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17 Merrionette Firefighters Off The Job Amid Dispute With New Chief

CHICAGO (CBS) -- More than a dozen firefighters in the tiny suburb of Merrionette Park have resigned, or were not re-appointed, leaving the department at less than half-strength, but the fire chief said the department is not missing a beat.

Merrionette Park is less than a half-square-mile in area, and is served by a fire department whose firefighters are paid only when they're called to duty. Merrionette Park firefighters are appointed on an annual basis to their paid on-call jobs.

Tony Calzaretta, vice president of the Merrionette Park Firefighters Association, said he and 13 other firefighters resigned after Fire Chief Tom Wendt replaced three longtime high-ranking officers – a deputy chief, a captain, and a lieutenant.

"About half of the department has left, but from conversations I've had with those members, a lot more of them plan on leaving in the near future for the same reasons," Calzaretta said.

Wendt took over as head of the department after longtime chief Len Edling retired at the end of April. He said the firefighters who resigned were not showing up for most calls anyway.

"Eight of them were making less than 10 percent of our call volume, year-to-date," he said.

Wendt said he plans to appoint 10 new firefighters at the next village board meeting on May 17. In addition, starting next month, two firefighters will be stationed at the firehouse 24 hours a day.

Calzaretta said the new firefighters won't have the knowledge or experience of those they will replace.

"What is going to happen is more of the experience that knows the town, that knows the rigs, that knows all this experience and knowledge is going to leave, and he's going to replace it with outsiders and young people that have never worked in the fire service," he said.

In a statement, Merrionette Park Mayor Dennis Magee said:

The Village of Merrionette Park is dedicated to serving and protecting every resident with excellent police and fire protection.

The Village Board and I, following the retirement of Chief Edling, appointed Chief Thomas J. Wendt fire chief. Chief Wendt has years of leadership experience and is a dedicated resident of our fine community.

We are thankful to outgoing members of our fire protection community for their service, and are confident that our 21 active firefighters along with the addition of 7 new firefighters, all of whom are also emergency medical technicians, will serve and protect our village without interruption. We also continue to participate in the mutual aid system that ensures we will help our neighboring communities as needed, as they will support us as needed.

As Mayor, my number one priority is to protect our residents and I assure you our community is safe under Chief Wendt's leadership.

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