New Joliet deputy fire chiefs focus on connecting people with health, social services

Fire department takes on a new problem-solving role

Deputy Chief of Health Services Aaron Kozlowski (left) and Deputy Chief of Human Services John Koch were named to the newly created positions in March.

The future of what it means to be a firefighter may be reflected in the two newest deputy chief positions created at the Joliet Fire Department.

After years of being repeatedly called to the same residences to help with such issues as getting a disabled person out of a bed, the fire department is trying to get ahead of problems better handled by social agencies.

“It’s like doing first aid in the street,” John Koch, deputy chief of human services, said of the many calls the department gets for what are not fires or medical emergencies. “What we’re trying to do is get people to the actual services that can help them.”

“What we’re finding is someone is not having a crisis all of a sudden. It can be. But often it’s because they have basic human needs.”

—  Aaron Kozlowski, Joliet deputy fire chief of health services,

Koch and Aaron Kozlowski, deputy chief of health services, were appointed to their positions in March.

Kozlowski’s job is to oversee fire calls that come to the department for what turns out to be a problem that can’t be put out with a fire hose or treated by a paramedic. Koch’s job is to oversee a network of government and social agencies to provide solutions.

“What we’re finding is someone is not having a crisis all of a sudden,” Kozlowski said. “It can be. But often it’s because they have basic human needs.”

One such case involved repeated calls to a house where an aging war veteran, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, could not get out of bed for such basic functions as bathing.

The fire department was called to the house repeatedly until they were able to connect the family with social services that could help.

The Joliet Fire Department Administrative Offices in downtown in Joliet.

“Ten years ago, we would shrug our shoulders,” Kozlowski said. “We wouldn’t know what to do.”

Fire departments are replete with stories of firefighters pitching in money to find a place for a homeless family to stay or to provide meals for people who otherwise would go hungry, the deputy chiefs said. But that assistance went only so far, and the Joliet Fire Department is looking to connect people with more permanent means of support.

“The trick is the follow-up,” Kozlowski said, noting the fire department has something to gain by connecting people with agencies designed to help with the problems they face.

“If I do this,” he said, “not only will the person get better, but I’m not going to have to come back here 50 times.”

Fifty times is not an exaggeration, the deputy chiefs said. They can point to situations where firefighters have gone to households 100 or 150 times to help with problems better served by other agencies.

“We always recognized there was an issue,” Koch said. “It’s just that nobody knew what we could do about it.”

Koch noted that Joliet had 65 suicides in the past four years during which there were two deaths due to fires.

While the fire department is not equipped to treat people who are contemplating suicide, it is in a unique position to meet those people and help them seek treatment.

“People trust the fire department,” Koch said. “They open doors for us.”