Written by Dermot Connolly
Photo by Jeff Vorva
George Sheets will be going back to being a fire chief in just one community in the coming months.
Fire Chief George Sheets’ double-duty role leading both the Oak Lawn and Chicago Ridge fire departments may be over in a few months, but he and officials in both villages said the arrangement has been successful and no one seems to be in a rush to end it.
Sheets, 51, has been chief of the Oak Lawn Fire Department since 2009 and will continue in that role. The Missouri native began his career in 1981 with the Missouri Fire Service, moving up from firefighter to lieutenant and captain before taking leadership positions in fire departments in Portage and Kalamazoo, Mich. He was chief of fire and EMS services in Beaver Dam, Wis., before coming to Oak Lawn.
“No one is being fired. No one is being forced out,” he said, explaining that when he took on the additional role of Chicago Ridge fire chief last July, it was intended to be a transitional period.
He said he expressed his intentions to go back to Oak Lawn full-time because all the goals he set have been met. But he expects to be holding down both jobs for at least a few more months while the process of selecting his replacement goes on.
The Oak Lawn resident said splitting time between the neighboring departments—his offices are both near Ridgeland Avenue, about a mile apart—has worked smoothly, for the most part.
“If a fire happens in Oak Lawn, I am the Oak Lawn chief, although the Chicago Ridge Fire Department might be assisting,” he said, explaining how his roles are kept separate.
“I think it has worked out very well for both communities,” said Mayor Chuck Tokar of Chicago Ridge. “He has done a great job, and I am in no hurry to see him go.”
Tokar said the process of finding a replacement is in the preliminary stages, “He said he was thinking about (leaving Chicago Ridge). He might have received some applications, but I haven’t even had a chance to talk to Oak Lawn Mayor Sandra Bury and Village Manager Larry Deetjen about the situation.”
In recent weeks,Bury also has praised Sheets for his work with both communities, and said the arrangement has worked well.
“This isn’t something that is going to happen on Aug. 1, or Sept. 1. It will be a few months at least,” said Tokar.
Sheets admitted occasionally turning up for duty in one village while wearing the shirt or uniform jacket of the other department.
“That was corrected quickly,” he said with a smile. “It has been suggested that the uniform patches should be attached with Velcro, so they can be switched back and forth.”
While Sheets said he has never turned up at one village office when he was scheduled to be at the other, he often goes back and forth between the two during the day.
For instance, he had planned an interview for this story in Oak Lawn. But when a situation required his presence in Chicago Ridge, the interview was switched to the Chicago Ridge headquarters at 10063 Virginia Ave., where he was found wearing his Oak Lawn Fire Department t-shirt.
In Chicago Ridge, Sheets oversees 13 full-time firefighters, 11 part-time, and 18 paid on-call firefighters. Two of the main goals that he sid he met during his tenure at the Chicago Ridge department was building a good working relationship between the full-time and part-time firefighters, as well as reopening the Lombard Avenue fire station.
That station at 10658 S. Lombard Ave. had been used for storage for many years until it reopened with a village-wide celebration in May.
While the next goal is to eventually have 24-hour service, the Lombard station is now open from 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily, staffed by both part-time and full-time firefighters.
Sheets credits the part-time firefighters who took on the work of cleaning out and restoring the Lombard Avenue station to usable condition. Full-time firefighters also donated their time, and $25,000, and community members also pitched in to help. All the volunteer work saved the village $100,000, according to the chief.
He said that in the past, there had been a contentious relationship between full- and part-time firefighters, who are also cross-trained as paramedics. But over the past year, they have begun working closely together.
“The full-time firefighters were unsure about the level of training the part-timers would be getting,” explained Sheets. “So I got them involved in the training process, so they know they are trained properly.”
“It’s not all about me. The union president, Chris Schmelzer, has been great to work with,” said Sheets.
In addition to reopening the fire station, obtaining a “quint” fire truck was also accomplished for the department under Sheets’ watch. Two older model trucks were sold to get the new vehicle, which serves as both an engine and ladder truck. It gets its name from the five functions the vehicle provides, a pump, water tank, fire hose, aerial device and ground ladders.
“I just have a systematic approach of getting things done,” said the chief, when asked what his secret to success was.
“George has done a lot to make the department better,” said Mike Welch, a retired paid on-call firefighter who serves as an informal historian for the fire department. “He has brought the full-time and part-time firefighters together. There was more of a division in the past, but they are really working and getting along together now.”