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Chicago Ridge firefighters agree on contract with village

While labor negotiations are so often fraught with arguments and accusations, Chicago Ridge officials seem to have found a way to agree on a firefighter contract without even involving lawyers.

The village board voted unanimously to approve the three-year contract on Aug. 15 to the applause from scores of people in the audience, including a contingent of firefighters. The firefighters were also there for a presentation of a watch to the recently retired Deputy Chief Scott Durling, who had been with the department for close to 30 years.

Police Chief George Sheets noted the current contract doesn’t expire for another year.

“Because of the very positive labor/management relationship, we were able to negotiate a three-year extension of the current contract,” said Sheets. So the new agreement will be in effect through 2020.

“This contract was negotiated by labor and management, and without attorneys.  This alone, saved the Chicago Ridge taxpayers thousands of dollars,” said Sheets. 

International Association of Firefighters Local 3098 Union President Chris Schmelzer, who has held that position since 2000, said in a prepared statement that “this negotiation was the most amicable, most productive, and least stressful I have ever been a part of.”

Schmelzer couldn’t be at the meeting because he was representing the village at an IAFF convention, but Senior Lt. Chris Bennett read his statement to the board.

“Traditionally, the union had always come in asking for more than we thought we could get, and the village was always looking for concessions the union felt were unfair. I can assure you that this more recent ‘interest-based bargaining’ is much less taxing on the mindset and pocketbooks of both parties.”

He said the agreement represents “cooperation between labor and management on a scale that we have never enjoyed.” He said it “literally has something for everyone,” and will allow firefighters “to serve the residents and visitors to Chicago Ridge for years to come, all while maximizing the productivity of the Fire Department as a whole.”

Mayor Chuck Tokar and various trustees, as well as Bennett, gave a lot of the credit for the cooperative spirit to Fire Chief George Sheets, who is also the fire chief in neighboring Oak Lawn. Bennett also said that instituting seniority levels within the command structure has been helpful in retaining staff because those seeking advancement have to wait for someone above them to retire.

Tokar noted that Sheets has been leading the department over the past year, overseeing the successful implementation of a part-time firefighter program and the reopening of the Lombard Street fire station, among other things. Having the second station open, at least for 12 hours a day, and part-time firefighters training and working alongside the full-time crews has been credited with bringing down emergency response times while still saving hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even replacing several aging vehicles with a five-apparatus quint firetruck was a cost-saver.

In a related matter later in the meeting, the board also approved the purchase of a replacement ambulance, a 2016 Ford F450 Demo.

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