clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Chicago fire commissioner awaits his fate as he nears mandatory retirement age

When Chicago Fire Commissioner Jose A. Santiago (left) retired in August, he was facing disciplinary action from Mayor Rahm Emanuel for failing to file a complaint against his drive for using the N-wordy, records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Closing in on the mandatory retirement age of 63, Chicago Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago is still awaiting word on whether he will be forced out or allowed to stay on as a civilian commissioner.

Obviously preoccupied with more pressing concerns like the violence on Chicago streets, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has delayed the decision for so long, Santiago will turn 63 before the City Council reconvenes in September, when a vote could be taken on an ordinance permitting him to stay on.

That means that, unless Emanuel makes a change, an executive order would be needed to temporarily allow it.

The mayor’s office refused to tip its hand. Santiago could not be reached on whether he even wants to stay. That leaves his City Council allies and an anxious rank-and-file guessing.

“Is he retiring because of age or coming back on as a civilian? I’ve heard absolutely nothing as far as what the mayor is doing,” said Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st), who has served the city as both a firefighter and a police officer.

“He should sit down with Santiago and Local 2 and try to talk about what’s best. If they decide Santiago is the direction to go, great. He’s a great guy. He’s done a pretty good job. If it’s time to move in a different direction on behalf of the Fire Department, that’s what I have to support.”

Ald. Nick Sposato (38th), a former firefighter, said he talks to Santiago almost every week and believes he’s done “an all right job.”

“I’m pissed at him for with some things. I praise him for some things. But the mayor looks at it different than I look at it. The mayor doesn’t go by what aldermen think or what the rank-and-file think. The mayor goes by what he thinks,” Sposato said.

“Susan Russell did a phenomenal job [at Animal Care and Control], but they bounced her out of there.”

There is precedent for civilians at the helm of Chicago’s public safety departments.

Former Mayor Jane Byrne had a civilian fire commissioner in William Blair, who famously gave the order to spray water from a fire hose on Dan “Spider-Dan” Goodwin as the daredevil reached the 37th floor of the John Hancock Center on Veterans Day 1981.

The Chicago Police Department has had two civilian superintendents: O.W. Wilson after the cops-as-robbers scandal in the old Summerdale police district and former FBI agent Jody Weis after the Special Operations Section scandal and the furor that followed off-duty police officer Anthony Abatte’s brutal beating of a female bartender captured on a videotape played around the world.

Santiago has had no such high-profile scandals. But that doesn’t mean his six-and-a-half year reign has been smooth sailing.

Fire deaths are up to 31 already this year, compared to 27 all of last year.

Mayoral challenger Paul Vallas has accused Santiago of treating emergency medical services, an overwhelming majority of 911 calls, as a poor “step-child” as Emanuel dragged his feet for years on a promised five-ambulance expansion.

Inspector General Joe Ferguson has lit repeated fires under the department — for everything from slow ambulance response times and civilianization with the potential to save millions to his conclusion that at least 20 of the 111 black firefighters hired after a marathon discrimination lawsuit had not been medically cleared by a department physician before starting work.

Ferguson also blew the whistle on timekeeping scams and accused CFD of shelling out $5 million-a-year to provide a uniform allowance to firefighters and paramedics that’s more like an “automatic cash bonus” because it’s “completely unmoored from any determination of actual need or use.”

Earlier this year, five female paramedics filed a federal lawsuit accusing their superiors of sexual harassment.

The suit alleged that the Chicago Fire Department “directly encourages” the illegal behavior by failing to “discipline, supervise and control” its officers, by intimidating and punishing women who dare to report the harassment, and by maintaining a “code of silence.”

Discrimination against women also forced the department to change its policy impacting pregnant employees and nursing mothers and spend $2 million — and $1.7 million more in legal fees — to compensate dozens of women denied firefighter jobs because of a discriminatory test of upper-body strength that City Hall has now scrapped.

As if all of that wasn’t enough of a headache, 32 members of the Fire Department’s exempt ranks returned to their career service ranks after Emanuel discontinued the longstanding practice of boosting the pay of exempt-rank members in response to union contracts that increased pay for the rank-and-file.

The fire officials are seeking pension changes, expanded health insurance benefits and pay raises but have, so far, been unable to convince Emanuel to sweeten the pot for them.

In 2016, Santiago defended his 60-day suspension of a lieutenant who refused to send underlings into an area where they might be exposed to Ebola but said the city would accept an arbitrator’s ruling overturning the suspension.

At the time, Santiago said the decision not to appeal the arbitrator’s ruling had nothing to do with the vote of no-confidence in him vote taken by the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2.

Santiago was chosen in February 2012 to replace Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff, one of the most decorated firefighters in the city’s history.

Hoff abruptly announced his retirement after declaring that he was “deathly against” closing fire houses or reducing the minimum staffing requirement on fire apparatus — the issue that triggered the bitter 1980 firefighters strike.