East St. Louis FD Hits The Jackpot

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.

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.

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.

East St. Louis' reputation as a rough urban city has not proven to be a detriment, Travers said. And contrary to the opinion of gaming opponents, crime in East St. Louis has actually decreased since the Casino Queen debuted. And pointing to several rescues the fire department has made, Travers said, "We take pride in that they were given the ability to do that."

Riley is not yet done reshaping the department. "We have a long way to go," the chief said. "Planning and training is the key to reform." Manpower additions planned for the last quarter of this year include reactivation of the arson investigation unit and the addition of an engine company and 12 firefighters. Proposed for the future is the construction of a new training building and burn tower.

While there was a great drop in population in the last 20 years, the department no longer runs the 4,000 calls per year it had seen in the early 1970s. Calls for the department have averaged approximately 2,400 annually in the last five years. The chief estimates that 30 percent of those calls, however, were working fires; the fire department does not respond to emergency medical calls unless rescue is needed.

The heavy call load may turn some candidates away but most like the action. "I think the guys take a lot of pride in what they do," Riley said.

The Casino Queen has not limited its actions to governmental gaming proceeds and the hiring of local residents. It has funded numerous other improvements in the city and operates the Casino Queen Community Development Foundation. A pleasure visit by a volunteer firefighter from the nearby French Village, IL, Fire Department led to that department obtaining a $1,000 grant from the foundation to help upgrade a 1984 pumper. Other grants go to youth and community organizations, Travers said.

Another Beneficiary

The state of Illinois has issued 10 casino licenses since riverboat gaming was approved in that state in 1991. Nine of those casinos continue to operate and provide a financial boost to their home communities, as was intended by the original legislation.

One of those communities is the historic river town of Alton, 20 miles north of East St. Louis on the Mississippi River and home to the Alton Belle casino.

With a population of 34,000, Alton had been hit hard with a decline in heavy industry in that community. Significant property tax base and hundreds of good paying jobs were lost. In 1991, the department was considering laying off six firefighters. Six police officers had already been laid off. Then the Alton Belle steamed into town, the first gaming boat to open in the St. Louis metropolitan area. The boat and the income the city received from it allowed Alton to maintain the staffing levels it had previously enjoyed.

The Alton Fire Department responds to about 3,600 runs per year, mostly EMS calls. The department operates four engine companies, two non-transport rescue squads and one aerial tower. Engines operate with three firefighters; the aerial and squads operate with two firefighters each. An assistant chief makes for a full-shift of 19. Chief John Sowders said the issue of layoffs "just kind of died" after the city started to realize revenue from the Alton Belle.

Sowders said the gaming funds were, at first, not directly used for fire department purchases. But they did allow for previously committed Community Development funds to be used for the purchase of two pumpers and other fire department equipment. The department had been requesting funding for a new pumper since 1985 but the request was not approved until 1992.

The city of Alton utilizes a special fund of gaming revenues for capital expenditures. Another portion helps cover payroll in the city general fund to the tune of approximately $2 million each year. Sowders said the city tries to pare the amount of gaming revenue which goes into the general fund each year to reduce its dependence on gaming income for regular operating costs. The gaming fund has paid for a new $2 million, seven-bay fire station scheduled to open this year and housing two engine companies and a rescue squad.

Sowders said he has become a believer in how much gaming boats can help their communities. "I was one of the big skeptics at first," he said, "but I have proven myself to be totally wrong. They bend over backward for us ... they are an excellent corporate citizen."

Pete Stehman is a firefighter with the Collinsville, IL, Fire Department.