Emanuel acts to ease leadership vacuum in Chicago Fire Department

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

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has quietly moved to ease a leadership vacuum in the Chicago Fire Department nearing crisis stage.

At Emanuel’s behest and without debate, the City Council last week quietly approved an amended salary resolution that could put more money into the pockets of Fire Department brass — or at least eliminate some of the financial disincentive to accepting an exempt position.

The amendment states: “Each uniformed member of the Chicago Fire Department who is granted a leave of absence from a career service position within CFD after December 1, 2018, in order to be appointed to an exempt rank position . . . shall retain up to one year’s worth of accrued, unused vacation leave earned while in that career service position.”

The unused vacation leave “shall be made available to that uniformed member when he or she returns to their career service position within CFD,” the resolution states.

If the individual’s employment terminates, the “retained accrued unused vacation leave will be paid out in accordance with the collective bargaining agreement or state law, whichever is applicable,” the amended resolution states.

“As part of the city’s ongoing effort to ensure that we continue to have appropriate CFD staffing among all ranks into the future, this technical amendment to the Salary Resolution is simply an effort to ensure that there is not a financial disincentive for bargaining unit members to take exempt staff positions,” the mayor’s office said in an emailed statement.

At his confirmation hearing in late October, newly-appointed Fire Commissioner Richard Ford II acknowledged the existence of a leadership vacuum and said he was working with the mayor’s office and the Office of Budget and Management to fix it.

At the time, there were 22 exempt vacancies.

That means that, if there are two major events at the same time, the Fire Department won’t have enough officers to cover it. Ford would have to rely on the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System and have a suburban chief call the shots at a Chicago fire.

“We’ll do whatever is required in order to maintain safety in the city,” Ford said that day.

“I would call in, if needed, suburban chiefs — not suburban companies.”

The problem that caused the unprecedented number of vacancies among Fire Department brass dates back to 2012.

That’s when the city stopped giving raises to command staff whenever the union rank-and-file got a raise.

Specialty pay was also cut for command staff. Vacation rules were changed to force those who were promoted to take all of their accumulated vacation time at one time.

The cumulative effect was that promotions ended up costing some firefighters as much as $20,000 a year.

Ford noted then that 57 Fire Department employees under his command earn more money than he does.

“We’re now trying to install those benefits that were afforded to us earlier,” Ford said then.

“Within the 2019 budget, there is an increase to fix the problem that existed.”

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 have been seeking pension changes, expanded health insurance benefits and pay raises. Until now, they had been unable to persuade Emanuel to sweeten the pot for them. They recently got a 4 percent pay raise, far short of the 11 percent they were seeking.

Ald. Nick Sposato (38th), a former Chicago firefighter, has been outspoken in his concerns about the leadership vacuum in the Chicago Fire Department.

Sposato sounded the alarm in late September, on the day Emanuel appointed Ford to fill the vacancy created by the mandatory retirement of Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago.

“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 told the Chicago Sun-Times then.

“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.”

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