In the early 1980s, Michael Ventura was working as a plumber after attending Elmhurst College and Triton College. But that all changed thanks to Mike Marino, his late wife’s cousin. Now the chief of the Elmwood Park Fire Department, Marino was a firefighter when he invited Ventura down to the station one day. “After attending college, I couldn’t find anything that really sparked my interest, until I stepped into that fire department,” Ventura recalls.
Ventura started out in 1982 as a paid on-call fireman, which is basically a part-time fireman. On May 25, 1985, he took the test and became a full-time firefighter for Elmwood Park. “It was great because the shift was, and still is, 24 hours on the job and 48 hours off. So I would work 24 hours as a fireman and the next 48 hours I would work as a plumber,” Ventura explains. “I even had my own business for a little while.”
Ventura progressed through the ranks from a lieutenant, to captain, to fire prevention officer, and then finally to deputy chief in January 2009. “I’ve always strived to do the best I can, and being appointed deputy chief was a very proud moment for me,” he says.
Ventura vividly recalls Nov. 23, 2005, when he was on duty as a shift officer. During holiday rush hour, traffic was stopped on the train tracks on Grand Avenue, not far from the station. The engineer of a Metra train, traveling around 60 miles per hour, did not see the traffic on the tracks and didn’t have time to stop, ultimately crashing into several vehicles.
Ventura and several other firefighters sprang into action in the aftermath of the crash. “At least 15 ambulances arrived, and several vehicles had been hit by the train and were totaled completely,” he recalls. “Luckily, no one was seriously injured since most people abandoned their vehicles once they saw the train heading toward them.” Ventura received a merit award for his assistance during the accident.
Ventura has a special incentive for keeping his community safe. In 1972, he moved to Elmwood, where he and his wife, Cindi, raised four children, one of whom is married with two children of his own.
In 1987, Ventura launched ñFill The Boot Dayî to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. One day a year, the firemen of Elmwood Park work the intersections of major streets with an empty fire boot, inviting motorists stopped at red lights to donate anything they can to the foundation. ñI found out about it because a lot of other communities were doing it,î Ventura explains. ñI brought it up to the chief at the time and he was very supportive, and now we do it every year.î
When offering advice to young men and women who are interesting in becoming firefighters, Ventura bears in mind that times have changed dramatically from the day he applied in 1985. “Years ago, there were only 12 to 15 guys taking the test with you. Now, for entry levels it’s close to 300 people,” he explains. “Anything you can do beforehand to educate yourself is a must. For example, some districts require you to have already graduated from paramedic school. So definitely accomplish that before applying. It will help you stand out.”