Peoria Fire Chief proud of how the department’s managed the eventful year

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PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — Peoria firefighters responded to repeat emergencies Tuesday sending them to all sides of the city.

Members of the short-staffed department said they worked around the clock responding to back-to-back fires plus a gas explosion in Chillicothe. The department’s chief Tony Ardis said it was just a taste of what they go through every day.

“This isn’t playtime for them,” Ardis said. “This isn’t part-time. They come to work ready to go.”

A job that literally requires going into the line of fire on a daily basis sounds difficult enough on paper. Adding it onto a year plagued by a global pandemic provides a brief glimpse into the year 2020 for the Peoria Fire Rescue Department.

Ardis said he couldn’t be more proud of the department while closing out this eventful year with an already busy week.

“The men and women of the Peoria Fire Rescue Department never cease to amaze me and I mean that it’s not just words,” Ardis said. “It doesn’t matter what is thrown at them. They show up for work, they’re professional, they’re efficient, they’re effective.”

Ardis said the year has thrown curveballs globally.

He said between dealing with COVID-19, responding to civil unrest in the summer, losing almost 25% of the department’s workforce over the last 18 months, pension issues, and the city’s budget deficit that threatened to close two engines — he said he’s amazed by the department’s resilience that often times nobody even thinks about.

“What these men and women do encompasses so many more things that the average citizen, no matter how many times we try to promote it, just doesn’t understand,” Ardis said. “I think that the normal citizen thinks we just fight fires.”

Mike Wittenmeifer, a captain with the department, said brought up the difficulties of Tuesday’s response calls while being short on manpower.

“The guys were worn out and then during the second fire, we had two companies go to Chillicothe for mutual aid. At that point the city is pretty well wide open,” Wittenmeifer said. “There were only a few companies available. We’re lucky a second fire didn’t come in or we would have been in trouble.”

Nick Anderson, an engineer with the department, said keeping sane on the job through such a taxing year is only possible by leaning onto those who he trusts with his life.

“We’re called the brotherhood for a reason,” Anderson said. “We all look after each other. We live with each other for 24 hours every third day so we know when someone is not in a good mood or having a bad day to maybe see what’s going on with them if they need any help.”

Going into 2021, members of the department said they hope to see the virus start to fade away now that vaccines are rolling out.

“We feel terrible for the local businesses that have had to close and have had a more difficult year than we have,” Ardis said.

They also said they hope to get good news regarding the city’s budget that could lead to staffing increases with the department. Chief Ardis said the city’s budget and its relation to the fire department is still a difficult situation.

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