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‘Legal issues’ blamed for lack of new firefighters, OT jump

Chicago Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Chicago Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 6, 2013 6:14AM



The Chicago Fire Department will spend $43 million on overtime this year — more than double the amount authorized — because of “legal issues” tied to past discrimination lawsuits that prevented the department from hiring firefighters, a top mayoral aide said Monday.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported Friday that Chicago will hold its first firefighters entrance exam in eight years in 2014 amid runaway overtime that has gone from $13.5 million in 2011 to a projected $35.3 million in 2014.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2013 budget includes $20 million for Fire Department overtime. But Chicago Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago acknowledged Monday that actual overtime spending will be $43 million.

“There was a series of legal issues that the Fire Department had to work through with the Law Department that actually effectively stopped us from hiring. The city of Chicago could not hire firefighters,” said Santiago, on the hot seat at City Council budget hearings.

“We have resolved those issues. . . . Nov. 18, we will have 150 people at the academy to start attacking this overtime. We have a series of classes after that. As soon as one class gets to the halfway point, we will have another class [of] 150 people. And then, another class. This should be able to take care of all the vacancies that are there and any of the people who start to retire later on.”

Santiago projected that 245 firefighters will retire in 2013. Full strength — including uniformed and civilian employees — is roughly 5,100. The Fire Department currently has 4,700 employees.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) questioned why there wasn’t more pushback from the Fire Department, considering the minimum-staffing requirement that triggered the bitter 1980 firefighters strike.

The firefighters contract requires that every piece of fire apparatus be staffed by at least five employees.

In marathon contract talks, Emanuel has insisted that “double houses” that include both engines and trucks be staffed by nine firefighters instead of 10. The Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2 has strongly resisted the change.

“When you were having discussions with the Law Department, did anybody bring up the fact that you might have to do more overtime to make up for the loss of manpower? . . . Did anybody do a calculation of what that effect might be?” Waguespack said.

First Deputy Fire Commissioner Charles Stewart said no such calculation was done. But Santiago stressed that the alarm was sounded during “many meetings” with the Law Department and the Office of Budget and Management.

“We constantly brought up the fact that we have a problem here. We can’t hire. We have people retiring. You’ve got to help us out. We have a hiring plan we put together and we could not implement it,” Santiago said.

“Many meetings were conducted. It was always brought up to them [that], ‘We need help somehow. We need to hire people or the overtime is going to go right through the ceiling,’ which it has.”

Waguespack persisted, wondering whether it was “mandatory not to hire” or optional.

Stewart replied, “It was strongly recommended that, until the legal issues are resolved, that we not hire a class. We made sure they were aware of manning needs. But that was their recommendation we had to follow.”

Santiago never specified what the “legal issues” were that stood in the way of hiring, nor did aldermen ask.

Earlier this year, the City Council agreed to spend nearly $2 million — and $1.7 million more in legal fees — to compensate dozens of women denied firefighter jobs because of a discriminatory test of physical abilities that City Hall has now scrapped.

Last year, Chicago borrowed the $78.4 million needed to compensate nearly 6,000 African-American would-be firefighters bypassed by the city’s discriminatory handling of a 1995 entrance exam. The borrowing compounded the cost of a settlement that was twice as high as anticipated.

The city had already agreed to hire 111 bypassed black firefighters. The cash damages went to about 5,900 others who never got that chance.

Last week, the spotlight was on police overtime.

Police Supt. Garry McCarthy said he expects to spend $93 million on overtime this year, fueling demands for the hiring of up to 1,000 additional police officers at a cost of $50 million.

Older firefighters are not the only problem confronting the Fire Department. There’s also the issue of aging equipment.

The “desired” life span for fire engines and hook-and-ladders is six years. In Chicago, the average for both is just over 11 years. For fire trucks, the ideal life span is 7.5 years. In Chicago, the average age is 15 years. Ambulances are supposed to last 2.5 years but have been on the street in Chicago for 6.2 years.

The city expects to purchase 25 new ambulances this year and has “re-chassised” four others, Santiago said.

Also on Monday, Santiago reassured aldermen that the Fire Department is meeting state mandates by responding to fires in an average of 3 minutes and 35 seconds and to medical emergencies in 5 minutes and 5 seconds.

“We base that measure on how long it takes the first fire company to arrive after the alarm goes out,” the commissioner said.

In a recent report, Inspector General Joe Ferguson measured it differently, then accused the Fire Department of response times that fail to meet national standards.

That prompted Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) to put Santiago on notice.

“I want you to work with the inspector general to make sure that, when the next report comes out, the 9th Ward is not reflected as being last” in response times, Beale said.

“Even though we’re only talking seconds, when somebody’s life is on the line, seconds count. Do whatever you have to do to make sure that, if there’s a problem, it’s fixed. Obviously, there’s a problem with how we’re adding or subtracting these numbers. Fix this problem. Please do not come back next year with the 9th Ward being last.”

Email: fspielman@suntimes.com

Twitter: @fspielman



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