McHenry Township Fire District gets full-time staff, more calls for service

The department was the busiest Illinois fire district with only part-time firefighters, chief says

McHenry Township Fire Protection District firefighter/paramedic Kerry Uhlhorn, photographed on Wednesday, July 20, 2022 at Station 1 in McHenry, was one of the firefighters hired on full time from part time in the beginning on the year. Ryan Rayburn for Shaw Local

The McHenry Township Fire Protection District expects 7,400 calls for service in 2022, a 7.6% increase over 2021.

Those higher numbers are on top of a 21% increase in overall ambulance calls over the past two years, Deputy Chief Steve Spraker said.

And much like the private sector, Fire Chief Rudy Horist said the fire services are seeing fewer applicants for open positions, longer lead times for equipment and supply chain slowdowns.

Fewer people wanting to become firefighters is part of the reason why, earlier this year, the fire district chose to begin adding full-time firefighters for the first time, Horist said.

“In the fire service, the candidate pool nationwide is down. There is not the same number of people interested in the fire service as there was a few years ago,” Horist said. With that in mind, the board of trustees voted in December to begin transitioning away from a mostly part-time staff, approving 12 full-time firefighter/paramedics.

In May, they approved another 12 full-time firefighters for a total of 24, Horist said. They join other full-time office personnel, lieutenants and battalion chiefs, and 90 part-time firefighters rounding out the roster to cover each of the district’s five stations around the clock.

The district was able to cover all of its shifts and stations with the part-time personnel, Horist said. “The transition to more full-time people was not based on a problem with our service, it was more based on availability of our part-time people. It helps to ensure we have consistent coverage 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Residents should not notice any changes in response times or on their tax bill, he said.

“We are spending less on other stuff and more on salaries” to cover additional costs, Spraker said.

Kerry Uhlhorn is one of those new full-time firefighters. For the past nine years, Uhlhorn has worked part time at either Wonder Lake, Richmond or the McHenry Township fire district, switching back and forth between two of them at any given time.

As a part-timer, Uhlhorn said she didn’t have a typical week. “If there were open spots I would jump in to pick one up. There was not a lot of consistency in my schedule.”

Moving to the McHenry Township Fire District permanently was an easy choice, because so many of the firefighters who trained her already worked there, she said.

One of McHenry Township Fire Protection District's ambulances photographed on Wednesday, July 20, 2022 at Station 1 in McHenry. The fire department has ordered an additional five ambulances to be put in service. Ryan Rayburn for Shaw Local

How to replace and staff its ambulances is the next question for the fire district, which covers Bull Valley, Johnsburg, Holiday Hills, Lakemoor, McCullom Lake, McHenry, Ringwood, portions of Wonder Lake and Island Lake, and unincorporated McHenry County.

The fire district requested and received a $361,000 grant from Advance McHenry County to purchase a sixth ambulance to help cover increased calls for service.

Five others are on order, part of a seven-year rotation for the vehicles, Spraker said. Two may come in October, ahead of the previous date they had been given, and one in March 2023. Another two, ordered in July, won’t arrive until 2024, he said.

When the department does order the grant-funded ambulance, it expects an 18-month to two-year lead time.

Currently, the township fire district has seven ambulances, Spraker said. Five active units are housed at the district’s five fire stations and two are kept on standby – for special events and festivals, high call volumes and if one of the other five breaks down, he said.

Breakdowns happen, Spraker said. One ambulance was out of service for 10 weeks because the department couldn’t get an air compressor for it.

The transmission failed on another ambulance. That part showed up in just two days.

Spraker also noted more ambulance calls are coming with longer transport times. The time it takes to transport a patient to a hospital and return can take from 30 minutes to more than an hour.

“We can’t just say sorry” and not transport a patient because an ambulance crew is out, Spraker said.

The district has taken other steps to help reduce those calls.

Falls, lift assists and mental health evaluations are about a third of the total medical call volume, so the district is doing educational programs on avoiding falls, Spraker said. And Deputy Chief Karen Bush has been working with McHenry County social workers, giving input on how to reduce mental health ambulance calls, she said.

“The goal of the program is to do the work ahead of time and match resources to the need so police and fire response would not be necessary,” Bush said.

COVID-19 changed the call volume, as well.

When the pandemic first hit in March 2020, ambulance calls dropped because patients didn’t want to go to the hospital. By the summer, however, that changed. People who had delayed getting care started needing help, Spraker said.

But since March 13, 2020, the district transported 769 people with COVID-19, Spraker said.