Lombard still searching for next fire chief

Updated 8/7/2012 10:50 AM

Lombard officials say they will hire a permanent fire chief by the end of September, after going through an eight-month search and three interim leaders since January.

The village has struggled to find a successor for Mike Torrence, who retired Jan. 20 after one year and three months as Lombard's chief.


Two internal candidates had stints in the position and a retired chief from Matteson has been leading the department since July 23. Resumes for the permanent post are due Aug. 15 and Village Manager David Hulseberg said the village will announce its choice within two months.

"Mr. Hulseberg has made every effort ... to bring someone up through the ranks," Village President Bill Mueller said. "Unfortunately, we've had some internal problems with that."

During the first six months of its search for a chief, the department has seen a fair amount of turmoil, including:

• the departure of two battalion chiefs, including one who retired to become chief in Villa Park;

• a failure to hire a chief from a pool of 53 candidates;

• and the sudden retirement of a 27-year department veteran who rose to acting chief and then was placed on paid administrative leave during his last two weeks on the job.

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The first man to temporarily hold the chief's position was Jerry Howell, who became Lombard's assistant fire chief in October 2010. He was named acting chief upon Torrence's retirement but told Hulseberg he had no long-term interest in the job and did not want to be considered in the hiring process.

In March, the village announced it was unable to find a chief from among 53 applicants.

"The two outside candidates we identified as our preferred candidates didn't work out," Hulseberg said.

Officials then said Howell would continue as acting chief until a permanent leader could be found.

But at some point, Battalion Chief Jeff Holst expressed interest in applying for the top job. On June 18, he was named acting chief and was expected to serve while the village conducted a new search.

By July 18, however, Holst had stepped down and returned to his battalion chief role, saying in a village news release the chief position did not fit his personality.


Hulseberg confirmed Holst was placed on paid administrative leave during the last two weeks of July, but would not say why. Holst retired July 31.

"During that process he had some family issues that came up," Hulseberg said. "He opted to retire and take care of his family issues."

Mueller also declined to say why Holst was placed on administrative leave.

"It's certainly not what we expected to happen, but these are personal issues that we can't talk about," Mueller said.

The fire department now is being led by retired Matteson Fire Chief Patrick Gericke, whose first day was July 23. Hulseberg said he found Gericke using the "Responder" Interim Fire Chief Program started a year ago by the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association.

Bob Buhs, the association's executive director, said Lombard is the first unit of government to successfully hire an interim chief using the program, which provides a list of former chiefs to towns in need because of a sudden retirement or leadership void.

Gericke is being paid $10,000 a month until a permanent chief is hired.

"(Gericke) has the absolute correct demeanor that we were looking for in filling this position, and he can help me in selecting the next chief," Hulseberg said.

Village officials say they were caught by surprise when their former chief, Torrence, stepped down in January after just 15 months on the job. Hulseberg and Mueller both said they expected Torrence to serve at least two or three years, but he left to work for a private company that sent him to be fire marshal for the Bristol Kendall Fire Department in Yorkville.

"If I hadn't been offered this position, I would still be there (in Lombard) today," Torrence said.

After the March search fell short, Hulseberg said the village intentionally waited until late July before seeking resumes again.

"It didn't make sense for us to immediately go out again because the applicant pool was not going to change," he said.

The search process will have taken eight months if it concludes by the end of September. Buhs said it can be tricky to find the right leader because a community and its fire chief need to be compatible in terms of management style, leadership style and vision.

"It's pretty dynamic," Buhs said about the search process. "You're picky today. There are a lot of choices."

Torrence said he had no difficulty working with Hulseberg, whom he called "a demanding manager." He's not sure other potential chiefs would feel the same.

"It hasn't looked good from the outside," Torrence said about his former department. "But once they get a chief in place, it'll be as solid as it ever was."

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