McHenry County fire departments aim to retain part-time firefighters

Huntley, Crystal Lake are only area agencies staffed mostly by career firefighters

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HUNTLEY – As a part-time firefighter, Jonathan Fleck isn't eligible to receive health insurance through the Huntley Fire Protection District.

But after seven years, he is getting a little help.

Along with the Cary and the Rutland-Dundee fire protection districts, and the Sugar Grove Fire Department, Huntley is going to split a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to provide part-time firefighters with an incentive to stay over the next four years.

As long as he completes six hours of training and works six shifts a month, Fleck and other part-timers in Huntley will receive a $75 monthly stipend that goes directly to health care, child care, college education or a retirement plan.

“I have health insurance through my wife’s company and it’s $100,” Fleck said. “So this is a little extra money. It’s just helping my family out.”

Because part-time firefighters receive lower pay, no benefits and fewer perks than their full-time counterparts, local fire officials have to get creative when it comes to retention and recruitment. For some, that means offering a financial incentive, while others choose to tout their ability to prepare firefighters for a full-time job in the field.

Huntley Chief Ken Caudle said his department consists of about 30 part-timers and 58 full-time firefighters. Ideally, Caudle wants to have 35 part-time employees, but he struggles to find candidates who want to go through rigorous and time-consuming training to work a shift a week as a firefighter/paramedic for about $17 or $18 an hour.

It’s a problem local departments share because they often are working with the same part-time employees.

"A lot of our guys have become full time in other departments, but they will come in on their day off to protect their own community," Cary Fire Chief Jeffrey Macko said. "This gives them a little incentive to stay."

Under the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant, they hope to be able keep and build on their pool of part-timers.

“The goal of the entire grant is to keep who we have and make them better at what we do,” Caudle said. “They are part of the family.”

Only 8 percent of the fire departments in the country were staffed entirely by career firefighters as of January, and none of them are in McHenry County, according to the U.S. Fire Administration's National Fire Department Census.

Most of the fire departments in McHenry County are made up mostly of part-time firefighters, based on census classifications. Only two departments in the county – the Crystal Lake Fire Rescue Department and the Huntley Fire Protection District – are mostly career, meaning 51 percent to 99 percent of their staff are full time.

At the Richmond Fire Protection District, Chief Rick Gallas is the only full-time firefighter in a station that's staffed 24 hours a day. Adding more full-time firefighters isn't an option because of tax revenue, he said.
But he's got a system to make his department work.

“Our goal is to get them in, get them training and use them for five to seven years depending on the hiring process for career departments,” Gallas said. “Then we’re going to lose them.”

Gallas is in the middle of his annual recruitment drive to find five to 10 candidates within a 10-mile radius of town who can go through the department’s mini-academy to prepare them to get their Firefighter Basic Certificate from McHenry County College.

The fire department splits the $2,400 cost with the trainee. Meanwhile, they’re getting hands-on experience in Richmond.

“If you are looking to become a career firefighter, you really need departments like us to be able to do that,” Gallas said. “We are like the training grounds.”