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Before he saved NBC’s show, district chief was saving lives

Steve Chikerotis’ (far right) firefighting days may be over, but he’ll continue to tell his stories Tuesday nights on NBC. | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

Chicago Fire Department Deputy District Chief Steve Chikerotis had a small part as Chief Walker in Tuesday’s “Chicago Fire” fall finale.

Behind the scenes, the Southwest Side native has played a much bigger role in the NBC drama.

“There literally would not be a ‘Chicago Fire’ or ‘Chicago P.D.’ without Chief Chikerotis,” said Michael Brandt, who co-created the Dick Wolf-produced series — now in its third season — with Derek Haas.

“We thought we were going to swoop in here as Hollywood writers and the fire departments were going to open their doors to us,” Brandt said. “We went into the first couple of firehouses and guys would come and sit in the lunch room with us. We said, ‘OK, we’re going to make a TV show about you guys. We’re going to make you look great, so start telling us your stories.’ By the time we were done talking, everybody was gone. We didn’t have any credibility. Nobody really believed we were going to tell their stories the right way. The show was going nowhere.”

One of the show’s producers, John Roman, recalled working with Chikerotis 20 years earlier on “Backdraft.” The Chicago firefighter served as a technical adviser on the 1991 film.

A few phone calls later, Chikerotis, Brandt and Haas were having lunch at Maggiano’s, where the Fire Department veteran started scribbling a list of story ideas on cocktail napkins.

“A couple months later we were shooting the pilot,” said Chikerotis, a technical adviser, storyline consultant and occasional writer for the series.

Until recently, Chikerotis balanced those duties with overseeing 30 of the city’s firehouses as one of the department’s four district chiefs. He retired last month.

“It’s been 36 years,” a wistful Chikerotis said during his last day on the job. “I don’t remember what it’s like to not be a firefighter.”

While his co-workers helped themselves to celebratory cake in the firehouse kitchen, Chikerotis sat behind the desk in his office at Engine 18 on the Near West Side — the same firehouse used for exterior shots on the show.

“I was able to sell the idea to film it here because of the skyline,” he said, noting that producers originally wanted fictional Firehouse 51 to have a downtown address. “We were having a meeting one night in a restaurant with Dick Wolf and we were discussing which house we could film the pilot in. I said, ‘I want you to see where my office is because you’re going to love it.’ When you look out the north doors the city looks so beautiful.”

Unlike many firefighters, Chikerotis doesn’t come from a family of first-responders. The Garfield Ridge resident and St. Rita High School alum studied engineering at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. He soon realized he didn’t have the temperament for it.

“I wanted an action job,” said the father of four grown boys. “I took the test for the Police Department and the Fire Department at the same time. Luckily, the fire department called me first.”

Writing has always been his passion, which is why the gig on “Fire” has been a dream come true.

“It’s my own genre,” he said. “But after three years of working two full-time jobs, you can burn out. There’s only so many hours in life. I have three grandkids I’d like to spend some time with.”

One of those grandkids made a cameo last season on “Fire,” when Lt. Matt Casey (Jesse Spencer) rescued the 4-month-old child from a home engulfed by flames.

“As soon as I found out it was his baby that I had to pull out of a crib and wrap in my gear and run out of a burning room, I just freaked out,” Spencer said during a Google Hangout held earlier this year at the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago.

“Most of the stories that are used are based on real events,” Spencer added. “That’s what’s great about it. That’s where the heart and the soul of the show comes from. There’s so much stuff they can use.”

And so much of that stuff comes from “Chik,” who spent a good portion of his career on the rescue squad, an elite unit whose training runs the gamut from scuba diving to saving lives on top of high-rises.

Back when Chik was a lieutenant on the West Side’s Squad 2, he responded to a blaze in an apartment filled with black smoke. Battling zero visibility and searing temperatures, he did an initial sweep of the three bedrooms, looking for survivors. Per protocol, he went back a second time for a more thorough search.

“I get to the same bed that I’d already checked but now I grab it and tug it away from the wall. I heard a thump,” he said, pausing. “It gets me right now. I can feel my neck hair standing up.”

That thump was the sound of a child’s limp body hitting the floor. Chikerotis scooped the boy up and rushed him into the ambulance, but it was too late. He didn’t make it.

“That really lived with me for a long time,” he said.

This painful, real-life event inspired a similar storyline experienced by Lt. Kelly Severide (Taylor Kinney) at the end of last season.

It’s also the emotional anecdote Chikerotis shared when he brought the show’s co-creators, Brandt and Haas, to one of the local firehouses that initially wanted nothing to do with a couple of Hollywood writers.

“He told the story and there wasn’t a dry eye in there,” Brandt said. “It spread around the fire department that he’d basically given his blessing to Derek and I. Over the next three days, we could walk into pretty much any firehouse, and guys would talk to us.”

Chikerotis’ firefighting days may be over, but he’ll continue to tell his stories Tuesday nights on NBC.

“I’ve got to be the luckiest guy in the world,” he said. “After 36 years on the job, I looked forward to coming to work this year as much as my first year. If you love something that much, it’s really not a job.”