Updated 02/16/12 – 5:15 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) — There was a changing of the guard at the Chicago Fire Department on Thursday, after Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff abruptly resigned and fellow 30-year veteran firefighter Jose Santiago took the reins of the department.
“As Bob steps down, there is no one more qualified than Jose Santiago to pick up that baton, and keep not only the traditions, the sense of professionalism, the sense of public service, to carry the Fire Department into the next generation of the finest fire department in the company,” Mayor Emanuel said Thursday.
It’s a job in which only some of the heat comes from fires. There’s also the heat of trying to balance cost-cutting amid the tough economy and maintaining firefighter safety.
CBS 2 Chief Correspondent Jay Levine reports Hoff’s emotional farewell also brought about the drawing of battle lines in the department.
Emanuel made the announcement at the Engine 42 firehouse, at 444 N. Dearborn St. in the River North neighborhood, where both Hoff and Santiago worked earlier in their firefighting careers.
Commissioners, like Hoff and Santiago, have traditionally been promoted from within.
The rank-and-file nearly always felt Hoff had their back, but cost-cutting pressure from the Emanuel administration now threatens to drive a wedge between them.
Some believe battles over possibly reducing staffing on Chicago fire trucks and closing some firehouses were the real reasons Hoff stepped down. After all, he’s only 56.
Hoff had vehemently opposed any efforts to close firehouses or reduce the required staffing levels on Chicago fire equipment after the city’s inspector general suggested the city could save tens a year by cutting the minimum staffing level of all fire apparatus.
But Hoff insisted his retirement was for personal reasons, not a dispute with the mayor over staffing.
“What is more beautiful in life than to spend more time with them?” Hoff said. “And this job is very time-consuming, and I’ll be honest with you, I need to spend more time with you.”
Two of Hoff’s grandsons stood beside their father, Hoff’s son, a Downers Grove firefighter, just as Hoff himself was once photographed with his own firefighter father, who later died in the line of duty.
At Thursday’s announcement, those two Hoff grandchildren wore the badges of their grandfather and great-grandfather, both Fire Department heroes. Hoff had twice been decorated with the Fire Department’s highest award for bravery.
Hoff followed in his father’s footsteps, saving lives, and earning the respect of those he commanded. His rise through the ranks was chronicled by fire photographer Allan Jacobs.
Hoff’s stance against reducing staffing on fire trucks risked angering the mayor, who has considered making a move many other cities have.
That decision now is in the hands of his successor, who is a 33-year Fire Department veteran himself.
Santiago was non-committal when asked about possibly closing firehouses or reducing fire truck staffing.
“There’s many, many studies on what is safe or 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. “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.”
Asked how he feels about that issue, Emanuel said, “that challenge pre-dates Bob Hoff and Rahm Emanuel and it will be something that Jose and I will deal with. It’s something we will deal with as we work through these issues together with (Chicago Firefighters Union) Local 2.”
Local 2 President Tom Ryan said Chicago should stay with five-man crews on fire trucks, rather than switch to four like other cities, “because we are considered, if not the best, the world’s best fire department and there’s for a reason for that, because we can promptly respond to anything that’s thrown at us.”
Firefighter Alan Hood said firefighters could do the job with four-man crews, but it would be more dangerous.
“We’ll make it happen any kind of way, but people’s lives are depending on us. So, if we have to go with shoestrings and shoelaces, we’ll make it happen. But we don’t really want to operate like that, because it’s dangerous for us.”
While Emanuel said all options remain on the table, either reducing crew sizes or the number of firehouses appear to be under serious consideration. It might just be it was a choice Hoff wasn’t prepared to make.
Santiago spent 33 years in the Fire Department, and 31 years as a U.S. Marine. He served during the evacuation of U.S. forces from Vietnam, and in Operation Desert Storm, Emanuel said.
“He learned teamwork, responsibility and leadership from the ground up,” the mayor said.
Now-retired Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed Santiago as OEMC executive director in 2010. Santiago left OEMC to return to the Fire Department when Emanuel took over as mayor, in part because of problems during the Groundhog Day blizzard last year.
“Many others would run away from that legacy, but Bob, along with his brother Ray, carried that legacy even further – serving with courage, serving with distinction, and serving with honor,” Mayor Emanuel said. “The fire in the belly that fueled Bob’s passion as a public servant, as an heir to a family legacy, and as a member of the Chicago firefighter family, has never been extinguished.”
Hoff was one of a few leftovers from the Daley administration, and one of the most respected firefighters ever to serve as head of the Fire Department.