Retiring assistant chief helped fire department grow

Wayne Stevens spent 32 years directing emergency services
by Martha Quetsch
ELBURN—Retiring from Elburn & Countryside Fire Department was not something that Assistant Chief Wayne Stevens planned, but he realized in the past year that he was ready after 32 years leading the village’s emergency medical services.

He said a good friend at the department, Lt. Sherry Nielsen, told him she never thought he would leave, and he didn’t either.

“I never saw myself as retiring,” he said. “But there comes a time when you know it is time.”

In the last year, Stevens has undergone two major surgeries, having had both of his knees replaced.

“When I had the surgery, I thought, why the heck did I wait so long to do this, and I guess it is the same for retiring,” he said.

During his last week at the station, he is cleaning out his office, which he said is not a simple task after more than three decades of accumulating things. Next, he plans to clean out his basement, attic and garage at home. Other than that, he has no specific plans for the future, other than to ride his Honda cruiser motorcycle more, go on more camping trips with his wife, Mary Beth, and see more of his three grandchildren’s sporting events.

He also will continue teaching EMT classes occasionally, as he has done for years at Delnor Hospital.

Stevens became an EMT in the early 1970s, after spending four years in the U.S. Marines. He served in Vietnam for a year, in 1969, where he was responsible for setting up landing areas in combat zones for medic helicopters to pick up the wounded, whom he cared for until they arrived.

After completing his service, he and his new bride settled in Batavia, and he began taking business classes at Waubonsee Community College and working at a hardware store. Between school and work, he would stop at Community Hospital in Geneva after classes to have lunch with his wife, who worked there.

One day in the hospital cafeteria, a nurse approached him and asked, “You worked in Vietnam didn’t you, with helicopters taking care of wounded, right?” Then she told him that the hospital was starting a new EMT program and asked whether he would be interested. He was, and took the first EMT course ever held at Copley Hospital in downtown Aurora. Afterward, he was thrilled when Community Hospital hired him as one of its first EMTs for Tri-City Ambulance Service, which had taken over for the local funeral homes that previously provided patient transport.
“I wanted the job so bad, that when they asked me what shift I wanted, I said, ‘I’ll work anything,’” he said.

On the night shift for five years, he gained a lot of experience, he said.

“When we weren’t running calls, we would work on the hospital floor, taking care of male patients, and doing odd jobs like setting up traction or doing other forms of patient care,” he said.

In the mid-’70s, Stevens decided to apply for the ambulance service directorship in Elburn, formerly headed by his friend, Chuck Conley. Then, the ambulance service was a division of the Fire Department and was housed on the opposite corner of North and First streets.

The village hired Dick Renk for the position, but when Renk returned to a teaching career a year later, Stevens applied again and landed the job in 1978.

Although he was the director of the ambulance services, he still went out on ambulance calls as an EMT. Looking back on all of the ambulance calls he did, Stevens said he does not like to dwell on the worst cases he saw, which people often ask him to describe.

“I look at it more like, what were the best cases I ever had, like rescuing people in a car crash or delivering a baby,” which he once helped a woman do at her home in Elburn.

Another one of those “best” cases was after the daughter of an Elburn woman, who was having chest pains, called the village ambulance service.

“By the time we got there, she was in cardiac arrest. We shocked her and brought her back. Every Elburn Days I would bump into her daughter and she would say, ‘Thank you so much, that I have had my mom so many years.”

He also has rescued people from car accidents, extricating them from their vehicles.

“I’ve liked to think of those more than the worst cases, because if you think about the worst cases, it will drive you out of the business,” Stevens said. “You’ve got to put that behind you and move on, and think about success rather than times where you were put to the test and you weren’t able to do anything, either because of the severity of the injury or the amount of the disease. I like to think about the ones where we fought and we won.”

When Stevens started working in Elburn in 1978, the Fire Department had four full-time employees-two EMTs in its ambulance division, Stevens and Alan Isberg, and two firefighters, former Fire Chief Marv Ackerman and Assistant Chief Marty Strausberger (who later became fire chief). The department had 30 volunteer firefighters and 15 volunteer EMTs.

Stevens provided EMT training within the Fire Department for many years, as well as being an administrator in charge of a growing staff. As the department’s paid staff expanded, volunteers were more difficult to find, so Stevens suggested opening up the department to people from other communities and letting them sleep in the station after a call.

“It worked pretty well (to bring in more volunteers)” he said. “From there, we went to building Station 2 and went from being mostly volunteer to having more full- and part-time staff.”

Since Stevens started with the department, he has seen its employee roster grow to 21 full-time firefighters who are also EMTs, and 50 part-timers with various degrees of fire and EMT certification.

When the Fire Department built a second station on Hughes Road about seven years ago, it merged its ambulance division with the fire division. After the merger, Stevens became the assistant chief in charge of emergency medical services, a position he held since then.

Stevens takes pride in having been able to mentor so many department employees over the years.

“I’d like to think that there are very good paramedics that worked for me that are that way because I helped teach them,” he said.

Elburn Fire Chief Kelly Callaghan, who became chief after Marty Strausberger, has worked with Stevens since the 1980s. Callaghan said Stevens not only is the father of three grown children, including Elburn firefighter/EMT Rob Stevens, he also has been a father figure for countless people in the fire department over the years.

“If someone needed advice on anything, he always had something to say,” Callaghan said.

Stevens said he never set out to be in a leadership role.

“I remember when I started out as a paramedic,” Stevens said. “I was visiting an uncle and he asked me, ‘So are you going to become a lieutenant, or a captain or an assistant chief, what are you going to do?’ I said, well, I don’t want to do any of that, I just want to take care of people.”