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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Riley drew on his 20-plus years of experience and sought the opinions of rank-and-file firefighters as he and Humphrey decided what equipment to specify. They felt that heavy-duty pumpers were required due to the large volume of calls received by the department and the high number of working fires. They also felt the fourth company should be a 75-foot quint unit to allow for maximum versatility. They opted for apparatus requiring minimal maintenance with long warranties. Also, the units were designed so that one unit could handle a working fire by itself, if necessary. One company handling a fire is not desired but it happens in East St. Louis on occasion, so the chief officers felt the new apparatus had to allow for that scenario.

The city ended up with 300-hp pumpers, focal retarders for extra braking, 1,250-gpm single-stage pumps and 1,000-gallon fiberglass tanks. The quint unit has a 470-hp engine, transmission output retarder for extra braking, 1,500-gpm single-stage pump and 500-gallon fiberglass tank. The all-steel aerial is even equipped with a standpipe connection at the nozzle to allow for elevated use when a building standpipe system is inoperable. The pumpers have top-mount control panels and extra compartmentation. All chassis and apparatus bodies are fully finished aluminum.

Each unit has a complete power rescue system with spreaders and cutters. (East St. Louis serves three congested interstate highways which funnel traffic into downtown St. Louis, providing for a very high number of accident extrication calls.)

Standard response to structure fires is two engine companies, with all possible equipment to be pulled off the first-due unit. The 1,000-gallon tanks allow the companies to contain most fires without connecting to a hydrant.

When hose is needed, new five-inch supply line is laid, again requiring only one unit to be committed. Detachable deck guns with portable bases augment 1 1/2-inch, 1 3/4-inch and 2 1/2-inch handlines. A booster line is provided for weeds and overhaul. The top-mount operator panel allows one pump operator to see most of the fire scene, and allows the five other firefighters to fight the fire.

Shortly after the new engines were delivered, the city hired 18 firefighters to provide for full manning. The hirings were the first in years as the city, due to finances, had not replaced those who retired or went on disability.

The influx of casino revenue, however, didn't provide for immediate relief for the department. Because of the severely depressed financial condition of the city, the state of Illinois set up the East St. Louis Financial Advisory Authority to help oversee city finances. But dealing with the authority provided yet another layer of bureaucracy for Riley to overcome.

"We had to learn how to work in concert with the authority," Riley said. Mix in several changes of city managers and there was plenty of frustration before the new apparatus and personnel ever came to fruition. "But we did finally see the light at the end of the tunnel," Riley said.

The chief takes extra pride in how his firefighters have assisted in the department's rebirth, beginning with the concession which allowed three companies to be staffed at all times. (Firefighters were later rewarded with a lump-sum pay raise.) That agreement was made even though the city had not formally re-negotiated the firefighters' contract in over 14 years. A strong relationship with the firefighters was forged in Riley's career. "I've been in the trenches with them ... that was an advantage," he said. "And I'll never forget where I came from."

In a city where for many years potholes and traffic signals went unrepaired for lack of funding, the chief said residents understood that the fire department was doing as much as it could with limited resources. "The public was patient until we were able to acquire the tools to operate a fire department."

As for the new start for both the fire department and the city, Riley is pleased with the early results, but urges caution. "Public safety improvements will serve as a catalyst for rebuilding of this community." He knows most of what he has seen would not have been possible without the Casino Queen. "The boat gave us a chance to get state-of-the-art equipment, and manpower."

Travers, the general manager, noted that improvements occurred in all city departments because of the gaming proceeds. "The boat is not the total answer but it has shown the possibilities of operating industry on the east side," he said.