Effingham (IL) Fire Chief Announces Retirement, New Initiatives

Effingham Fire Chief Bob Tutko has announced his retirement, with his final day being July 2.

Andrew Adams

Effingham Daily News, Ill.

(MCT)

Jun. 11—Effingham Fire Chief Bob Tutko has announced his retirement, with his final day being July 2. He also announced this week that the fire department has installed a new warning system for motorists called HAAS Alert and that they are conducting surveys of businesses in town.

“My wife has retired from teaching, I have been a firefighter since 1979, so that is 41 years of wearing a pager and ‘being-on-call,” said Tutko when asked why he wanted to step down.

Tutko started in Effingham in August 2018 as interim fire chief after the former fire chief, Joe Holomy, stepped down. Tutko was previously retired and has served in fire departments throughout northern Illinois and Michigan. He was selected in collaboration with the Illinois Fire Chief Association to work as the interim chief before he applied for the permanent position.

Tutko looks forward to spending time with family.

“I was also fortunate to be smart enough to have married my best friend, Patt — so now it’s time to cash in those Southwest Airline miles or pack Charlie, our dog, and the grandkids in the RV and explore the country,” said Tutko.

During his time at the department, Tutko oversaw several projects that will have long lasting effects on the department.

“We have greatly improved the safety and health of our firefighters through NFPA-style medical screenings, training education, and now the HAAS Alert system, which is now part of our health-safety initiative,” said Tutko.

The outgoing fire chief also oversaw the construction of the current Fire Station 2 and the design of a new $650,000 fire engine, which was recently approved for purchase by the city council.

“The new engine is hands down the best designed and functional engine the department has ever had and will be a blueprint for the future,” said Tutko.

City Administrator Steve Miller said the city will put job postings out for the chief’s position. The city may hire someone directly or work with the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association to appoint an interim fire chief. Miller said he hopes to screen the first round of candidates at the end of the month.

The fire chief is appointed by the mayor with consent of the city council.

Tutko made just under $104,000 plus benefits last year, according to city records. The city will spend a similar amount on the salary for the new chief, based on the candidate’s experience, according to Miller.

Miller added that Tutko will be missed.

“I appreciate his dedication to fire protection and, most of all, his friendship,” said Miller.

Startup tech

Just because he’s announced his retirement, Tutko hasn’t slowed down, announcing two initiatives this week to improve fire protection in Effingham.

The first is a new service provided by Chicago tech startup HAAS Alert. The new technology is a set of GPS transponders connected to cell networks on four of the department’s vehicles. Barely larger than a cell phone, the devices screw in to the dashboard of department vehicles.

These transponders communicate with navigation software to send alerts to drivers’ phones or cars that emergency vehicles are coming. These alerts can come through apps like Waze and some built-in navigation systems.

“The company was founded in 2015,” said HAAS Alert chief operating officer Noah Levens. “One of our co-founders was nearly struck by an ambulance while riding his motorcycle and we figured there has to be a way for an emergency vehicle to send a real-time alert to a smartphone.”

Normally, a driver has about three seconds between first seeing lights and reacting to them, with these alerts, they would have closer to ten seconds to react, according to Levens.

“The goal is to get motorists to pay attention,” said Levens.

The new technology was installed on four department vehicles earlier this week and is already having an impact, according to Tutko.

“Since we put this in place, we’ve had an accident,” said Tutko. “We noticed a definite improvement.”

Drivers passing the scene of the accident on a local interstate slowed down more than usual, with some motorists even pulling over to the shoulder to be cautious.

“Even the firefighters on the scene were surprised!” Tutko said.

The transponders have been placed on two engines, one in each of Effingham’s fire stations. They were also placed in the command cars used by the fire chief and assistant fire chief. The department’s new engine will have the transponder system pre-installed.

This technology is a unique product that competes with legacy companies like Motorola in the computer aided dispatch sector. HAAS Alert sells this technology to emergency medical services, fire departments, law enforcement and roadside assistance companies.

“We’re in nearly, I think, 350 cities now,” said Levens.

In addition to alerting motorists, the new transponders will also allow fire department staff to track department vehicles in real time from the fire station.

They will cost about $1,300 to operate for this year, according to Tutko. The money comes from the city’s general fund.

Preparing for the worst

The fire department is also starting a series of “pre-plan surveys” of businesses in the community.

“It’s not an inspection, but it is on-site,” said Assistant Fire Chief Matt Kulesza, who is responsible for fire inspections. “We’re surveying the building.”

To complete the surveys, members of the department will visit each of the more than 1,300 commercial properties in Effingham. They will assess construction material, any hazardous materials the business stores, where the exits are, the nearest hydrants and who owns the building.

“I keep track of everything,” said Kulesza.

The surveys are being done to update the department’s records as people move, build new buildings and renovate existing property. They help firefighters respond to fires by allowing them to “pre-plan” certain elements of the call, like where to park to access a fire hydrant or whether to bring hazmat equipment. The most recent similar survey was done in 2016.

“We’ve been doing it off and on since 2005,” said Kulesza. “Now, we’ve got all new systems and we’re wanting to update it.”

These surveys will take place over the next 12 to 13 months. For anyone who has questions about them, contact Kulesza at (217) 342-5365.

Andrew Adams can be reached at 217-347-7151 ext. 132 or andrew.adams@effinghamdailynews.com

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