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Nearly 600 veteran firefighters and paramedics may retire by end of year

Mayor Rahm Emanuel Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago. File Photo. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago. File Photo. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 24, 2012 6:24AM

The Chicago Fire Department stands to lose nearly 600 graybeards in 2012 — veteran firefighters and paramedics who will max out in their pensions and retire — paving the way for more diverse replacements and a continued surge in overtime, a top mayoral aide said Monday.

Testifying at City Council budget hearings, Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago disclosed the impending wave of retirements as he defended a proposed $504.9 million Fire Department budget that includes a 50 percent increase in overtime spending — from $13.5 million this year to $20 million in 2013.

“Between the month of November and the month of December, we anticipate close to 600 people retiring,” Santiago said.

“As we get classes, we can’t effectively attack that overtime until they graduate. When we hire them, they’re not doing anything for us. They’re actually costing us until they graduate.”

In 2012, the Fire Department budgeted $13.5 million for overtime, but that was nowhere near enough. Actual overtime spending will be $24 million, much of it stemming from the NATO Summit in May.

The Fire Department has 234 vacancies across all ranks. In 2013, Santiago hopes to hold Chicago’s first firefighters entrance exam since 2006.

“The budget was exceeded and paid upon approval,” Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times.

“Since we have contractual manning, the overtime must be paid if we don’t have enough personnel to fill the positions without bringing in people on off days. As we hire more people, overtime is attacked. But if we lose many to retirement we have to catch up again with new hires.”

The Chicago Fire Department’s 4,581-employee force is 66.5 percent white, 19.7 percent black, 12.5 percent Hispanic and one percent Asian-American.

The 76-member command staff is 52.6 percent white, 35.5 percent black, 9.2 percent Hispanic and 2.6 percent Asian-American.

In his prepared statement to the City Council, Santiago confronted the issue head-on.

“We must reflect on the reality that we are still lacking on the issue of diversity,” he said.

“I am committed to looking for new ways to finally make meaningful changes that can and will improve our diversity,” particularly by holding another entrance exam, which offers the greatest chance to recruit minorities and women.

The commissioner’s candor was much appreciated by African-American aldermen.

“I just want to thank you for your statement confronting the issue of the lack the lack of diversity in the department head-on. That’s a step in the right direction to acknowledge that it does exist and the extent to which it exists. I don’t think that’s ever happened since I’ve been here in the Council,” said Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th).

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