Since its inception in 1949, the Fire Department has grown from an all-volunteer department housed in a barn with a makeshift fire truck to today's modern department consisting of 24 careers and 17 paid on-call members, with a host of modern apparatus and equipment at their disposal.
American Community Builders (ACB), who was responsible for the initial construction of most of Park Forest, formed the first Fire Department back in 1949. At that time, the department consisted of a World War II military jeep donated by ACB housed in an old barn at the intersection of Western Avenue and 26th Street. The department was staffed by 15 - 18 volunteers who worked or resided in the Village. The need for a true piece of fire equipment soon became apparent, and the Village purchased a 1949 Chevrolet pickup truck and converted it into a piece of firefighting apparatus, equipped with a pump, water tank, and hose bed.
Shortly after its establishment, the first fire chief, Al Wolters, was appointed. He was a disabled firefighter from the City of Chicago and remained the head of the Department until 1951. During Chief Wolters' tenure, a mutual aid system was established between Park Forest, Chicago Heights, Matteson, and many other surrounding communities. This mutual aid system is still in effect today and was the forerunner of the WILCO Fire Chiefs' Association.
In 1951, with the Village growing in leaps and bounds, the fire department began to grow as well. The Public Safety Building, housing the Village's Police and Fire Departments, was constructed and would be expanded in the early 1960s into its present configuration, with four double-depth bays, sleeping quarters, training facilities, and office space. The Village also purchased its first custom piece of fire apparatus, a 1951 open cab American La France. Additionally, a civil defense heavy-duty rescue vehicle (1948 Reo) was donated to the Department to carry men and equipment to the scene of emergencies. These vehicles would serve the Village for a number of years, with the last of them, the 1948 Reo, being disposed of in early 1990.
Capping off the very busy year of 1951, the Village hired its first career firefighter. Adolph "Shorty" Pfeifer, a mechanic for ACB and a member of the volunteer fire department, was the first in a long list of career members of the Department. "Shorty," along with Leo Duhoski, hired later in 1951, worked Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and a half a day on Saturdays. These men were responsible for responding to emergency calls, as well as, maintaining the department's apparatus and equipment.
Fire Department staffing was now also being supplemented by members of the Department of Public Works, with ACB personnel still acting as volunteers. This cooperation between the Fire Department and Public Works continued well into the 1970s. These groups of Village employees would not only work together in times of emergency but would regularly train together to prepare for an emergency.
The growth of the Fire Department would continue over the years in conjunction with that of the Village itself. Notable hallmarks included:
- Purchase of a second American La France pumper, 1952
- Olaf Sorensen was appointed the first full-time Fire Chief, in 1955 (served until 1967)
- Expansion of career division to 8 full-time members, 1957
- First Aid services were provided utilizing a converted station wagon, in 1957
- Design and construction of a Fire Department Training Site, 1960
- Appointment of Lt. Fred Creveling to Fire Chief, 1968 (served until 1976)
- Purchase of a new Sutphen aerial tower in 1970
- Expansion of career division to a total of 21 shift personnel, 1970
- Purchase of the first ambulance in conjunction with a State of Illinois grant, 1973
- Introduction of paramedic service to the Village, 1974
- Appointment of Lt. John Morrissey to Fire Chief, 1978 (served until 1989)
- Appointment of James Gignac to Fire Chief, 1989, (served until 1991)
- Appointment of Lt. Ronald Welch to Fire Chief, 1991 (served until March 31, 2006)
- Appointment of Robert Wilcox to Fire Chief, March 31, 2006 (served until March 29, 2013)
- Appointment of Deputy Chief Bruce Ziegle to Fire Chief, April 1, 2013 (served until Oct. 20, 2017)
- Appointment of Deputy Chief Tracy Natyshok to Fire Chief Oct. 23, 2017
By 1957, the Fire Department had grown to 11 career personnel supplemented by more than thirty volunteer firefighters. This growth would continue into the early 1970s when the Fire Department would reach its largest staffing level. In that time frame, the department would have a total of 22 career personnel, assisted by approximately 50 Paid On-Call personnel.
As the tough economic times of the 1970s struck, the Fire Department was impacted by a downsizing, which was accomplished through attrition. During this time period, the career staff was reduced to nineteen, with the POC division fluctuating in size from year to year.
No history of the Fire Department would be complete without mentioning its darkest moment. On Feb. 8, 1963, the Department recorded its only "Line of Duty Death". Adolph "Shorty" Pfeifer sustained fatal injuries in a fall at a commercial building under construction while fighting a fire. In honor of "Shorty's" ultimate sacrifice, the Department dedicated its Training site in his memory on October 2, 1965. This facility is still in use by the Fire Department and remains a tribute to our fallen comrade.
The Fire Department has seen its ups and downs throughout the years but has recently seen a renewal. Work was begun in the mid-1990s to re-establish a staffing level of 21 shift personnel. This program reached its goal in January of 1999 when the department again employed 21 shift personnel in three shifts of seven.
Throughout its history, the Fire Department has been proud of the accomplishments obtained and its ability to meet the growing needs of the community. Today we continue the tradition of quality service first established in 1949, and we hope to retain this tradition for many, many years to come.