Staff Shortages Forcing Dwight Fire to Seek Tax Increase Vote

In 10 minutes, a fire in a home could completely destroy the structure. And if a person is trapped inside, they could perish in that fire.

Fire safety is literally a matter of life and death and loss of property, which is why the Dwight Fire Department is concerned that they cannot provide adequate staffing during the weekday hours and Saturday nights.
Thus the reason for a tax increase request to staff the fire department in Dwight with at least three people 24-7. Three is the minimum safety number for a fire truck, according to Dwight Fire Chief Paul Johnson.
On March 20, Dwight Fire District voters will have a choice on the ballot to increase their taxes by 0.5 percent by voting for two separate referendums (see sidebar for the language of the referendums and reason for two ballot questions.)
The five percent increase in property taxes based on equalized assessed valuation for a home with a market value of $100,000 will increase by roughly $69 per year if both referendums pass March 20.
Four years ago in Dwight, the average time to respond to calls was 18 minutes. The department had just 18 volunteer firefighters at the time.

 

“We need people,” Johnson told The Paper last week. “Over the last four years, we have attempted to recruit people for Dwight.”
As a stop-gap measure, Johnson applied for and received a four-year grant for $355,000 that ran from September 2015 through September 2019.
This money was utilized to pay for training and equipment for firefighters. The fire board relaxed residency rules and lured people to Dwight to work for “free” as volunteer firefighters, but securing needed firefighter training, and equipment at the same time.
Some of the people drove down from the Chicago area, eating meals while here, and basically sacrificing their time and money to train to be a firefighter in Dwight.
But in the long run, those people would not eventually move to Dwight to be volunteer firefighters, but instead take paying positions with larger municipalities.
The department is now up to 45 volunteers and all are trained. They receive between $5 and $15 a call, depending on training and rank. That is the extent of their “salary.”
They also receive $5 to attend a training session. All personnel are trained at the Dwight Fire Department now, Johnson said.
However, there are large gaps in coverage with weekday and Saturday evening hours not staffed with the safe minimum of at least three firefighters.
Regardless, the average call response time is now at 5 minutes, down from the previous 18. At 18 minutes, a structure could be destroyed by the fire and people trapped inside may not survive. The recent fire at LSC  Communications in Dwight was not answered first by a Dwight Firefighting team, but by Gardner, a 10 minute drive away, due to personnel issues in Dwight, Johnson said.
“To me, that’s just not acceptable,” Johnson, a man who works full-time as a firefighter in the Chicago suburbs, said of the LSC fire.
In the case of a vehicle accident (Interstate 55 is part of the Fire Protection District), people trapped in a car could perish if they are not rescued in time. The fire department, not the EMS department, has the training and equipment to extricate people from vehicles.
Johnson said without the passage of the referendum, the department could revert back to that 18 minute response time, endangering lives and property.
With the passage of the referendums, which equates to an increase in property taxes of 19 cents a day for a home valued at $100,000, the department will have enough money to pay  three people $150 each for a 14 hour on-site shift. That totals $164,250 per year.
The 0.1 percent increase in the existing corporate levy from 0.3 to 0.4 would result in an additional $97,257.84.
The 0.1 percent increase in the rescue squad levy would result in $91,666.20. The two increases combined more than pay for the new staff. The levies are for up to the maximum but the department board may choose to levy for less, which has been done in previous years.
That is not the same as a paid fire department like the one in Pontiac, but Johnson said the call volume in Dwight is close to that of the call volume for a city such as Pontiac, part of the need for more people. Johnson said the grant was a temporary fix but referred to the referendum as a “permanent fix.”
This referendum would also benefit the EMS department, which sends a minimum of two people to emergencies. The fire people, in some cases, are trained EMTs, and can assist in medical emergencies. In addition, an extra three firefighters in an ambulance emergency could also save lives.
According to Fire Department Board Treasurer, Eric Stewart, the departments have mandates for training, but are not funded by the government. This adds to the budget shortfalls, but he agreed personnel was the real issue.
“When people work in the middle of the day, it’s the toughest time to get service,” Stewart said.
Stewart mentioned that the Dwight Fire also goes out on ambulance runs, especially accidents, because they may be needed with their specialized equipment, such as extrication from vehicles.
He said quick response times are needed to save lives and property.“Everyone expects us to respond with alacrity,” Stewart added.
To continue to do that, the department needs more personnel. To do that, they need additional funds.
Should the tax questions pass in March, the taxes payable in 2019 would reflect the increase.
This increase could result in lower insurance premiums for homeowners, but it is difficult to determine if it would be enough to offset the tax increase.
According to insurance agent Bob Weller of the Weller-Hooker Agency in Dwight,  it should decrease the premium, but the exact discount depends on the home, the person insured and the insurance company.
For more information or to have the department speak on the subject, call the department at (815) 584-2313, Ext. 11, or email Paul Johnson at:
pjohnson@dwightfire.org