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Retiring fire commissioner sounds the alarm about surge in fire fatalities

Chicago ended 2020 with 22 fire deaths, half as many as in 2019. But as of Feb. 25 there have been 13 fire fatalities this year. That alarms retiring Fire Commissioner Richard Ford II.

CFD Commissioner Richard C. Ford II, shown talking to reporters in August near the scene of a fatal fire in Gage Park.
CFD Commissioner Richard C. Ford II, shown talking to reporters in August near the scene of a fatal fire in Gage Park, is nearing the department’s mandatory retirement age of 63.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Chicago ended 2020 with 22 fire deaths, a 50% reduction from 2019.

But through Feb. 25 of this year, there already have been 13 fire fatalities.

The spike in fire deaths has retiring Chicago Fire Commissioner Richard C. Ford II sounding the alarm about how many homes lack working smoke detectors.

“People are home more due to the pandemic. Due to heating situations, we’re using our ovens to heat our apartments or using space heaters too close to something combustible,” Ford told the Sun-Times during a wide-ranging exit interview.

“We have to flood the awareness of the public to make sure they have a working smoke detector. We have to mandate that owners and management of rental properties put a 10-year smoke detector in. … Home Depot just put out 13,000 smoke detectors for 99 cents so we could have working smoke detectors available to the citizens, to hopefully stop any increase in fire fatalities.”

Earlier this week, Ford dropped his opposition to requiring Chicago’s oldest residential buildings to install smoke detectors with 10-year batteries after the ordinance was made less punitive and costly to homeowners and businesses.

Under the watered-down plan, retailers would have until Jan. 1, 2023 to exhaust their stock of “non-conforming” smoke detectors with replaceable batteries. People who own and live in their own homes or condominiums would not be fined until Jan. 1, 2033, so long as they have working smoke detectors with replaceable batteries.

“That did help convince me to change my mind because I’m more concerned with people having a working smoke detector” than having one with 10-year batteries, Ford said.

In 2018, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel promoted Ford from first deputy to commissioner after Jose Santiago reached the mandatory retirement age of 63.

At the time, the leadership vacuum in the Chicago Fire Department was nearing crisis stage.

There had been a wave of retirements tied to a pay differential that left CFD short by 25 people in the exempt ranks, with three more retirements pending.

The year before Ford took over, 32 people in CFD’s exempt ranks had 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.

On Thursday, Ford acknowledged the so-called “salary compression” and pension issues remain unresolved. As a result, 10 out of 16 of CFD’s exempt-rank positions remain unfilled.

If several major events occur at the same time, that would literally force CFD to turn to the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System and have a suburban chief supervise the response at a fire in Chicago.

“If I need a chief from an outside agency, I have no problem doing that,” Ford said.

Earlier this month, Ford presided over his final graduation ceremony as commissioner. The only firefighter in a family filled with cops, he joked about a class of 125 that included 18 former police officers — 14 of those from the Chicago Police Department.

It’s no joke. It’s more like a trend.

Chicago police officers are under siege. Chicago firefighters are still revered. They’re among the city’s most trusted heroes.

“Look at the total image. We’re 98% [perceived] by the public and we have their trust. That, unfortunately, is not the same with our brothers in blue,” Ford said.

“I have no doubt that it will continue as we go forward.”

The Chicago Fire Department does, however, have a long and documented history of discrimination and racial hijinks.

Progress has been made during Ford’s career, but not nearly fast enough. The department remains 65% white, with 18% Hispanic and only 16% African American.

To deliver a fire department truly reflecting the city it serves, Ford said CFD needs a rigid regimen of recruitment and testing.

“We have to have testing that takes place every two or three years. And I have lamented that for … the past five or six years,” he said.

“Our last [entrance] test was actually 2014. In that period of time, the police have had five tests.”

Ford is the second straight Chicago fire commissioner to have his tenure cut short by the mandatory retirement age of 63.

His last day on the job will be April 2.

Ford was asked if it still make sense to require firefighters and police officers to hang it up at 63 when people are living and working longer.

“I don’t think so,” he said.

To underscore that point, Ford said he fully expects to take over another big-city fire department after catching up on sleep and traveling with his wife. He’s already fielding offers from across the country and around the world.

Asked to recommend a successor, he mentioned three “excellent” possibilities: First Deputy Annette Holt; Chief Paramedic Mary Sheridan and Deputy Commissioner of Administration Brian Helmould.

Wouldn’t it be something if a Chicago Fire Department that also has a history of discriminating against women shattered that glass ceiling by choosing a woman as commissioner?

“I’d have to agree with you,” he said.