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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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."