SJFD moves forward


By Maria Ferraro

Rich Evans calls South Jacksonville home, but South Jacksonville isn’t just home, it’s where he is living his lifelong dream – a dream of being a fireman. Evans says, “Growing up, I always wanted to be a firemen, but in the back of my head, [being fire chief] was my goal.” Today, Evans serves as fire chief for the South Jacksonville Fire Department (SJFD). He says, “I look forward to moving the department forward and bettering it [every day].”

Evans began his story with a smile, “I’ve lived within a two block radius of [the fire department] all my life.” His father served as a volunteer firefighter for 35 plus years and retired as assistant chief for the South Jacksonville Fire Department. As a boy, he would often be found just in the department – hanging out. Evans said, “I couldn’t wait to turn 21 and get on with the department.”

Evans knew that firefighting is a career where you prepare to serve in the hardest situations – something that made him want it all the more. After high school, Evans went to Lincoln Land Community College; certified himself as an emergency medical technician (EMT); and completed his level II firefighting class, HAZMAT class and several incident command classes. Firemen along the way inspired him to always keep learning. He shared, “This is a career where you constantly have to be prepared for somebody’s worst day.”

In January of 2019, Evans was officially appointed as fire chief in South Jacksonville. Evans hopes to apply for grants to improve equipment over the next few years, projecting that the improvements will “better the department and save the taxpayers money.” Evans also wants to eliminate some paperwork by updating to a modern reporting system. He said, “Doing that is going to save everyone doing reports time – which in the long run, saves money.” In addition, he is working to get some extra classes at the department through the Illinois Fire Institute, saying, “We are bumping up our training.”

What does a day in the life of a fire chief look like? We’re glad you asked. Evans’ responsibilities include paperwork, budgeting, keeping equipment up to date, overseeing the rural fire subscribers, working with the training officer to arrange continuing training and much more. In addition to firefighters, Evans oversees all the EMTs and department staff. He says, “I’m still out in the day-to-day world where I run calls with everybody; that’s not something I give up.” He continued, “We appointed some officers to some spots that they needed to be in to help … they’re able to oversee things from day-to-day maintenance, to training, to being prepared for fires and emergencies.”

Volunteers are the lifeblood of the fire service nationwide – but today, there aren’t as many as are needed. Evans shared, “People don’t want to do it as much, so, [I’m looking] at ways to increase our volunteer staff … Most volunteers all have daytime jobs, we’re a little understaffed during the days, and so we’re looking for ways to improve that.”

Evans is also working to get the department more involved with the community. Next up on the agenda – a neighborhood pork cookout. Evans said, “We used to do them years ago … People loved them and we have fun doing it.” Another way they are getting involved in the community is through presenting a smoke alarm detector program. Evans explained, “Through this program, we can go out to the citizens, check [their current smoke detectors], replace them if needed, and install them free of charge.”

Evans has countless stories from his many years as a public servant, as he said, “Good ones and bad ones, that comes with the job.” He continued, “Every call we go on is different, but most the time, when you’re helping someone in need, it’s one of the worst days of their life.” Evans shared about an apartment fire where they rescued a lady from the building and saved her life. He stated, “That was early on in my career so it was definitely something to look back on … Thankfully, we were there at the right time and were able to help her out.” Then there are little things, like getting a cat out of a tree. Evans smiled, “That’s still a thing, we still do that.”

He recounted that when he first started working with the department, they needed a bigger facility. The mayor and staff at the time made plans for the building the department is currently in. Evans said, “That was huge for everybody to have a room to do the things we needed to do.” The building was paid for by fundraisers, and raised by the firemen themselves. Evans, “We did everything, the drywall, studs, outlets, flooring. It was a lot of time away from our families, but we had fun while we were doing it.”

Throughout his career, Evans has always strived to go the “extra mile” and learn from those around him. Being involved with the department prepared Evans for the role he now has as chief. He says, “I always paid close attention to the officers that were higher up than me, their responsibilities, and how they handled situations … I learned a lot from the guys that have been here awhile.”

Serving the community and seeing the impact is what Evans loves most about being a fireman. He shared, “whether it’s putting a fire out or a medical call, almost everybody is very, appreciative of what you do for them – when people tell you that, it means a lot. A simple ‘thank you’ goes a long ways.”

As he continues as fire chief, Evans expresses his gratefulness for the volunteers serving with the department. He stated, “They are very dedicated to the department and community. Everybody enjoys what they do.” Evans loves the fire department as much as he did when he started at 21 years old. He finished, “We are all like a big family … I’m very pleased with everybody who’s here; I know they are all here for the right reasons.” Evans works full-time for Golden Eagle Distributing.

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