Illinois, USA — All but 15 of the nearly 600 Illinois firefighters sent to Louisiana Labor Day returned last weekend, and 220 more were sent to relieve them.
“That’s what they’re saying they need, and we’ll honor it,” said Northbrook Fire Chief Jay Reardon, head of the statewide Mutual Aid Box Alarm System that staged the massive relief plan for New Orleans-area firefighters. The latest relief crew is expected back Oct. 1.
The Illinois contingent fought local fires, cleaned streets of debris and gave inoculations to Louisiana citizens. Mostly, they worked in support of the Gulf Coast area’s firefighters.
“Our firefighters built an emotional bond with them that will live forever,” Reardon said Tuesday. “They’ll stay in contact. It’s not a government thing, it’s a personal thing.”
New Orleans Fire Department Battalion Chief Don Abba, who deals with the needs of firefighters under stress, foreshadowed those comments Sept. 9.
Asked about the contribution of Illinois firefighters, the exhausted Abba saluted them.
“These guys came down here to support their brothers, and it’s a beautiful sight,” he said, looking out over a field of multicolored tents housing the Illinois firefighters in the Algiers section of New Orleans. “We’ll never forget it.”
Reardon said despite delays in deployment, the 24-hour delivery of 596 firefighters and 50 engines and ladder trucks to Louisiana indicated Illinois is ready to deal with a disaster here. If there’s any doubt, he said, consider that after doing it once, the state turned around and sent reinforcements two weeks later.
One of Abba’s jobs was to find transportation for stressed New Orleans firefighters who needed furlough, but Sept. 10, he was the one under stress with no ticket out. On short notice, Gurnee firefighters Scott DePauw and Mike Swiontek emptied a van of thousands of pounds of gear so they could drive the homeless chief and others to a firefighters’ shelter in a Baton Rouge church.
“It’s the least we can do,” said DePauw, who had spent the entire previous day with Swiontek and other Illinois firefighters clearing debris in the French Quarter.
Hundreds of other suburban firefighters spent Sept. 6 and 7, and in some cases Sept. 8, in an outdoor Baton Rouge staging area waiting to be deployed. “It was incredibly chaotic,” said Bridgeview Fire Chief Terry Lipinski, pressed into duty to help get the firefighters moving.
From Northbrook, Reardon joined Lipinski in trying to get the overmatched Louisiana local authorities off the dime. They got help from an unexpected source: The U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service.
“The Forest Service is very good at what they do,” Reardon said of the army of forest fire fighters. “Although a forest fire is not a hurricane, you have to have a management team organize the fire fighting, and support it. The Forest Service has those skills, and is able to take a disorganized situation and put some organization into it.”
After the Forest Service stepped in, hundreds of Illinois firefighters were switched from New Orleans duty to work in the embattled suburban parishes.
The only Illinois firefighters from the original contingent staying in Louisiana this week were a handful in the Slidell section of St. Tammany Parish. They’re staying an extra five days as they await the return of St. Tammany Fire Protection District firefighters from furlough.
Among the firefighters staying behind were Northbrook Ladder Truck 12’s Capt. Chris Wasco, Lt. Gabe Scepurek and firefighter-paramedics Steve Morris and Brian Kurban. Northbrook Firefighter/paramedic Joe Knebel returned last weekend, to help take care of his 3-year-old son and pregnant wife.
He said Tuesday that he and his crew fought fires by day and helped St. Tammany firefighters repair their houses by night.
“We caught anywhere from two to five fires a day,” he said. “Some of them were caused by turning the electric grid back on, and some were arson. Flood insurance is so high that a lot of people couldn’t afford it, but they had homeowners’ insurance” which covers fire.
He said Slidell firefighters are poorly paid, and they’ll suffer from losing side jobs in the decimated fishing industry.
“The town will come back,” he added. “It’s a pretty tough community.”