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Lt. William Brei Named 2018 Firefighter of the Year

William Brei, firefighter of the year, park forest
Lieutenant William Brei, 2018 Park Forest Firefighter of the Year. (Photo: Gary Kopycinski)

Park Forest, IL-(ENEWSPF)- Lieutenant William Brei was named the 2018 Firefighter of the Year Saturday at a moving ceremony in Dining on the Green Saturday. Firefighters, family members, board members, Village Manager Tom Mick, other Village staff, and members of the public watched an event unfold that was under 45 minutes but with a depth of reflection on the last calendar year, the courageous and risky saves, with some facing personal peril while saving the lives of others.

What does it take to be named Firefighter of the Year? According to the Department, “This award will be presented to the Firefighter who best exemplifies by his/her performance the principles and purposes of the fire service and the Park Forest Fire Department. The Committee, when considering nominees, shall review the record of the nominee with special attention given to the preceding year.”

How does it feel being named Firefighter of the Year? Lieutenant William Brei’s first feeling was one of relief.

“How do I feel? Relieved that I’m not standing up in front of the crowd any more,” he said. “I feel good. I’ve been in the department a long time. As I told the chief, this doesn’t change how I do things. This is who I am and how I do my job.”

Lieutenant Brei is going into his 27th year with the Park Forest Fire Department. “I’m the senior guy now,” he said. “I’m the oldest and most amount of time on the Department. Most birthdays and most time on the job,” he laughed. “Even though I’m not the chief, it gives me a certain sense of satisfaction.”

He said he enjoys spending time chatting about the people and times he’s seen through the years, “I love sitting down when Captain Wheeler comes out and visits and some of the retirees for our semi-annual picnic, get to see all those guys again. It’s a great time.”

Firefighter Elizabeth Vlahakis was honored for one incident in particular where she saved a man who was attempting suicide in his car in the garage. “I don’t everybody understood what was going on. There were a lot of alarms going off. Carbon monoxide alarms were going off. The individual had kind of parked his car in an awkward situation. I was small enough to be able to fit in and turn it off and drag him out. It was kind of a little chaotic situation, but we managed it.”

Elizabeth Vlahakis was also recognized along with Firefighter Thomas Marconi and Police Officer James Jachymiak for the role they played in saving an unresponsive infant. When Firefighter/Paramedics Marconi and Vlahakis arrived at the scene on Arcadia Street, they found Officer Jachymiak holding the infant. Officer Jachymiak had already cleared an obstruction from the infant’s throat. Paramedics took over care of the infant, continued to clear the airway obstruction, and provided advanced life support care. The infant was rushed to the hospital and care was turned over to the Emergency Room staff. The child survived because of the officer and firefighter/paramedics.

There were many such stories throughout the ceremony. There was the unit that helped rescue people and pets from a burning home on Lakewood Boulevard. Then there was the unit that responded in June to an accident at 26th Street and Birch Street. The crew found a multi-car accident with downed, energized power lines. Two patients had been removed from a vehicle but remained in the area of the downed power lines. Paramedics responded, securing the patients and taking them to the safety of the ambulance.

There was an August 2018 residential fire on Woodland Glen. This was a second call in progress. Dispatch advised that police were reporting flames coming through the roof. The responding firefighters were a three-person crew. They began with a 2 1/2″ line attacking the fire. Additional crews arrived and more lines were deployed. Firefighters were able to enter the structure. The temperature outside was near 90 degrees with a heat index of 100 degrees. Here, Firefighter Carolyn Gray, Firefighter Nathan Marconi, Firefighter Kevin Meredith, Firefighter Michelle Paradise, and Lieutenant Patrick Hisel were recognized.

(For a recap on the latter event, see Iconic #TimStrong Squad Out Of Service Following Post Head-on Collision Crash in eNews Park Forest.)

Tracy Natyshok, Jeff Welch, PFFD
Fire Chief Tracy Natyshok began the ceremony with a reflection on a friend, Fire Chief Jeff Welch, who challenged him through the years, “Do you love the job?” (Photo: Gary Kopycinski)

Do You Still Love the Job?

Fire Chief Tracy Natyshok began the ceremony talking about a friend of his, fellow firefighter Jeff Welch, who he first met in 1988 when he took his first class at the University of Illinois at the Fire Service Institute.

“At the time, Jeff was a battalion chief in the City of Urbana,” Chief Natyshok said. He said one night the two men went out for a soda after class, and Welch gave him advice he’ll never forget, “He said it was extremely important that I always love and respect the job, and protect the traditions a legecies of those who came before us. And if I wasn’t willing to do that, find a different job.”

Chief Natyshok said that advice always stayed with him.

In later days, the chief and his friend Jeff taught other firefighters throughout the state of Illinois. Sometimes they were teaching together, “And every time I taught with him, he would ask the question, ‘Do you love the job?’ And I’d smile and laugh and say, ‘Yes, I love the job.'”

Later on, Chief Natyshok’s friend Jeff became a fire chief in Idaho. Jeff was approached by a group to see if he would conduct a class to other firefighters throughout the country. Jeff said yes, but asked Chief Natyshok to work with him, and the two taught “Live Burn” classes to firefighters across the nation, including annually at the Fire Department Instructor’s Conference [FDIC] in Indianapolis, which draws approximately 30,000 firefighters to Indianapolis from around the world.

He said every time he saw Jeff, Jeff would ask the question, “Do you love the job?”

“And I’d say yes, I love the job.”

Three years ago, Chief Natyshok said Jeff’s wife called to say that Chief Welch would not make it to the conference, that he had been diagnosed with a “very aggressive form of cancer.” His wife promised Jeff that he would be back the next year to teach, and, “True to his word, he was back the next year,” the chief said.

He said that year, Jeff was frail, had lost a lot of weight, and had burn marks around his lips from drinking oral chemotherapy. “He told us to ‘not take it easy on me, I’m here to work,” the chief said. He said during their debriefing that year, Jeff thanked everyone on the team for allowing him, for one last time, to wear the gear and be a firefighter.

Chief Natyshok said he and his wife vacationed this past August to Seattle. When Jeff Welch found out the Natyshoks were going to be “in the neighborhood,” he asked them to stop by in northern Idaho and visit with him and his wife. They did so.

The last night of their visit, Jeff and Chief Natyshok were sharing a soda, “And I knew it was coming. Like clockwork, he looked at me and he asked me, ‘So, do you still love the job?'”

“I was prepared,” the chief said. “I said, ‘Jeff, with clear eyes and full heart I absolutely love my job. There is no job I would rather do.’

“This time, he had a follow-up question. He asked me, ‘Why?’ That caught me off guard. I had to think about it. I said, ‘The actual physical work that a firefighter/paramedic does can be mentally exhausting. It can be back-breaking. Unfortunately, quite often, it’s heartbreaking. We work in deplorable conditions with extreme heat, dirty, smelly, hazardous, dangerous conditions.

“So, it ain’t the actual physical job that makes me love the job. It’s more of the fact that I get to work with some of the most compassionate, caring, empathetic human beings ever made, men and women who do their best to protect the traditions and legacies of those who came before us. While at the same time, they’re brave enough to get out of the rut, to get uncomfortable, and push the envelope forward, to make it safer and better for those who come after us.”

“I tell that story, because, in essence, that’s why we’re here today,” Chief Natyshok said. “The men and women of the Park Forest Fire Department do incredible work every day. Today, we’re going to highlight just a few, handful of calls that exemplify the reasons why we all love our job.”

And with that, the awards began.

Awards Ceremony

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In addition to Lt. William Brei’s honor as Firefighter of the Year, the following firefighter/paramedics were honored.

45 Years Service Award

William Tilley

Meritorious Unit Commendation

This award is presented to individuals or units who performed and exhibited exceptional skills in a coordinated action.

  • Firefighter Thomas Marconi, Firefighter Elizabeth Vlahakis, Police Officer James Jachymiak
  • Firefighter Taylor Bordewyk, Firefighter Kevin Grove, Firefighter Thomas Marconi, Firefighter Drew Sparks, Firefighter Elizabeth Vlahakis, Firefighter Mark Cotrano
  • Firefighter Carolyn Gray, Firefighter Nathan Marconi, Firefighter Thomas Marconi, Lieutenant Patrick Hisel

Unit Citation

This award is presented to a unit that exhibited exceptional professional skill and conduct during a coordinated action with personal risk on an emergency incident.

  • Firefighter Carolyn Gray, Firefighter Nathan Marconi, Firefighter Kevin Meredith, Firefighter Bob Pillman, Firefighter Mike Wolski, Police Officer Devin Strahla
  • Firefighter James Baum, Firefighter Steven Dees, Firefighter Joseph Spanier, Firefighter Kyle Zelhart, Lieutenant Neil Grove
  • Firefighter Thomas Marconi
  • Firefighter Drew Sparks, Firefighter POC Firefighter Brian Rimkus, Lieutenant Mark Cotrano, POC Captain William Tilley
  • Firefighter Carolyn Gray, Firefighter Nathan Marconi, Firefighter Kevin Meredith, Firefighter Michelle Paradise, Lieutenant Patrick Hisel
  • Firefighter Robert Pillman, Firefighter Drew Sparks, Lieutenant William Brei

Individual Citation, Meretorious Commendation

This award is presenbted to those individuals who performed exceptional skill with personal risk.

  • Firefighter Elizabeth Vlahakis (Individual Citation)
  • Firefighter Edward Wright (Meretorious Commendation)

Life Saving Medal

An award given to a member of the Department for an act in which the life of another is saved.

  • Firefighter Joseph Spanier, Firefighter Tyler Triemstra, Firefighter Kyle Zelhart
  • Firefighter James Baum, Firefighter Cory Murdoch, Firefighter Tyler Triemstra, Firefighter Kyle Zelhart, Lieutenant William Brei

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