CFL News
February 16, 2012

Emanuel Names New Fire Chief – Are Cuts Next?

Emanuel’s choice to succeed outgoing fire commissioner Robert Hoff, would not say Thursday whether he shares his view that crew sizes should not be reduced.

Source: Chicago News Cooperative

By DAN MIHALOPOULOS

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s appointment Thursday of a new fire commissioner could be the precursor for major changes in Chicago’s fire department, which so far has been untouched by the budget cuts that have affected departments in other major cities.
 
The retiring fire commissioner, Robert Hoff, was a strident opponent of altering the city’s contractual obligation to staff each crew with five firefighters, arguing that smaller teams would compromise safety. But Emanuel’s choice to succeed Hoff, Jose Santiago, would not say Thursday whether he shares that view.
 
“There are many, many different studies on what is safe or not,” Santiago said at a news conference with Hoff and the mayor at a downtown fire station. “That’s what we’ve been working on. Taking all that information, we will make a determination based on safety. Any changes are always based on safety.”
 
The mayor, though, quickly added that the city’s budget woes would be another factor in the decisions that are made.
 
“Safety will be paramount,” Emanuel said. “Savings will also be an issue. And change will be an issue because you cannot say that technology has not changed and made us all better and smarter at doing what we need to do.”
 
The change at the top of the department comes just a few months before the expiration of the firefighters’ union contract, which allows only limited exceptions to the five-per-truck approach.
 
Largely because of that policy, and despite City Hall’s gaping budget shortfalls, the fire department has become steadily more expensive to run. Under Emanuel’s 2012 budget, the fire department will lose only 49 of more than 5,100 positions, and its budget will increase by 8.2 percent, to more than $550 million, budget documents show.
 
Last year, the Chicago News Cooperative’s survey of the country’s 10 largest cities found that Chicago ranked near the top in the resources devoted to its fire department. Chicago has more firefighters per capita than every large United States city except for Houston, the CNC’s analysis found. And, taking into account its more than 90 firehouses, Chicago’s department was third in density of firehouses, behind only New York and Philadelphia.
 
Asked whether the city could close any fire stations, Santiago replied, “We are sitting down and looking at every option.”
 
Emanuel’s first budget, for 2012, likely will reduce the deficits that the city faces in future years. But more shortfalls are expected without further spending cuts, and it is difficult for the city to balance its books without touching personnel costs for public safety. The fire and police departments together comprise more than half of the City Hall workforce.
 
In a 2010 report, Inspector General Joseph Ferguson estimated that shifting to four firefighters per piece of equipment could save the city more than $63 million a year. Personnel costs, including benefits, for each firefighter are more than $100,000 a year, according to the report.
 
On Thursday, Emanuel reiterated his promise that no part of city government would be immune from the cost-cutting efforts that he has promised to pursue. But he said his approach to the fire department was still under development. With contract negotiations looming — and no doubt mindful of the 1980 firefighters’ strike — the first-term mayor has been hesitant to touch on the topic of fire department staffing in any detail.
 
“We’re going to have a series of negotiations,” Emanuel said. “There will be changes. We cannot keep doing the same thing and the same thing. Every part of the city is making reforms.”
 
Hoff, whose father died fighting a fire when he was five years old, was one of the key Cabinet members that Emanuel held over from Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration when he took office in May.
 
There was no sign of acrimony on Thursday. The mayor said Hoff offered his resignation about a month ago, and Emanuel said he had asked him to stay.
 
Hoff told reporters that he decided to retire to spend more time with his family and that Emanuel “was terrific to me.”
 
But the departure had seemed inevitable since Emanuel declined to back Hoff’s firm stand on the crew manning policy at a City Council budget hearing in October. Emanuel declined to rule out the changes that Hoff said he was “deathly against.”
 
Asked Thursday if his position on staffing fire trucks remained unchanged, Hoff replied, “My opinion is my personal opinion … I believe in what I believe in. I’ll just leave it at that. I believe in what I believe in.”
 
Of the 10 largest cities, only Chicago, New York and Los Angeles regularly staffed both engines and trucks with at least five firefighters, the CNC found last year. Unlike Chicago, however, New York and Los Angeles have made other cuts to fire service.

“I don’t worry about other cities,” Hoff said. “I worry about the city of Chicago. And the most important people I worry about are the firefighters and the paramedics.”

Ald. Nicholas Sposato (36th Ward), a former firefighter who was trained by Santiago, said the retiring commissioner and his successor both were very popular among the department’s rank-and-file members.
 
“Bob Hoff is a fireman’s fireman,” Sposato said. “He stood up for his guys. It would be hard to find anybody who didn’t like him.”
 
But Sposato said Santiago is “another great guy,” and the alderman praised Emanuel from promoting the new commissioner from within the department rather than seeking an outsider to lead it.

“Jose is a man of high integrity,” Sposato said. “I know he will do what’s right for the city and the department. He knows how the job is and he knows what we need out there to protect the people of the city.”

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