Custer, Braidwood residents voice opinions on fire service agreement

CUSTER PARK EMTs and paramedics responded to an emergency medical call outside the Town Hall meeting on Monday night. A Braidwood ambulance was called to the scene for transport. Photo by Marney Simon.

Marney Simon

It was a packed house inside the gymnasium at the school in Custer Park on Monday, July 17, as nearly 200 members of the Braidwood and Custer Township communities met with fire district officials to discuss a potential agreement that would put Braidwood in charge of fire protection services in Custer.

And, highlighting the need for services, a medical emergency in the parking lot as the meeting happened yielded a swift response from Custer’s EMTs and paramedics in attendance, but still resulted in Braidwood Fire being called for transport.

The Custer Fire Protection District (CFPD) and the Braidwood Fire Protection District (BFPD) are currently in negotiations for an intergovernmental agreement (IGA).

While the IGA is still in draft form, the agreement would pass 100% of the tax revenue taken in by the Custer Fire Protection District to Braidwood, and CFPD will sell off all assets that Braidwood does not need or want, liquidate those assets, and forward those monies to Braidwood.

Residents and district officials on both sides of the issue gave impassioned pleas throughout the three hour meeting both for and against the IGA.

Reading off a long list of accomplishments of the CFPD since it reopened in 2019, trustee Bob Hussey said the firefighers and EMTs in the department, as well as the administration and board, have committed to multiple projects from updating equipment, maintenance projects, securing new apparatus, and regular day to day operations.

“The trustees and members of the department have worked very hard to get the department to where it is today,” Hussey said. “I can’t find the words to say how proud I am of all the dedicated members.”

Hussey is among several members of the community who are frustrated that Custer Township, including the fire district, is slated to earn additional tax money in the coming years thanks to proposed developments of both a solar farm and a water district. While some folks believe those anticipated funds would help keep Custer Fire afloat, and don’t want that cash transferred to Braidwood, others said what the district has on hand simply is not enough when it comes to maintaining staff, keeping the ambulance service running, and keeping taxes low.

CFPD President Ron Pruss said that without that ambulance fully functional, Custer cannot operate without depending on other districts for assistance.

While Custer has its own ambulance, paid in part thanks to donations to the non-profit Friends of Custer Fire organization, that rig has not yet been approved by the state for transport. District officials said that application is pending at the state level through the IDPH, and approval or denial should be received by the department no later than Aug. 5.

CFPD currently operates under a non-transport license, which allows the district to provide emergency medical care until an ambulance from a neighboring district arrives. While Custer currently has enough staff to cover that ambulance, it is not capable of fully responding to calls.

“We’ve done our due diligence,” Pruss said. “The only viable option to come out at this time was this IGA with Braidwood.”

Pruss said that due to taxing limits, CFPD cannot ask for enough tax money to hire and pay additional staff, so that even raising taxes wouldn’t be enough to guarantee staffing.

Dozens of citizens who want to maintain the Custer department made comments and questions during the meeting, highlighting issues, such as concern over what would happen to Custer’s staff and what would happen to the department if the IGA went bust.

The BFPD has said that they will consider a spot in their organization for Custer’s employees, but those EMTs and Paramedics who are not also firefighters would need to get the firefighter certifications as well.

Residents also expressed frustration that they supported the department’s reopening by approving a tax hike in 2018, only to have the department move back under the jurisdiction of Braidwood.

However, other members of the Custer community said they were tired of waiting for Custer to become fully operational, and felt more secure with an IGA in place, especially if it committed Braidwood to being responsible for all of Custer Township.

Residents on either side of the issue said they were also frustrated that a copy of the IGA has not yet been made publicly available. Pruss said that agreement, which is still in the process of being amended, would be made available on both the Custer and the Braidwood websites before the final vote.

During the meeting, an attendee suffered an apparent cardiac episode in the parking lot of the school, and was quickly attended to by Custer’s staff. A Braidwood ambulance was called to the scene for additional assistance.

That person’s condition was not made immediately available.

Custer Park ceased operations in 2013 when the former Custer Fire Department, Inc., a private entity, became defunct. Following the closure, Custer retained services from Braidwood, but in 2018 passed a referendum to allow Custer Township to reopen the fire protection district in May of 2019.

Initially, Custer entered an agreement with Riverside EMS for ambulance and paramedic services, but that contract expired last fall.

Per the draft IGA, Braidwood would keep Custer’s ambulance.

The draft puts the length of the agreement at five years, at which time the agreement will be reevaluated, and the two departments could possibly merge. A merger, which would require voter approval via a referendum, could generate taxpayer savings by reducing duplicate costs, such as dispatch and insurance.

Editor’s note—Due to the length of Monday’s meeting and the newspaper’s Tuesday deadline, elements of the meeting and the IGA, including cost projections and additional questions from the board and citizens, were not included in this story. Those issues will be included in part two of this story in the July 26 edition of the Braidwood Journal.