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Palos Park firemen reflect on 30-plus years of service to their community

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Chief Jim Graben (left) and Captain Arthur “Chip” Adams of the Palos Park Fire Protection District have been honored for 30 years of full-time service.

Photo by Anthony Caciopo

 

It’s long been said that a buck doesn’t go as far as it used to, and there’s no more evidence of that than the experience of two longtime veterans of the Palos Park Fire Protection District (PPFPD).

“We used to get a dollar a call, and that was to reimburse us for gas,” recalls Capt. Arthur “Chip” Adams of his days as a volunteer with the district. “In 1980, they changed our status to part-time paid-on-call and we started getting paid a salary, minimum wage.”

Adams and District Chief James Graben were honored this summer by the PPFPD Board of Trustees for 30 years of full-time service, but they’ve actually spent much longer in the district. The changes they’ve seen to the department, and firefighting in general, have been substantial.

They started young…very young

“I grew up right here in Palos Park and so did Chip,” Graben said. “We both joined the fire department when we were teenagers.”

These days, firefighting teens might seem a bit curious at best and, well, perhaps a really bad idea at worst, but the old friends say that’s just the way it was.

“Chip was 16 and I was 17,” said Graben. “It was an all-volunteer department for many years. I joined in June of 1980, just out of my junior year in high school.”

Both men attended Sandburg High School in Orland Park.

Adams’ start date was April 1, 1976. They began their careers as cadets, years before their full-time employment started in 1987.

“We were ‘on squad’ as volunteers,” said Graben. That standby status meant it could interfere with the good times teenagers and young adults like to have, and it even sometimes interfered with schooling.

“The chief (at that time) had to write notes when I had to go to school late because of a fire,” said Adams, who today also serves as one of the district’s shift commanders. “I remember sitting in class, looking around at the other guys, thinking where I had just come from and saying, ‘This is really cool.’ ”

Among his earliest memories of life with the department were the Clark refinery fire in 1976 where he spent two-and-a-half days helping fight the blaze, as well as his experience searching through rubble for victims in the aftermath of a tornado that hit Lemont.

“All that was before my time,” said Graben, who takes delight in occasionally ribbing his slightly older friend about their age difference. “I’m teasin’ the old man here.”

Friends gave them the nudge

“My best friend, Pat, was in my sophomore English class,” said Adams. “He said to me ‘I’m joining as a cadet. You should come with me and we’ll join together.’ ”

Graben had a similar experience.

“I was also a junior in high school,” he said. “My best friend was already a member here and he said ‘You should come down and join the fire department.’ ”

That friend, Forest Reeder, Jr. is currently the chief of the Tinley Park Fire Department.

“It was something to do,” said Adams. “It certainly wasn’t my plan, my career path. I went to college for aviation. I wanted to be a fighter pilot in the Air Force and then be an airline pilot.

“But the more I did this, the more I had a passion for it,” said Adams, whose family had an excavating business. “I remember to this day telling my dad ‘I think this is what I’m going to do.’ He was disappointed but years later, a couple years before he died, he said ‘I’m really proud of what you did.’ “

Graben studied business at Moraine Valley Community College, then went to the fire academy through the Palos Heights Fire Department. After that, he said, “I went through EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) school, went through paramedic school, and I’ve been a paramedic since 1983.”

Department was founded following tragedy

More than 100 years ago, in 1914, Palos Park was incorporated as a village but until the 1950s the community relied on fire protection from nearby jurisdictions.

“There was no fire department in our area,” said Chief Graben. “The first responding fire department came from across the canal (the Cal-Sag Channel) in North Palos, and from Orland Park, too. The ambulance used to come from Oak Lawn.”

Then, tragedy struck.

In 1952, a fourteen-year-old girl, Susan Firalyo, died in a fire in her home. By 1956, a brand-new firehouse, the first in Palos Park, was opened.

“After that tragic fire in which the girl passed away, there were members of Palos Park who got together and decided it was important to start a fire protection district,” he said.

A brief history of the district and its founders can be found at palosfire.org.

The boys, and the department, grew up together

 

In 1983, the PPFPD went to full-time personnel and, when new employment openings occurred a few years later, Graben and Adams jumped aboard.

“They were hiring here in 1987, the second wave of hiring,” Graben said. He, Adams and two others joined the department as full-time employees that year.

Graben, like Adams, worked as a shift commander, a position he held for 19 years before becoming chief in November of 2015. Adams is also now the department’s fire marshal. All members of the department are trained as EMT/paramedics.

“I told him he was nuts taking that job,” laughed Adams about Graben’s position of chief.

Graben remembers a department from his early days that had the same three fire engines from when the PPFPD was established. Now, the district has a fleet of equipment at its two fire stations, including three fire engines; three ambulances; a ladder truck; a command vehicle; underwater search and rescue trailer; three water rescue boats and other apparatus.

Still, maintaining a fleet of modern, effective equipment is no small task, especially when costs are considered. Graben said a fire engine pumper typically costs $500,000; a ladder truck, $800,000 to $1 million; and a four-wheel drive ambulance, approximately $250,000.

The department’s back-up ambulance, a two-wheel drive model, has to have chains installed on its rear wheels during the winter due to the village’s many twisting, inclined streets.

Graben and Adams also remember something department-related that will ring a bell with long-time Palos Park residents: annual turkey shoots. To raise funds before Thanksgiving, the department sold tickets to people who’d use firearms—including one that used to be kept at the department—to shoot targets. People who hit the bullseyes would be given their choice of a live or frozen turkey. The tradition ended, as far as the men could recall, in the 1980s.

Firefighting, then and now

“When we started, it was firefighting,” said Adams. “Then we became EMTs, then paramedics. Then they started adding hazmat, water rescue and more. There’s so much training that firefighters have to do.”

“Basic firefighting is very similar, but back when we started, equipment was very minimalistic,” said Graben.

“What the fire department does (in the future) is not going to be so much firefighting as EMS (Emergency Medical Services), hazmat and rescue,” said Adams.

Currently, the men say, 65 percent of calls to the PPFPD are EMS-related.

“There have been horrific car accidents in Palos,” said Graben, to which Adams adds “We were doing extrications a couple times a week.”

But when fire strikes, it’s a much different scenario than in years past.

“Houses burn much faster, much hotter and are much more dangerous,” said the chief. He says a primary reason for this is because so much plastic is incorporated into construction materials and interior items, much of which the average homeowner isn’t even aware.

’We’re here to help’

The passion the men have for their careers and their service to the community is apparent in even casual conversation, even though both admit a life in the fire department was not a compelling desire when they stated.

Adams points to a faint scar above his eyebrow that he says he got when playing behind the firehouse as a child.

“I think it was from ’67,” he said. “I was a little kid, here at the department for an open house. I ran underneath a chain-link fence that caught my eyebrow. It was my first injury in the eight or nine I’ve had,” he said with a smile.

“I had no inkling I’d ever do this,” Adams said. “It was just a way of being involved in the community. It was just our mindset at that time. A lot of that has changed these days.”

Still, he says, “We’re here to help the community with whatever emergency they have. Whatever happens in our world that needs to be addressed is given to the fire department,” said Adams.

“It’s left all to us.”

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