Fire chief change a hot topic for Prairie Du Pont

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Former Prairie Du Pont firefighters Josh Davidson and Bobbie Borders share a candlelight during a vigil for late firefighter Randy Sullivan, who died earlier this year. Laura Rosenkranz, former captain, said she was told by the fire protection district board of trustees they could not host such events months ago. With the figurative fires the past and present department has endured over the last week, she said it was time to host the long-awaited memorial. 

A handful of community members bundled up together last Wednesday night outside the Prairie Du Pont firehouse in Dupo. 

By the end of the night, they had called for resignations, held a candlelight vigil and called police to the scene. 

These events stemmed from a Dec. 20 meeting that made national news. 

Five days before Christmas, the fire protection district board of trustees named Jerame Simmons Sr. – who was convicted and later pardoned for starting a fire decades ago at Dupo High School – acting fire chief, and in doing so removed John Rosenkranz from the chief position. 

In response, firefighter Bobbie Borders threw his shirt at the board, later placing his gear at the forefront of the table. Borders was one 10 firefighters who immediately resigned. 

Two Prairie Du Pont Fire Protection District Board press releases stated “the board did not act lightly” when making its decision to replace John Rosenkranz as chief. 

A release dated Dec. 19, which was distributed immediately after the Dec. 20 meeting, stated that “It has become apparent to the board over the last several months that a change in the fire department’s leadership is needed.”

The latter release, dated Dec. 23, said “The board did not have confidence” that John Rosenkranz could fulfill chief’s duties, therefore prompting them to make the change. 

This release continued to address concerns surrounding the incident that led to Simmons being convicted of arson 23 years ago. 

“While the board was aware of Acting Chief Simmons’ background, the criminal matter cited by some now former members was the subject of a full pardon,” the press release said. “Acting Chief Simmons has served with distinction on multiple fire departments and public service positions in our area. He has, additionally, received the endorsement of multiple area fire chiefs, who have expressed support for Acting Chief Simmons and their agreement with the action taken by the board in making a change in the fire department leadership.” 

The board of trustees would not answer the Republic-Times when asked which area fire chiefs had supported the board’s decision.

Also in the Dec. 19 release, the fire district board stated arrangements have been made with neighboring fire departments to provide any needed coverage to Prairie Du Pont in the event that any personnel shortages in the fire department should occur as a result of the change in command.

Now, the Prairie Du Pont Fire Department is not as short-staffed as it was early last week. 

John Parke, a fire protection district board trustee, said “several” individuals who resigned while John Rosenkranz led the department are coming back under Simmons’ leadership. 

According to a new Facebook page for the department, Wade Bivins, Nathan Stefanski and Kyle Foutch are now engineers. Stefanski was one of the three firefighters who did not resign when Simmons was named acting chief. 

John and Laura Rosenkranz said the information provided in these board releases did not give a sufficient reason for the leadership change. 

Laura Rosenkranz, who was a captain for the department before resigning and is married to John, said the couple had not received any further answers as of press time.

“It’s outrageous,” Laura Rosenkranz said. “I don’t know why I think this is going on.” 

In a petition calling for the fire protection district board of trustees – Parke, Randy Bolle and Bryan Reddick – to be replaced, Laura Rosenkranz alleged the district has violated the Open Meetings Act in the past by not providing meeting agendas, schedules, budgets and other required postings. 

Laura Rosenkranz told the Republic-Times she has had to file Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain financial information she said was necessary to apply for grants, as well as other materials such as meeting agendas. She said even then, she did not receive all the information she asked for.

“We don’t know why (John Rosenkranz would be replaced) other than we’re asking for the basic information that the public is supposed to have; basic information like minutes. Anybody should be able to walk up to the board meeting and get minutes,” Laura Rosenkranz said. 

The board of trustees declined to comment on this matter, and Simmons did not respond to multiple requests by this paper for comment. 

Simmons was appointed as assistant fire chief by the fire district board during an Aug. 26 meeting the Rosenkranzes allege was held in violation of the Open Meetings Act. 

The 1993 arson incident is not the only reason the Rosenkranzes and other fire department members who resigned said they are concerned about Simmons being acting chief. Some cited allegations of Simmons impersonating a police officer, some of which the Belleville News-Democrat first reported.

The board’s Dec. 23 release said “the assertions which some of those now former members are making in social and news media statements are not accurate.” 

When asked by the Republic-Times what “statements” this sentence was referring to, Parke did not provide clarification. 

Laura Rosenkranz said she fears Simmons does not possess all training required to respond to certain calls. 

“There are so many fears,” she said. “(Wednesday night) they had a car accident. I don’t know if any of them are trained to use our extrication tools. I don’t know if any of them had extrication classes. I don’t know if any of them know how to fight a vehicle fire. I don’t know if they have the training. I worry about their safety and then I worry about our residents’ safety, too, because if you don’t know what you’re doing on these scenes, people get hurt and killed.” 

Kyle McIntyre previously worked with Simmons when they were both at Brooklyn Fire & Rescue Company 13. He said he was a captain when Simmons was chief, and through his experiences working with Simmons, he does not believe Simmons is fit to act as chief of Prairie Du Pont. 

He said Simmons was supposed to hold drills on Monday nights, but he did not. 

“He’s going to get somebody killed or hurt,” McIntyre said. 

The Rosenkranzes discussed related concerns last Wednesday night. John Rosenkranz read a prepared statement asking for an investigation into the matter, the board to reverse the appointment of Simmons as acting chief and calling for the board to resign. 

Former firefighters and concerned community members passed around candles after John Rosenkranz’s statement in memory of Randy Sullivan, a longtime member of the department who died earlier this year. As the flickering flames illuminated the firehouse’s sign and two toy fire engines accompanying in it, the crew sang “Silent Night.” 

Laura Rosenkranz said this vigil was long-awaited, as she said the board of trustees told the firefighters they could not hold such an event at the firehouse months ago after Sullivan died. 

Shortly before 10 p.m. last Wednesday, St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department deputies responded to a call at Prairie Du Pont Fire Station No. 1. According to a police report, John Rosenkranz said Bivins threatened to kill Borders, one of the 10 firefighters who resigned when Simmons was named acting chief. 

Bivins allegedly left before police arrived. 

Bivins did not respond to requests for comment on this matter. 

A second petition started by Laura Rosenkranz calls for the board of trustees to reverse Simmons’s appointment and reinstate John Rosenkranz as chief “until a time to truly discuss personnel matters is permitted.” It alleges the board acted illegally when appointing Simmons, as Laura Rosenkranz believes he did not have the experience required by law and one who was convicted of a felony in the state cannot be appointed to the fire department. 

This petition did not address Simmons being pardoned for the 1998 incident specifically. The pardon was requested by the Simmons family and granted recently by Gov. JB Pritzker.

The board of trustees declined to comment on the accusations mentioned in these petitions. 

Jerame Simmons Sr. did not respond to the Republic-Times despite multiple attempts to reach him. 

Herb Simmons, Jerame Simmons Sr.’s father who is also the longtime mayor of East Carondelet and serves as St. Clair County’s Emergency Management Agency director, did not comment on this ordeal other than to reiterate the fire protection district board of trustees operates independently of the village. 

Requests were addressed to St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern, a Democrat, who did not respond for comment.

St. Clair County District 16 Commissioner David Langford of Dupo, who represents the Prairie Du Pont Fire District service area, is a member of the county board’s public safety committee.

Langford, a Republican, defeated Bolle, a Democrat, for the District 16 county board seat in the November 2020 election, replacing Democrat June Chartrand. 

“You would want to talk with Mark Kern for details regarding the fire district appointments in Prairie Du Pont,” Langford told the Republic-Times.

Langford, owner of Champion Dry Cleaners in Columbia, added that this fire district board was already in place when he took office.

“I only recommended the replacement for the secretary last year,” he said.

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