Dennis Oaks has been in the volunteer fire service a long, long time.
In 1980, back when fire departments were ridiculed for using a new thing called mutual aid and when firefighters frantically thumbed through handwritten cards in a Rolodex to find out how to get to a fire call, Oaks joined the Northwest St. Clair County Fire District.
After 35 years on the department and 14 years as chief, Oaks, 63, is retiring.
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“Gray hair,” Oaks said, describing his time as chief. “It’s not the easiest job in the world to manage volunteers. But it’s very rewarding. My favorite part has been all the individuals I’ve met over the years who have come in and out of these doors. I’ve made a lot of friendships that’ll last forever.”
Oaks said he decided to try firefighting after finding a postcard in his mailbox seeking a donation and new recruits. After finishing firefighter training classes at Southwestern Illinois College in 1980, he joined the Northwest Fire District.
It’s not the easiest job in the world to manage volunteers. But it’s very rewarding. My favorite part has been all the individuals I’ve met over the years who have come in and out of these doors. I’ve made a lot of friendships that’ll last forever.
Dennis Oaks, fire chief at Northwest Fire District
During his tenure as chief, Oaks worked hard to ensure all his firefighters received as much training as they could. He said firefighters “understand that we mean it” at Northwest and described the department as “a stepping stone” that has prepared dozens of firefighters to move on to full-time jobs on career departments.
Not bad for a department that was founded in 1946 by volunteers who built two engine houses out of cinder blocks by themselves to protect unincorporated areas around Belleville, Swansea and Fairview Heights. Under Oaks’ leadership — and following the mantra “buy what we need, not what we want”— the fire department built a new station house in 1997 and has continued to purchase modern trucks and equipment even as the department’s coverage area and the property tax dollars it generates has halved in the years since Oaks first joined.
He said while he “won’t walk away” from the department, retirement means he can make up for the time with his children and grandchildren he’s missed over the years and can start marking off items on the “honey-do list” that’s been waiting for him at home.
Meet the new boss
Oaks said the department will be in good hands once Assistant Fire Chief Chester Borkowski Jr. takes over for him later this month. Borkowski, 53, was in the same firefighter training class as Oaks and also joined the department in 1980. He’ll become just the eighth chief in the department’s history.
Borkowski said he first got interested in firefighting after he watched firefighters respond to a field fire. Once the fire was put out, he said he found a firefighter and asked him how he could get involved.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to do this, because when you really get down to it, there’s only been a handful of fire chiefs,” Borkowski said. “So to be able to follow in Chief Oaks’ footsteps here, it’s a dream come true. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”
Borkowski said he admired Oaks’ leadership in ensuring his firefighters were as well-trained as they could be. “His dedication has been outstanding over these years,” he said. “(Oaks) is going to be greatly missed.”
It’s an honor and a privilage to do this, because when you really get down to it, there’s only been a handful of fire chiefs. So to be able to follow in Chief Oaks’ footsteps here, it’s a dream come true. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.
Assistant Fire Chief Chester Borkowski Jr., who takes over as chief this month
Borkowski said he’s looking forward to continuing business inspections throughout the district. But a new program he’s considering is a similar arrangement with homeowners in the district.
“Fire Prevention Week shouldn’t be one week out of the year. It should be 365 days,” he said. “If we could provide any assistance to these homeowners to give them some insight and prevent the fire losses, that’s something we can strive for.”
Oaks’ last day in his office at Station 2 will be Friday, Nov. 13. He’s on call the following weekend until his retirement becomes effective at 12:01 a.m. Nov. 16.
Then, Borkowski will take the “Fire Chief” name plate off Oaks’ office door and fix it to his own.
“He’ll do all right,” Oaks said of Borkowski. “We’ve worked side-by-side for 35 years.”