Amboy, Harmon fire protection services merging through at least Dec. 31

Referendum to permanently consolidate the two districts will be on the November ballot for impacted voters

Amboy Fire Chief Jeff Bryant Sr., left, and Harmon Acting Mayor Galen Hooper pose for a photo in the Amboy Fire Protection District fire station on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024. Amboy FPD and the Harmon Fire Department are working on a merging; a referendum will appear on the November ballot.

AMBOY – The Amboy Fire Protection District is adding the Harmon Fire Department’s coverage area to its own, at least through the end of the year.

On Jan. 14, the Harmon Village Board of Trustees voted unanimously to merge the Harmon Fire Department with Amboy FPD, Harmon Acting Mayor Galen Hooper said.

“At the end of the day, we’re talking about quality of life for the people in Harmon, and also in Amboy,” Amboy Fire Chief Jeff Bryant Sr. said. “We already responded to every fire and accident in Harmon before this agreement, before this consolidation.”

A referendum to make the consolidation permanent will be on the November ballot for voters in the village of Harmon, Harmon Township and parts of Marion and Hamilton townships historically served by the Harmon Fire Department.

Harmon Village Clerk Bryant, Hooper and Treasurer Beth Nelson, Lee County Board Chairman Bob Olson and Harmon Township Supervisor Chris Norberg met with a Shaw Local News Network reporter for a joint interview Jan. 31. Harmon Fire Chief Dave Carrington was unable to attend because of a scheduling conflict.

The boundaries of the fire districts in Lee County, according to Lee County GIS.

Per the agreement, the Harmon Fire Department’s jurisdiction is being considered a part of the Amboy FPD’s area through Dec. 31, Bryant said. What happens after that depends on the results of the referendum.

Bryant said he fears that, if the referendum doesn’t pass, there won’t be another fire district willing to absorb all of Harmon Fire Department’s jurisdiction. The department is going to be annexed into a taxing fire district, he said, noting that it’s not a question of “if” but of “when” and “which one.”

Fire departments and fire protection districts can provide the same types of emergency response services, but have different governmental structures, according to a 2020 fact sheet from Northeastern Illinois Public Safety Training Academy in Glenview.

A fire department is a division of a city, village or town that shares tax revenue with all other divisions of that municipality and is overseen by the elected or appointed official of that municipality, according to NIPSTA. A fire protection district, on the other hand, is an independent governing body that might serve multiple municipalities, collects its own tax revenue and usually is governed by a board of trustees.

Until now, the Harmon Fire Department has been funded by annual subscriptions, Nelson said. Dues are mailed each year, but not everyone pays and it’s not mandatory to do so.

To subscribe to the Harmon Fire Department, the owner of a $200,000 house would owe $550 in fire dues annually, Bryant said. If annexed into the Amboy FPD, that same person would owe $373 annually – an amount collected via property taxes – and they would gain ambulance services at an in-district rate.

“What was enticing to us was we could see what the other taxing districts are charging, and actually Amboy was cheapest,” Nelson said. “That was one factor. But the other factor was the firefighters already train together, so they know each other, they know their procedures, and so it was just kind of a no-brainer that that’s the way we should go.”

Officials began discussing the possibility of merging the Amboy and Harmon fire services about two months ago, but it wasn’t the first time the topic had come up, Bryant said.

“About 2½ years ago, the village fire chief from Harmon came to Amboy Fire Protection District trustees and asked us to take them over,” he said. “At that time, we felt it was better to work with them, try to make them stronger, and see what the outcome was going to be with them.”

Daniel McMullen, far right, and Mitchell Losey, of Woven Film Co., of Loves Park, film Amboy Fire Protection District staff working for a recruitment video on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024, at the Amboy fire station.

Harmon Fire Department was down to about 10 volunteer firefighters, Hooper said, “not enough to take care of stuff.”

Complicating matters is that only three volunteers live in the village itself, Bryant said. The others live in other fire districts, he said.

Safety concerns prohibit volunteers who live outside the village from responding to certain calls unless they’re paid on-premise instead of paid on-call, Bryant said. But the department isn’t set up to pay on-premise, which brings the number of emergency responders down to three.

As part of the agreement with the village of Harmon, Amboy FPD retained three of the volunteers as paid on-call staff, Bryant said. The seniority of all three hires carried over from the Harmon Fire Department.

“The seniority is important because, at 20 years, you’re a lifetime member of the Amboy Fire Protection District,” Bryant said.

Carrington is one of the three retained, and will have a rank of captain, he said.

“This [merger] allows Amboy to pool their resources to make Harmon better, to make Amboy better and ultimately, just fire and protection service in this little part of the world better for everybody,” Norberg said.

Editor’s note: This article was updated to clarify that some former Harmon Fire Department volunteers lived in different fire districts, and to clarify that safety concerns prohibited those volunteers from responding to certain calls. – 10:25 p.m. Feb. 1, 2024

Alexa Zoellner

Alexa Zoellner

Alexa Zoellner reports on Lee, Ogle and Whiteside counties for Shaw Media out of the Dixon office. Previously, she worked for the Record-Eagle in Traverse City, Michigan, and the Daily Jefferson County Union in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin.