as a pipeline for other departments, Deputy Chief Scott Peirson said.
"The leadership here gave us a lot of opportunity to go to classes. There was never a time that I was told 'no' to go to a class," said Ben Foltin, a Carpentersville firefighter/paramedic who was a lieutenant in Elk Grove Township. "To think that other guys who were in my position won't have that opportunity, you hate to see that."
For employees like Copano, the fire district was family. Before working for the department, she was involved with it through a cadet program.
"We kind of knew what was coming," she said. "It's very painful."
"It's hard to be able to hear that you're losing your job, when this is the greatest job in the world," Ellis added. "It's pretty devastating to all of us. We love this place. This is home. This is my second home."