Chicago Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago on Wednesday 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 will accept an arbitrator’s ruling overturning the suspension.
Santiago said the decision not to appeal the arbitrator’s ruling had nothing to do with the no-confidence vote taken Sept. 21 by the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2. Nor was it a response to the 2,300 people who signed union-circulated petitions expressing disappointment when the union thought the department would challenge the arbitrator’s ruling.
“I made my decision based on the facts. . . . We gave it our best shot. [But] if you look at all of the facts, I did not feel confident that the city would win. . . . I did not want the city to lose,” the commissioner said.
On July 12, arbitrator Jacalyn Zimmerman overturned Lt. Steven Spallina’s suspension. She ruled that Spallina was “not guilty of insubordination” because he had an “entirely reasonable fear that detailing one of his members . . . would pose a grievous risk of harm to that member, one which went well beyond anything inherent in the profession.”
“Risking exposure to Ebola is not a routine detail, and it is not a normal risk,” the arbitrator wrote.
Still, Santiago defended the suspension.
“Too many people depend on us when we make decisions. We have to respond. That’s what we do. If you don’t go out the door when people call for help, that would be a problem for fire service,” Santiago said.
“So many people have been hurt, given their lives for this job because we always respond. And we always help those who need us. If you do something opposite of that, I’d have to seriously look at that.”
But what about the fear of Ebola?
“It’s not saying, `I’m afraid’ or `I’m gonna do something for my guys.’ You have to take a look at all the facts. I thought the facts were not there to support” Spallina’s fear, Santiago said.
“We as senior members of the Chicago Fire Department will not send you to someplace we know is dangerous. . . . An officer will get on the scene and they will assess it because they’re trained in everything. We spend a tremendous amount to make sure our people make the right decisions and are safe.”
Local 2 President Tom Ryan said he’s “obviously pleased that the city will not pursue any action towards vacating the arbitrator’s ruling.”
“We will now concentrate our efforts in making sure Brother Spallina is made whole as was mandated,” Ryan wrote in a text message.
Earlier this month, Ryan said the no-confidence vote and petition drive stemmed from the union being informed that the city intended to appeal.
“Arbitrator Zimmerman was very clear in her ruling that Lt. Spallina was vindicated and should be made whole. The petition is in response to this CFD action,” Ryan wrote.
Santiago is a former Marine decorated for his service in Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm. He ran the 911 center in the final year of former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration, then returned to the Fire Department as deputy commissioner after Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2011 election.
In 2012, Santiago was appointed to the $202,000-a-year job of fire commissioner, replacing Robert Hoff, one of the most decorated firefighters in city history.
Still two years away from the mandatory retirement age of 63, Santiago said Wednesday he has no plans to retire any time soon and has no fences to mend with the rank and file.
“I work extremely hard to protect the men and women of the Chicago Fire Department. I have done a lot to change things around to make the job more safe, able to do our jobs more efficiently,” he said. “Judge me on that. I work extremely hard to make this the best department in the country.”