RFD staffing expansion: ‘It's an investment back in our people’

At a special meeting on April 25, the Rochelle City Council voted 6-1 to approve a collective bargaining agreement with the International Association of Firefighters Local 3445 that will see six more full-time firefighter/paramedics added to RFD. The city will hire three firefighter/paramedics before the end of 2024 and three more by Jan. 1, 2026.

High call numbers result in agreement to add 6 full-time firefighters by 2026

ROCHELLE — Rochelle Fire Department Chief Dave Sawlsville has been with the department for 43 years. When he started at RFD, the department staffed three firefighters per day. In 2006, that increased to four per day, which required hiring three additional firefighters. 

At a special meeting on April 25, the Rochelle City Council voted 6-1 to approve a collective bargaining agreement with the International Association of Firefighters Local 3445 that will see six more full-time firefighter/paramedics added to RFD. The city will hire three firefighter/paramedics before the end of 2024 and three more by Jan. 1, 2026. 

RFD has seen record call numbers in recent years and a shortage of paid on-call firefighters, which it uses to supplement its staffing. The department handles both fire and EMS calls. Once full-time staff is engaged with a call, RFD relies on paid on-call staff to report to the station to handle additional calls. 

“This is one of the biggest undertakings we've seen at RFD,” Sawlsville said of the staffing expansion. “It's a challenge, but it's a great challenge. Instead of looking to fill holes, now you can sit down and look at what your response model is going to look like and things you can improve upon and things that you're not doing like transfers where we can expand with some increased staffing. It's a pretty interesting time to be at RFD.”

Rochelle Fire currently has one chief and 12 sworn full-time firefighters. Each shift sees one lieutenant and three firefighters on duty at all times. After the initial three new full-time firefighters are hired, RFD would have one lieutenant and four firefighters on duty at all times. After the following three, it would have one lieutenant and five firefighters on duty at all times. 

The additional cost of the proposed staffing expansion would be a total of $670,000 a year, after all six are hired, with the total per firefighter at $101,000.

Last year, RFD responded to a record 3,028 calls for service, which is just over eight calls per day, on average. It saw an average of 1.6 multiple calls per day where off-duty personnel were recalled to cover the second call. RFD saw 1,828 calls in 2018, with that number rising to 3,028 in 2022 with no staff increases over that time. The department is currently on pace in 2023 to set another record in call numbers.

“It's a human investment and it’s a dollar investment,” City Manager Jeff Fiegenschuh said. “Ultimately, it came down to the fact that it's taking a toll on our guys. They don't want to work that much overtime and it's stressful to be away from their families. Not to mention that it becomes a safety concern for not just our employees but potentially for our customers and residents. It became a top priority for me to get this contract approved because I really do believe that we needed that number of firefighters.”

The RFD staffing expansion process began in January. Sawlsville said with the department coming up on the end of another record year in calls in 2022, firefighter/paramedics made a presentation and asked for a meeting with the city manager. 

“We all sat down as a group and went through the numbers and saw it was time to do something,” Sawlsville said. “The surreal part for me still is, that's not normally how those conversations go. It's usually a little more contentious between staff and management. This time we were all on the same page and it was a really cool thing to watch.”

Later on, a presentation was made to the city council at a meeting and discussion was had among members of the department and the council. Following the staffing expansion’s approval, the hiring process for the initial three additional firefighter/paramedics began. 

State statute stipulates that fire departments must hire from a local eligibility list that’s tested for every two years. RFD’s most recent list was made last year and has 12 people on it. Sawlsville said two potential hires are currently in the works, and he’s confident that all three will be hired by Jan. 1, 2024.

Fiegenschuh said the staffing expansion will be funded by money freed up by some city positions that have been left open, increased ambulance revenues, and “outside-the-box” thinking such as taking on patient transfer work that the department has not done previously.

“Our firefighters on the negotiating team helped me figure out ways to pay for it and offered concessions,” Fiegenschuh said. “It's an investment back in our people and making sure that they're safe. We've got a plan in place that will fund it. That doesn't mean that there won't be some years where it's tight and we have to cut in other places. We're going to start looking at creating a transfer program where we take transfers from the nursing homes up to Rockford. Because we can do it cheaper than private ambulances and it can bring additional revenue in to cover the added costs for our firefighters. There's lots of ways to fund it by thinking outside the box. I've been here six years, and this is my proudest accomplishment, hands down."

Sawlsville said increased call numbers and COVID-19 made the past 3-4 years for Rochelle firefighter/paramedics difficult. The pandemic brought uncertainty, stress and increased anxiety. RFD personnel had to go into homes of patients infected with COVID-19 to provide care amid uncertainty with guidance and science early on in the pandemic. 

“You see the rebound effect now with a lot of anxiety in our patients that I think is a carryover from those days,” Sawlsville said. “COVID-19 brought tough times for us. I've never been more proud. Those guys showed up every day and did their job in the face of all that uncertainty. We got hit hard as a department with cases. We were down with staffing considerably because people were out with the virus. And even through that, our paid on-call and part-time staff stepped up and filled holes. I was very proud. They put their uniforms on and showed up every day."

Expanded staffing will allow RFD to better navigate times when multiple calls are ongoing, Sawlsville said. Off-duty firefighters and paid on-call staff will be less likely to have to drop what they’re doing to report to the station for a call. RFD had one shift recently where it had to call in off-duty personnel four times in a 24-hour period.

“The crew got off at 7 a.m. Saturday morning and went home after a fairly-eventful Friday night, and their day wasn’t done,” Sawlsville said. “Because we kept calling them back because we needed additional staffing. This new model is going to give them some time to be off and recharge. It's a win-win for everybody. When our firefighters are off-duty, they can be off-duty and focus on quality-of-life stuff as opposed to having to have one ear open all the time."