Fire Chief Thomas Freeman

Elmhurst Fire Chief Thomas Freeman had barely found the coat rack in his office when one of the biggest and most potentially dangerous fires in Elmhurst’s recent history broke out and burned for more than 18 hours. The fire, at VIP Occasions bridal salon and formalwear store on North York Road near Grantley, drew the attention of news outlets throughout the Chicagoland area.

At that incident, Freeman had the chance to not only show his own expertise to his crew, but also to get to know virtually everyone who works in his department and how they handle a difficult situation.

“That’s what we are,” Freeman told the Independent. “We are the people you see at your worst possible hour, we are there in your most desperate situation and we are there to help. We are there to assure a good outcome, whether it’s delivering a baby, bringing someone back to life, rescuing someone.

“It’s really humbling when you find someone who is clinically dead and then you are able to bring them back. It’s a real source of pride being part of Homeland Security, whose first-responders are considered second only to the military.”

His personal background and how it fits

Growing up on the south side of Chicago, Freeman chased fire trucks as a kid, telling his parents at 7 years old he wanted to be a fireman. In 1970, he had the opportunity to get into a Fire Cadet youth program at the age of 15, which gave him a taste of what being a fireman is really like.

“[Fire Cadets] was a very good program,” he said. “It offered the ability to see if this is really the career you wanted to choose. It gave direction to us at a very young age to help shape and guide our future.”

Every little boy wants to be a fireman when he grows up, isn’t that right?

“Yes, I guess so,” Freeman laughed. “There’s a joke we tell, if you say you want to be a fireman when you grow up, well, you can’t do both! You can be a fireman or you can grow up — not both.”

He turned serious for a moment.

“When I said I wanted to be a fireman, I knew it meant that you give your all to correct a terrible situation and hope that it works out for the best,” Freeman said. “We train for every possible eventuality and try to be prepared for anything. After all, we’re going out to help people we may not even know and when there’s any kind of risk, then everything is on the line.

“People come in for their shift at 8 a.m. and there’s no guarantee they’re going home 24 hours later.”

Still, Freeman loves being a firefighter and the experiences it has brought him over the years.

“I really feel blessed,” he said. “I love coming into the office, starting the coffee, it doesn’t ever feel like work.”

After working on the south side for a number of years, Freeman was recruited to work for the Fire Protection District in the Lisle Woodridge area prior to coming to Elmhurst.

Asked what surprised him about working in Elmhurst, Freeman had to think for a minute.

“I guess I was pleasantly surprised at how welcoming and personable the city and its residents are,” he said. “By that, I mean internally here at City Hall as well as externally among the residents. They are so welcoming to outsiders, which I consider a sign of professionalism.

“Sometimes you wonder, in a City where everybody seems to have been here forever, why didn’t they promote from within? But you have to trust your City and the people who make the decisions. Everybody’s first priority is for the good of the City and if we all keep that in mind, in the end we get a better City, better schools, better neighborhoods, you name it. I enjoy that kind of energy. It makes you want to come to work and work hard for those for whom safety is paramount. As long as I’m here, I’ll do my darnedest to see that it happens.”

His goal in Elmhurst?

“I want to make a difference,” Freeman said. “Everywhere I’ve ever worked, I just want to leave it a little better than it was when I found it.”

The biggest announcement the Fire Chief shared was that the department will soon be back to full staff.

“On Monday, March 20, we’ll be giving the oath to new firefighters and at that time, we will be a full staff again,” he said.

On the personal side…

On the personal front, Freeman lives in Lisle, where he enjoys a relationship with a lovely lady named Bridget and her children Nick and Catherine. Freeman has a 28-year-old daughter of his own named Beth, who teaches English at Glenbard East High School.

“We are a bit of a melded family,” Freeman said. “We’re together but separate. We’re not married but we’re in a tremendous relationship — it keeps me on my toes!”

Freeman feels working in Elmhurst is a dream come true. He said he hopes to be here for many years and wouldn’t rule out relocating here should the opportunity arise.

“I feel very fortunate to end up here in the next phase of my life,” he said. “I enjoy working. I have no hobbies, I don’t hunt or fish and I’ve never swung a golf club. My only addiction is coffee — it’s always on — the last remaining vice in my life!”

His favorite places in town — no surprise — are places that serve coffee.

“I like Panera Bread, because it’s close by,” Freeman said. “But I was also very impressed with Fresh Start at the south end of town. We’ve had meetings there and the owner always goes out of his way to accommodate us. It’s one of the first places I ever went when I came here to Elmhurst and I was impressed so I continue to go.”

Freeman knows four of the former Fire Chiefs who previously served Elmhurst — Jeff Bacidore, Bob Gallas, John Fennell and Dick Swanson.

“I was always impressed by Swanson,” Freeman said. “He had a handle on code enforcement and fire prevention. He knew how to be proactive as well as reactive to situations. He showed that if you can predict it, you can avoid it.”

Here’s wishing the best of luck to Fire Chief Thomas Freeman in his position with the City of Elmhurst — and here’s hoping that large fires like the one at VIP Occasions are few and far between.

 

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