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DeKalb Fire Chief Jeff McMaster discusses transition period

2018 annual report shows department modernized operation guidelines

DeKalb firefighters gather on the porch of a home March 26 at 129 Warren Place in DeKalb after knocking down a fire inside the residence.
DeKalb firefighters gather on the porch of a home March 26 at 129 Warren Place in DeKalb after knocking down a fire inside the residence.

KELSEY RETTKE – krettke@shawmedia.com

DeKALB – Jeff McMaster knows firsthand how much of a transition year the DeKalb Fire Department endured, as he's only been the chief for six months, in a period with a lot of new faces in city roles.

McMaster took over after Eric Hicks retired in November 2018, and oversees the department's 53-person team and $11.2 million operating budget. He said Friday he feels it's been a positive experience. He emphasized the city of DeKalb has gone through quite a transition over the last few months. Bill Nicklas came on board as City Manager in January, and not long after, four high-level city employees, three of them department heads, were laid off due to budget restraints. A new City Council with three new faces, all of whom are holding elected office for the first time, was sworn in Monday.

"It's been a very large learning curve," McMaster said Friday. "We have a new city administration so we're working our way through what Bill Nicklas' and the City Council's vision is. We're down to one fire chief. So with that I'm not only holding the responsibilities of fire chief, but I'm also running daily operations with our shift commanders and carrying the responsibilities of training."

The two deputy chief positions were eliminated when McMaster moved up and Jim Zarek retired in January. Longtime department administrative analyst Traci Lemay retired in April after 22 years.

McMaster said others have stepped up to the plate, and contributed to leading the department through the critical period, as outlined in the recently published 2018 Annual Report.
The report also highlights the benchmark they crossed, as the department responded to 6,082 requests for service. That's 509 more calls than 2017, but all 509 extra calls were for emergency medical services, which equate to a 12% increase in calls for EMS. Just 2% of calls for service are for actual fires, while 76% are for EMS calls, the report shows. Calls for service continued to increase. McMaster said Monday the department already responded to 200 more calls than this time in 2018.

Mayor Jerry Smith asked Monday about the need for an emergency operations center in the event of a natural disaster or other major catastrophe.

"Are we at risk by not having a centralized location from which emergency operations could be instituted?" Smith said.

"This is an area the city needs to commit to improving," McMaster said. "This is a place where stakeholders, the mayor, council, department heads, the city manager can all come together and make concrete decisions, track expenses, deploy and call in resources to handle the situation."

McMaster said the city would need to designate a physical building to use, or use software to set up a digital meeting space.

McMaster said they completed a three-year process to modernize and rewrite the department's 800-page Standard Operating Guidelines, and implement better medical procedures for paramedics.

"These are prescribed policies that firefighters follow both in emergency and non-emergency situations," McMaster said.

The department also implemented a cancer risk reduction program to lesson the risks and exposure of carcinogens on firefighters.

Another significant change is the evolution of the department's standard medical orders.

"All your EMTs operate under a physician's license," McMaster said. "When we go to treat an injured or ill person, the paramedics know exactly what to do."

McMaster said his teams receive training from Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital along with the Illinois Department of Public Health.

"They really went above and beyond to really upgrade the standing medical orders in which we operate," he said. "It's really a benefit this community is going to continue to realize over the years."