Weather Updates

Chicago firefighters to help kids walking to new schools, unions concerned

Updated: June 16, 2013 6:22AM

Chicago firefighters will have a “strong physical presence” on each of Chicago Public Schools’ new Safe Passage routes for the first three weeks of school, according to a memo sent to firefighters.

With dozens of public schools slated for closing this fall, CPS has been working on creating safety routes for kids traveling to different schools next school year. CPS and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office asked the fire department to be part of that, a fire official said.

“During specific hours of the day, all companies will be on the routes and establish a visible presence to the children traveling to and from schools,” Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago wrote in the May 3 memo.

“They might walk and talk, anything is possible, but they’re pretty much just there being visible,” said fire department spokesman Larry Langford, who confirmed the language in the memo.

Firefighters typically help with the first few days of school, though this year their assistance will be a “little more structured,” Langford said.

Since firefighters will be out in the same neighborhoods they already work in, their help “doesn’t compromise fire safety one single bit,” he said.

CPS has yet to release detailed safety plans for each of the 54 schools it aims to close. The Board of Education is set to vote on the closures in about a week on May 22.

“Everyone’s pitching in,” CPS spokeswoman Kelley Quinn said. “Everyone’s got a role to play.”

Tom Ryan, president of the Chicago Fire Fighters Union Local 2, which represents 4,642 active firefighters and paramedics, said in a statement to members that he is concerned about firefighters’ safety on the routes.

“We do whatever is necessary to protect the citizens of Chicago every day,” Ryan said. “However, should a violent or armed confrontation erupt while on this special duty, the concern is that we are not equipped or trained to deal with this type of situation.”

The Fraternal Order of Police echoed the concern and said using firefighters along the routes shows a lack of police manpower in the city.

“They’re using fire personnel to give you that presence of public safety,” Pat Camden, spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police said. “We have to go back to the original premise. We need more police officers.”

Police spokesman Adam Collins said the issue of manpower is “just not correct.” He said safe passage routes will be staffed by CPS-trained safe passage workers.

Likewise, firefighters are “not setting up a column of firefighters for kids to walk through,” the fire department’s Langford said. “…We’re just saying the kids are going to be on this route and we want to make sure they see you. Establish a presence, park the rig, wave at them. That’s all there is to it. We’re not making a bulletproof column.”

Emanuel last month announced 16 city departments would be involved in the plan. Department of Streets and Sanitation spokeswoman Anne Sheahan said her crews will be removing graffiti, trimming trees that might impair vision to stop signs and street lights, as well as cleaning vacant lots and towing abandoned cars.

The city’s Department of Buildings will help the fire department figure out which buildings are vacant and dangerous, according to Langford. And the Department of Animal Care and Control will ensure there are no stray animals along the route.

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