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Amid leadership vacuum, Rahm Emanuel chooses new fire commissioner

Richard C. Ford II | James Foster/Sun-Times file photo

With a leadership vacuum in the Chicago Fire Department nearing crisis stage, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has chosen the second in command to replace retired Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago in a “holding action” until the mayoral election.

Richard C. Ford II, who is African-American, will fill the $202,728-a-year void created when Santiago reached the mandatory retirement age of 63 and Emanuel was either unable or unwilling to find a legal path to keep Santiago as a civilian fire commissioner.

Sources said at least three other high-ranking fire officials declined the mayor’s offer to replace Santiago, presumably because of the temporary nature of the job.

“You know what happens when a new mayor comes in. This is a holding action I don’t see how it couldn’t be,” said Ald. Nick Sposato (38th), a former Chicago firefighter.

That doesn’t mean the next mayor may not say, ‘We want you. You’re a great guy. You did a great job.’ But I don’t think it’s likely for anybody. People come and go with the current mayor, let alone a new mayor.”

A 35-year veteran Chicago firefighter, Ford has served as the Fire Department’s No. 2 man since February, 2016.

Prior to that, he spent five years overseeing a Fire Prevention Bureau wracked by a timekeeping and mileage padding scandal that prompted Inspector General Joe Ferguson to recommend all 54 firefighters be fired only to be thwarted by an independent arbitrator.

Ford takes over the department during a challenging time.

A wave of retirements tied, in part, to a pay differential, may soon leave the Chicago Fire Department without a single deputy commissioner. Already, the fire department is “25 short in the exempt ranks,” with three more retirements pending, Sposato said.

Last year, 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. They recently got a four percent pay raise, far short of the 11 percent they were seeking.

“Guys have to be trained for the big fires. I don’t know how many guys they have prepared to handle the bigger fires…It can be a threat to safety. Everything flows downhill. Somebody needs to supervise to make sure everybody is doing their job,” Sposato said.

“We’re okay with the littler fires. The still-and-boxes, the 2-11’s. But when it comes to the big fires, I have some concern. I have real concern about supervision. We need to straighten out supervision in the fire department in the exempt ranks.”

Another source, who asked to remain anonymous, said the leadership vacuum in the Chicago Fire Department is nearing a crisis stage.

“Come Nov. 1, if we have two major events at the same time, we won’t have enough officers to cover it. That means we may have to go to the…Mutual Aid Box Alarm System, where we have a suburban chief run a Chicago fire,” the source said.

In a press release announcing Ford’s appointment, the mayor’s office also disclosed that the fire department would “begin exploring a new paramedicine program for high users” overly-reliant on ambulance services for routine care.

The new program was described as providing “pro-active medical treatment…to improve healthcare and wellness,” reducing the burden on Chicago taxpayers for emergency medical services that are not necessary.

“The project will also reduce superfluous use of emergency transports to free ambulances and advanced life support fire trucks while reducing intake and over-use at hospital emergency rooms,” the city said.

Two months ago, Emanuel moved to deliver on his four-year-old promise to add five ambulances, but mayoral challenger Paul Vallas upped the ante by promising 25 more ambulances to reduce dangerously-high response times.

Sposato said he has his doubts about the proposed ambulance diversion plan.

“I know they’re trying to discourage it. But what happens if there’s a mix-up with the call taker and something happens?” Sposato said.

“I know we get a lot of nonsense calls. But I don’t see how you can stop somebody from nonsense or non-emergency calls. I do see the abuse. I saw the abuse for eighteen years. But I don’t think the abuse will ever stop.”