STERLING – Gary Cook started as a Rock Falls firefighter 34 years ago. But as chief of the new Twin City Joint Fire Command, he says now is the most interesting time of his career.
A little over one month into the consolidation of the administrative functions of fire departments in Sterling and Rock Falls, the chief says this historic time for the cities has brought some great challenges, but even greater rewards.
“Maybe my biggest challenge personally is that if there are problems, there’s no one to point at but yourself,” the Milledgeville native said.
While there are more meetings and paperwork on the administrative side, he says, everything is flowing well and fire service is the best it has been since he started. Three stations serve the two communities, and each side covers the other when it’s busy.
“Whoever is logistically closer, that unit gets the call – it doesn’t matter which town it’s in,” Cook said.
Cook’s first official day as joint chief was Sept. 28, a day that wasn’t really all that different from any other because much of the heavy lifting had already been done, he said.
“I was interim chief in Sterling for 3 years, and most of the changes have been developing for many years,” he explained. “From the Rock Falls side, there has been additional paperwork, some budgeting and payroll changes, but the staff has really rolled with everything.”
That staff includes 18 firefighters in Sterling and 12 in Rock Falls, plus a deputy chief in each city. Cook splits his time between the cities, usually spending his mornings in Sterling and afternoons in Rock Falls.
The intergovernmental agreement that created the combined entity had been in the works since 2010. Both city councils approved the pact on Sept. 9, in the first joint meeting of the bodies since the cities approved an automatic aid agreement 15 years ago.
Although the command structure has been merged, Cook said, the departments are still independent, just enhanced and a little more polished.
Cook believes that the biggest change in day-to-day operations is the implementation of deputy chiefs Bill Milby in Rock Falls and Mike Dettman in Sterling. Both had been captains of their respective departments. Now commonly known as deputy chiefs north and south, they are the keys to making sure everyone is on the same page in an emergency.
“They are front-runners in the field,” Cook said. “With automatic aid, everyone knows their responsibilities and there’s no guesswork.”
In addition to providing leadership in emergency situations, the deputy chiefs coordinate educational programs for schools and the public, and lead the way in inspections and other fire prevention efforts.
Cook said Milby and Dettman have made a point of becoming familiar with both communities. During recent Regional Office of Education school inspections, Milby handled the duties in Sterling, while Dettman went to Rock Falls. They also will swap areas for inspections of apartment buildings and commercial buildings.
The leaders believe that the automatic aid agreement set into motion the natural evolution of Twin City.
“With automatic aid, we all knew each other,” Milby said. “Even though some of us moved into different roles, the command structure hasn’t changed.”
Milby said the unified command presence is consistent regardless of the type of situation.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a two-engine call or eight departments, we’re going to operate the same because everybody understands the system,” he said.
The biggest change for Milby personally has been leaving the truck.
“I was a captain riding an engine,” Milby said. “I went from being first to the scene to first in the office and relying on information from my captains on the engine.”
Cook said it is too soon to really get a handle on the savings that can be derived from the move. Rock Falls has estimated initial savings at $45,000 a year. The chief’s $90,000 salary plus benefits will be divided between the cities in a ratio dictated by population. That now means Sterling takes on 61 percent, while Rock Falls picks up 39 percent.
More savings will come with joint purchasing of equipment and supplies. That includes detection and testing equipment, calibration units, and fire apparatus. While having one instead of two of many items will help the budget, the merger could eventually make it easier to get the big-ticket items when needed.
Twin City has three front-line engines, two backup engines, and two aerial trucks. It is recommended that front-line trucks keep that status no longer than 15 years. With proper maintenance, they may be able to go an additional 5 years as reserves. The life expectancy of an aerial truck is 15 to 20 years.
A front-line engine carries a price tag of between $350,000 and $400,000. An aerial truck is a huge investment – between $800,000 and $1 million each.
Cook says there is no question the merger will save money over the long haul, but even more important is enabling the combined forces to provide the best service whenever it’s needed.
“We really hope that the big-ticket items can come a little sooner with the consolidation,” Cook said. “But we don’t need excesses; we just want to be prepared for everything.”
Sterling Mayor Skip Lee said that everything he has heard affirms the merger has been a pretty seamless transition. He attributes that to the history of the two squads.
“These departments have been working closely together for decades,” Lee said. “They’ve trained together, worked under the same operational structure.”
Although Twin City is in its infancy, the mayor said he has had received no negative feedback from citizens.
“When your house is on fire,” Lee said, “you don’t care what decal is on the hat.”