CHICAGO, IL – Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff — who said he was “deathly against” closing firehouses or reducing the minimum staffing requirement on fire apparatus — abruptly resigned Wednesday, leaving firefighters without a champion headed into contentious contract talks with Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Hoff, 56, is a third generation Chicago firefighter whose father was killed in the line of duty. He chose to retire — and go out on his own terms — on the 50th anniversary of his father’s death.
Sources said the decision was his. The mayor did not force him out.
“Thirty-five years is long enough. He wants to go teach firemen and keep them safe. That’s what he wants to do,” said a source close to the commissioner.
“He’s grateful that the mayor let him stay on, but it’s time to go.”
That was also Hoff’s message to Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2 president Thomas Ryan Jr. On Wednesday, Hoff told Ryan, “It was time to go.”
“We have been adversaries on a few things, but I have nothing but the utmost respect for him and wish him the best going forward,” Ryan said. “The guy always put the firefighters and paramedics of the department first. He comes from a long line of firemen. He lived and breathed this job.”
‘He likes a fight’
Hoff was beloved among the rank and file, but his tenure had its share of rough patches.
Last year, Hoff dumped the deputy commissioner in charge of the Fire Prevention Bureau after firing just four of the 54 firefighters accused of padding mileage expenses to the tune of $100,000 in 2009 alone. Six other firefighters have retired and 43 face suspensions ranging from 30 to 60 days.
Inspector General Joseph Ferguson had recommended that all 54 firefighters be fired and that the Fire Prevention Bureau be disbanded and replaced by civilian employees of the city’s Department of Buildings.
Tensions between the two further escalated when Ferguson dared to recommend sharp cuts to staffing levels of fire apparatus — the issue that touched off the bitter, 1980 firefighters strike.
Yet another unfortunate chapter came when a Chicago Police officer demanded the arrest of the son of a former fire commissioner who allegedly slammed the police officer to the ground during a Nov. 1 river rescue.
As the Internal Affairs Divisions of the Police and Fire Departments launched investigations into the incident, Hoff directed his underlings not to cooperate with the inspector general without reporting to him first.
On Wednesday, sources close to Hoff insisted that the tensions with Ferguson had nothing to do with the commissioner’s resignation.
“He likes a fight. The thing with Joe Ferguson isn’t what brought this about. And the mayor wasn’t a problem, either. It was just time to go,” the source said.
‘Deathly against’ department cuts
Whatever the reason for Hoff’s resignation, the void leaves firefighters without a champion at the worst possible time. Their contract expires on June 30.
When Ferguson dared to suggest that Chicago taxpayers could save $57 million a year by reducing — from five to four — the minimum number of employees required to staff every piece of fire apparatus, Hoff unleashed his anger at the risk of alienating the mayor.
“Not being a firefighter or paramedic, it’s easy to look from the outside in and say, “This is how we save money.’ But I, as fire commissioner, will be adamant when I say this. Any decrease in manning — any decrease in fire companies, ambulances or closing of firehouses — I am literally deathly against,” Hoff said.
“To go below the current amount we have would not be a safe act. . . . Our fire deaths will go up. . . . We’re here to save civilians’ lives, but I also have to think of the paramedics and firefighters. If a firefighter has to do a double function on the fire ground, his life or her life is in danger.”
Emanuel applauded Hoff for his candor but made it clear that he plans to take a hard line in contract talks with Chicago firefighters.
‘I have to live up to his expectations’
When Hoff was just 5 years old, his battalion chief father, Thomas, died in a building collapse at 78th and Dorchester. He was 44.
“I have to live up to his expectations,” an emotional Hoff said in June, 2010, on the day he was appointed commissioner by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley
“I went to the cemetery Sunday on Father’s Day, and never did I believe I’d be standing here being asked to be fire commissioner. It’s a proud day. I can’t wait to get up and go to work every morning. There’s no better feeling than helping people.”
Hoff is one of the most decorated firefighters in department history. He was twice awarded the Carter Harrison Award, the department’s highest honor for bravery.
In 1984, he suffered severe burns in an attic fire and spent 21 days in the burn unit. “The water was temporarily shut down. I was ahead of the hose line. I ventilated the attic, and I was caught in the flashover. I had to go back through the fire to get out,” Hoff recalled. “It was a flashback. . . .
The day I got burned, my son was 5 years old.”
One of Daley’s ‘finest’ appointments
Hoff served as incident commander for the team of Chicago firefighters who went to New York to assist after the Sept. 11 attacks and to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
In 2002, after reviving and revolutionizing firefighter training, Hoff abruptly resigned as director of training in an apparent protest over budget cuts he feared could undermine the city’s ability to respond to disasters.
On Wednesday, that controversy was a distant memory.
Hoff’s appointment was hailed by aldermen as one of former Daley’s “finest.” It was a surprise to no one that he was one of only a handful of department heads retained by Emanuel. He is expected to be replaced by Deputy Commissioner Jose Santiago, the veteran firefighter who once ran the 911 center for Daley.
During Hoff’s tenure as commissioner, Chicago suffered its worst firefighter tragedy in more than decade when two firefighters died when the roof of an abandoned building with a history of code violations collapsed on top of them.
From The Chicago Sun-Times.