East St. Louis FD Hits The Jackpot

Pete Stehman shows how riverboat gaming helped turn a fire department's finances around.


Being appointed chief of the East St. Louis, IL, Fire Department was both good news and bad news for Verge Riley. On the good side, the veteran captain finally was given the chance to lead the department after working his way up from firefighter. He also served as president of the...


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Being appointed chief of the East St. Louis, IL, Fire Department was both good news and bad news for Verge Riley.

On the good side, the veteran captain finally was given the chance to lead the department after working his way up from firefighter. He also served as president of the firefighters' union for 15 years.

The bad news was that he would be chief of a department which had seen its ranks dwindle to 38 firefighters after a high of over 100 in the early 1970s. lt was hard to keep two beat-up engine companies in service on many days; at times, one of those companies had to use an old mini-pumper. Add in a few missed paydays, and morale, understandably, was low.

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Photo by Pete Stehman
Some of the East St. Louis, IL, Fire Department's new apparatus is displayed along the waterfront, in front of the Casino Queen and directly across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, MO.

Good things, however, started to happen after Riley was named chief in June 1991. Teamwork with the firefighters and other city officials was a step in the right direction. But real salvation came in the form of a 450-foot, 7.1 million-pound boat anchored in the Mississippi River on the East St. Louis riverfront, directly across from the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, MO.

The Casino Queen, the biggest gambling boat in the St. Louis metropolitan area, provided a rapid cash infusion that has helped revive a city which has struggled with high poverty and the loss of much heavy industry and nearly 30,000 residents (41 percent of its population) in the last 20 years. Gaming revenue has arguably helped this fire department as much as, if not more, than any fire department in the Midwest.

Riley's first move as chief was to negotiate with Firefighter's Local 23 officials and iron out a one-year agreement which required each firefighter to work an extra 24-hour shift each month at the regular rate of pay. This move allowed three engine companies to be staffed at all times. "What we did is put the citizen's safety first," Riley said. "…This allowed us to always have three (engines) in service."

The next move was to procure equipment for the department. At the time of Riley's appointment as chief, the fire department's fleet consisted of five malfunctioning pumpers. It was a struggle for Riley and Deputy Chief Jerry Humphrey to keep any three of the pumpers running at one time. Engine and electrical problems were never ending, and water leaks were constant; stationhouse hoses were kept in the apparatus tanks to keep water levels up.

Morale had plunged while absenteeism rose. In those years, the firefighters occasionally were paid late due to the city's financial straits; there were no "guaranteed" paydays.

"The manpower and equipment was at rock bottom," Riley said. "It affected our response time and performance. I have to commend the men, though, because they rose to the occasion. They just love firefighting. It just goes to show what firefighters are made of, what dedication."

After Illinois lawmakers allowed riverboat gaming in that state, plans for the Casino Queen were unveiled. They included a 42,000-square-foot visitors center/reception area and 15 acres of parking for 2,000 cars. A below-grade tunnel discharges passengers onto the boat's main deck. When it opened in June 1993, the Casino Queen was the largest inland waterway vessel afloat in the United States.

City officials were ecstatic about the revenue the new boat generated. The funds allowed the city to begin to pay off some of its debts and start once again to provide levels of service residents had not received in years. The city receives 5 percent of the 20 percent gaming tax levied by the state. Further, the city keeps all of a $1-per-person boarding fee. These earnings provided the city with about $5 million in 1993 and $10 million the following year. (The Casino Queen grosses some $10 million each month.) The Casino Queen's general manager, Craig Travers, said the community also is helped as the boat strives to hire 50 percent of its employees from the City of East St. Louis.

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