Steve Borkowski wasn’t the kind of kid who grew up chasing sirens and dreaming of being a firefighting hero.
He never thought about firefighting much at all until, when he was a young man, a friend raised the idea of joining the fire department. The excitement of the job appealed to him, and Borkowksi applied.
He was 23 years old when he joined the Niles Fire Department in 1981, and he has never left.
“I still enjoy going out on calls and talking with the guys,” said Borkowski. “I still enjoy the tactical part of the job.”
Borkowksi was named fire chief at the village board meeting May 24, after serving as acting chief since the retirement of Barry Mueller in November.
Borkowski said the department’s nearly 60 employees won’t see much of a change in management style from Mueller, under whom he served as deputy chief for four years after stints as district chief (1999-2006) and lieutenant (1989-1999).
“I certainly look for input from everywhere,” Borkowski said, “any way we can do our jobs better.”
About 65 percent of the calls to which the Niles Fire Department responds are ambulance calls, Borkowski said, and some of those are among his most memorable, especially those in which he was able to use a defibrillator to bring someone in cardiac arrest back to life.
“It’s 20 years ago I did that on one call, and I still see the man walking around town,” Borkowski said.
He also remembers a call that might seem less serious, but was important to the resident who needed help.
“It was 2 o’clock in the morning and it was this old lady who lived alone,” he said. “She was talking to me and I was trying to figure out what she wanted, and then I realized she was leading me around. What she wanted was for me to relight her furnace and put a new battery in her smoke detector. At 2 o’clock in the morning.”
Before anyone gets any ideas, those are not normally jobs handled by the fire department, he said.
One of the biggest fires he fought was at the then-unfinished Concord Lakes development on Golf Road in 1994. Flames swept through six or eight of the buildings that were under construction, jumping a street in the process. “Our focus was to save the apartments that were west of that,” he said.
When it comes to actual structure fires, Niles itself has maybe five to 10 a year, he said. However, Niles firefighters respond to fires in the nearby North Maine District as well as in neighboring Morton Grove and Park Ridge, and even further afield if a fire is major.
“That’s just the way fire departments work together,” he said.
While Borkowski has fought fires that involved fatalities, he doesn’t like to talk about that.
“You do what you’re trained to do and just keep going,” he said.
He acknowledges the conflict that exists for firefighters, between wanting to put their training to use by going out to battle a blaze and wanting there to never be any fires ever again.
“You see the damage that it does,” he said. “You see the damage it does to people’s belongings, to people’s lives.”
A Niles resident, Borkowski has three grown children, including a son who is a police officer.
Any rivalry with the police – like that with neighboring fire departments – is purely in fun, he said, such as when the two departments competed with one another in the Christmas tree decorating contest at Golf Mill Shopping Center or, in past years, when they have fielded softball teams to play one another.
Borkowski said he looks forward to leading the department.
“I’m very proud of this department and I want to do the best job we can for the community,” Borkowski said. “We welcome any comments.”