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Fee recovery program among changes, promotions at the Peoria Fire Department

Peoria Fire Chief Shawn Sollberger says a new apprenticeship program is one of several initiatives the department is using in an effort to attract more young people to firefighting careers.
Joe Deacon
Peoria Fire Chief Shawn Sollberger says a new fee recovery program could help the department bring a revenue stream into the city's general fund.

There’s a lot happening at the Peoria Fire Department, including promotions, expanded recruitment efforts and the reintroduction of a program originally considered in 2019 to create a revenue stream for the department.

At February’s Peoria City Council meeting, Fire Chief Shawn Sollberger received the go-ahead to finish developing a program for “fire recovery fees.” Essentially, the department will partner with a billing company to go over insurance policies and see if there’s any included provisions for “services rendered.”

The money would contribute to the city's general fund.

“This is not a unique program,” said Sollberger. "There’s 150 communities within the state of Illinois alone that do something similar to this.”

Sollberger said the process to reintroduce the program has been slow and deliberate, likening it to comparison shopping and reading through reviews on Amazon to be 100% certain about a product.

“We took from basically the month of September working into the first of this year and exploring what this would look like,” Sollberger said. “We fully vetted this thing, we sat down with all of the council members, city manager, mayors, individually asked them as I put this presentation forward, you know, what do you see and we tweaked it along the way.”

A detail Sollberger stresses: it won’t result in bills to residents and taxpayers.

“There are companies that do that and there are municipalities that do that,” he said. “I don’t think that fits our needs. And that did not fit at all what we’re looking for.”

The next step for the program is putting out a bid to find a partner company.

Meanwhile, there also are changes in staffing at the fire department, including a handful of promotions.

Lore Baxter, a 24-year department veteran, is the new division chief of operations. She’s the second woman to hold the position in the department’s history. The 1988 Richwoods graduate also has been a system certified paramedic for the last nine years.

 New Division Chief of Operations Lore Baxter is a 24-year veteran of the department.
Peoria Fire Department
New Division Chief of Operations Lore Baxter is a 24-year veteran of the department.

“She is just an excellent asset to our department,” said Sollberger. “Whether she’s at the rank of firefighter or at the rank of division chief of operations.”

Chief Ryan Calhoun will be added to the battalion chief ranks to fill Baxter's role.

Another notable promotion is Tony Cummings, the new assistant chief. Cummings is a 1992 graduate of Peoria High and a 22-year member of the department with a master’s degree in fire science.

“He is a great value to our community,” said Sollberger “And he is an excellent professional firefighter.”

Sollberger said he’s pleased with the promotions for multiple reasons. Both leaders are Peoria locals, continuing to have an impact in the community and they’re also representative of the diverse workforce at the department. He said it is a boon for the department to have qualified and capable employees to further recruitment efforts.

 New Assistant Chief of the Peoria Fire Department Tony Cummings is a 22-year veteran of the department with a master's degree in fire science.
Peoria Fire Department
New Assistant Chief of the Peoria Fire Department Tony Cummings is a 22-year veteran of the department with a master's degree in fire science.

“It’s us you know, kind of hitting the reset button, switching gears,” Sollberger said. “Figuring out, from a recruitment standpoint, where we can do a better job. We’re in the schools, we go to all the job fairs, we like to think we do a pretty good job.”

Expanded recruitment efforts include the return of an apprenticeship program for the first time since 2019. Sollberger said the department is currently looking at 17 applications for the three open spots in the program, slated to start in June. The department also welcomes a new class of nine firefighters in April, including two women. Sollberger said this is the first time in the department’s history the agency will have six female firefighters on the force.

“We have a great recruitment team,” he said. “We’re in different areas. So we have different technology and things nowadays that we’re trying to promote our fire department so people are interested.

Another place where changes are happening is in arson investigation. Sollberger said there’s an ongoing investigation into a Monday night fire that led to the emergency demolition of two buildings as a possible arson.

“Peoria Fire Department has two arson investigators,” said Sollberger. “And they do an incredibly good job. And that’s Brad Pearson and Josh Harris and they’re leading the investigation on this particular thing. So once we have more information, we’ll provide that.”

The investigation is notable because it features one of the first uses of one of two new arson-sniffing dogs acquired by the department last year. Sollberger said Pearson’s dog Rock was on the scene.

“What this did was give us the ability to take Rock from a controlled environment into an uncontrolled environment. So that’s part of the learning phase, too,” Sollberger said. “Rock did have the ability to work in an uncontrolled environment.”

Sollberger said Rock and the other dog, Molly, are about halfway through their training. The dogs walk arson sites, searching for accelerants or chemicals that could indicate the fire was intentionally started.

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Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.