Growing up, Rick Beltrame didn’t have to look very far to know what direction to head in life. Both his father and his brother were police officers, so he knew he wanted to do something with public service.
He took both police and fire tests, and when the call came from the Melrose Park Fire Department, he answered and never looked back. On June 1, 1981, he became a firefighter for the town he has lived in all his life. And less than 25 years later, on May 1, 2005, he rose to the position of chief, which he looks back upon as the high point in his career.
Beltrame recalls his years as a fireman fondly. “You work 24 straight hours. You live with a group of men, holidays, Sundays, it doesn’t matter the day. And they become your family for that one day,” he explains. “It isn’t your typical 9 to 5 job. And it takes awhile to get used to.”
What lightens the load is being able to relate to your coworkers, he says. “If you’re going to be the odd ball and you can’t get along with your coworkers, it’ll be like you’re in prison for 24 hours.”
Over the years, Beltrame has responded to many calls. The one that has stands out most vividly was a domestic violence case back in 1993.
“I remember making an ambulance call for a domestic dispute between a boyfriend and his girlfriend. He had run her over with his car, and one of her legs was completely crushed,” he recalls. “When we were transporting her to the hospital, she was screaming the entire way. She was just in so much pain. I saw her two months later, and her leg was amputated up to her knee, but she still came into our station to thank us for helping her.”
The key to being a good fire chief is to deal with each personality differently, according to Beltrame.
“You have to deal with those personalities to get the best work out of them: not the most, but the best,” he explains. “You have to be able to get respect from your men so they will work for you and do their job.”
“If you don’t have respect you’ll have nothing but personal problems in your department,” he continues. “The men will come in late, they won’t train, and they won’t care about their job. It leads to a very unhappy group.”
Those considering a career in firefighting today might want to explore becoming a paramedic as an alternative, Beltrame suggests.
“Calls for fires are down, but most emergencies require an ambulance,” he says. “And a paramedic is the highest rank you can attain on an ambulance.”
“I would get a four-year degree in either fire science or a related curriculum,” he urges. “When I entered the field, I was a college graduate, but there were very few, whereas now all the new employees have either two- or four-year college degrees.”
As for his own career path, Beltrame wouldn’t change it for anything. “It’s a fulfilling job, where you help people who need help,” he says. “I feel lucky and blessed to be able to reach the position of fire chief in the city I’ve lived in my whole life.”