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Rahm Emanuel finds ally in new fire chief Jose Santiago

Mayor Rahm Emanuel named Jose Santiago (right) new  Chicago Fire Commissioner after Robert Hoff resigned. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel named Jose Santiago (right) the new Chicago Fire Commissioner after Robert Hoff resigned. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 18, 2012 8:13AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Thursday appointed 33-year veteran Chicago firefighter Jose Santiago as Chicago’s new fire commissioner — and found an ally in his plan to wring millions of dollars in savings out of the city’s second-largest department.

Retiring Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff said he was “deathly against” closing fire houses or reducing the minimum staffing requirement on fire apparatus — the issue that triggered the bitter 1980 firefighters strike.

When Inspector General Joe Ferguson dared to suggest that Chicago taxpayers could save $57 million a year by reducing that “minimum manning” requirement from five to four, Hoff predicted a rise in fire deaths — at the risk of alienating the mayor.

After being appointed Thursday to succeed the retiring Hoff, Santiago drew no such line in the sand about closing firehouses.

“That’s something we’re looking at. We have all the maps out and everything and response times. We’re sitting down and looking at every option,” said Santiago, 56.

What about reducing the “minimum manning” requirement from five to four?

“There’s many, many different studies on what is safe and [what is] not. That’s what we’ve been working on — taking all that information, and we’ll make a determination based on safety. Any changes are always based on safety,” Santiago said.

If that was not enough to convince firefighters they had lost their champion going into contentious contract talks, Emanuel sealed the deal.

“There will be changes. You cannot keep doing the same thing. … Every part of the city is making reforms, and we will make reforms” in the Fire Department, the mayor said.

After hearing what the mayor and Santiago had to say at Engine 42, 55 W. Illinois, Tom Ryan, president of the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2, had to know he was on his own to fight staffing and firehouse cuts.

“Technology may have changed, but fires are burning hotter and faster than ever. Technology can change all it wants. You still need that power to put out fires,” Ryan said.

Is Ryan disappointed Santiago did not pick up where Hoff left off?

“He’s not even sworn in yet. Give the guy a chance to get himself confirmed. Then we’ll move forward,” Ryan said.

Santiago is a former U.S. Marine decorated for his service in Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm.

He ran the 911 center for the final year of former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration — and presided during the Blizzard of 2011 fiasco that shut down Lake Shore Drive — before returning to the Fire Department under Emanuel as deputy commissioner in charge of the Bureau of Operations.

Emanuel said Thursday he has known for about a month that Hoff intended to retire on the 50th anniversary of his firefighter father’s death in the line of duty and has been conducting a behind-the-scenes search.

In the name of “transparency,” one of the mayor’s favorite words, Emanuel was asked why he didn’t preside over a “more open” search process.

“Open and thorough are two separate words. You may want open — and I understand that from a media perspective. [But], I want thorough as mayor. We ran a thorough process and have the best person to do this,” the mayor said.

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