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Morton makes history with full-time firefighters; more police officers will be on the streets

The Morton police station is at 375 W. Birchwood St.
Steve Stein
The Morton police station is at 375 W. Birchwood St.

The Morton Fire Department was established in 1884. Later this year, the volunteer firefighters in the busy department will be joined for the first time by full-time firefighters.

As many as five full-timers will cover weekday daytime hours, when many volunteers aren't available to report to calls because of jobs and other commitments.

The Morton Village Board last year approved the hiring of the full-time firefighters, and it also approved increasing the allotment of police officers for the first time in 20 years.

"I could talk for a couple hours about why these additional officers are needed," recently-retired Morton Police Chief Jason Miller said to the Village Board when making a pitch to increase the Police Department's officer allotment from 22 to 25.

"Since 2003, Morton's population has increased 12%. We also have more businesses, industrial facilities and roads," Miller said.

"Then there's the mandated additional training for police officers required by the state SAFE-T Act (passed in 2021), and the rise in the number of mental health issues like depression. Those have skyrocketed since the pandemic. That's a universal problem."

With 22 officers, Miller said, his department's staffing was 1.29 officers per 1,000 residents.

The national average, Miller said, is between 1.8 to 2.4 officers per 1,000 residents. FBI data, Miller said, suggests cities like Morton that have a population between 10,000 and 24,000 should have 2.3 officers per 1,000 residents.

Morton's population, according to the 2020 U.S. Census, was 17,117. Morton Mayor Jeff Kaufman said the construction of numerous apartment complexes in the village since then means the actual population is approaching 18,000.

"We're not a small community any more," Kaufman said.

As for police training, Miller said, his officers compiled 2,400 training hours in 2022, which left 300 shifts short-handed.

"It was time (to increase the number of officers)," Kaufman said. "When you call the police, you expect a response, and we're going to continue to honor that.

"We're going to keep chaos out of our village. It's at our borders. Society has a lot of issues nowadays, but we're going to keep Morton humming."

It's a lengthy process to hire Morton police officers and firefighters, which includes candidate interviews conducted by the three members of the village's autonomous Fire and Police Commission.

While the process to hire the full-time firefighters hasn't begun, three police officers were hired last month: Tyler Durham, Jake Klyber and Brycen Stein.

From left to right: Brycen Stein, Tyler Durham, and Jake Klyber are the newest members of the Morton Police Department.
Morton Police Department
From left to right: Brycen Stein, Tyler Durham, and Jake Klyber are the newest members of the Morton Police Department.

Durham, who has experience in corrections and security, is a graduate of Pekin Community High School and Illinois Central College.

Klyber graduated from East Peoria High School and Western Illinois University, where he was in the criminal justice program.

Stein is a Morton High School graduate and U.S. Navy veteran.

The three new officers began attending the Police Training Institute at the University of Illinois this month. After they graduate April 25, said new Morton Police Chief Shawn Darche, they'll begin a minimum 12 weeks of field training in Morton on April 28.

"If all goes well, they'll be on the streets by the end of July," Darche said.

Miller retired last month, so another officer needs to be hired to bring the roster back to 25. That process has begun.

The number of volunteer firefighters across the country decreased from nearly 900,000 in 1984 to 677,000 in 2020, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Morton hasn't been immune to the problem. Efforts to increase the number of volunteers haven't been fruitful. The department currently has about 35 volunteers.

"We eliminated the residency requirement a while back and nobody applied," said Morton Fire Chief Joe Kelley.

Kelley is looking forward to bringing the full-timers on board. It was his idea to add the full-time weekday daytime firefighters to his roster.

"We've had a decline the last few years in the number of available volunteer firefighters during regular business hours," he said. "The full-time firefighters will fill that gap, and we'll still rely on volunteers the rest of the time."

The Morton Fire Department responded to 3,086 calls in 2023, the most ever in one year. The number of calls to the department has been increasing annually for several years.

Village Board Trustee Craig Hilliard cast the lone no vote on the hiring of the full-time firefighters.

He said he was concerned about the $750,000 annual cost and he didn't think there were enough weekday daytime calls to justify the added expense to the village.

Trustee Steve Leitch said the cost is worth it because of the peace of mind it provides the community.

"If there's anyone up here (on the board meeting table) who worries about the cost of something to the village, it's me," he said. "I'm happy because we'll now have a fully-staffed fire department on weekdays, weekends and nights."

Steve Stein is an award-winning news and sports writer and editor. Most recently, he covered Tazewell County communities for the Peoria Journal Star for 18 years.