Fire commissioner ‘deathly against’ proposed department cuts
BY FRAN SPIELMAN City Hall Reporter October 25, 2011 4:10PMChicago Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff at a tribute to the 9/11 victims and their families last year. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times
Chicago Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff is drawing a line in the sand when it comes to closing fire houses or reducing the minimum staffing requirements on fire apparatus.
He’s dead-set against the idea. That’s even though his boss, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, is expected to take a hard line in negotiations with the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2 when the contract expires on June 30.
Inspector General Joe Ferguson has estimated that Chicago taxpayers could save $57 million a year by reducing — from five to four — the minimum number of employees required to staff every piece of fire apparatus.
That’s the issue that touched off the bitter 1980 firefighters strike.
Testifying Tuesday at City Council budget hearings, Hoff lashed out at Ferguson for daring to suggest staffing cuts.
“Not being a firefighter or paramedic, it’s easy to look from the outside in and say, ‘This is how we save money.’ But I, as fire commissioner, will be adamant when I say this. Any decrease in manning — any decrease in fire companies, ambulances or closing of firehouses — I am literally deathly against,” Hoff said.
“If you have a five-person fire company, you are 100 percent efficient when you pull up on the scene. Everyone has a task to perform. Going to four-person companies is 65 percent efficient.”
Hoff noted that, when he came on job in 1976, civilian fire deaths were in the “triple-digits.” This year, it’s 17 because of the people the department puts on the street, he said.
“To go below the current amount we have would not be a safe act. … Our fire deaths will go up,” he said.
“We’re here to save civilians’ lives, but I also have to think of the paramedics and firefighters. If a firefighter has to do a double-function on the fire ground, his life or her life is in danger.”
During a meeting earlier this month with the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board, Emanuel hinted strongly that the upcoming contract talks would be contentious.
Emanuel said he managed to cut just $40 million out of the Fire Department’s $540 million-a-year budget because the mayor has direct oversight over just seven percent of that spending.
Implied but not stated was the fact that, when the contract expires, he’ll get his hands on the remaining 93 percent.
Last December, Chicago firefighters and paramedics ratified a new contract — retroactive to 2007 and expiring June 30 — that gives them a 10 percent pay raise over five years in exchange for manpower changes that helped the city reduce overtime costs.
The contract called for the elimination and reassignment of a fire company assigned to the repair shop to provide what the city called a “cushion” against overtime.
Chicago taxpayers also got cost-saving flexibility in the requirement that there be five employees on every piece of fire apparatus.
Instead of dipping below that requirement 30 times a day, the number of daily “variances” rose to 35.
And firefighters who went home sick during their shifts no longer had to be automatically replaced.