SPRINGFIELD, IL — With Springfield Fire Chief Barry Helmerichs retiring at the end of the month, Mayor Jim Langfelder is interviewing Springfield Fire Department members to find a replacement.
Langfelder is mandated to limit his search to the existing force because of a clause in the firefighters’ contract that stipulates the hire must be internal.
“All other persons assigned or appointed to positions in the Departmental structure as outlined in this Section of the Collective Bargaining Agreement shall be from within the classified fire service of the City of Springfield, Illinois,” states the contract, referring to the positions of fire chief, division chiefs and deputy division chiefs.
The provision is unique to Springfield, though the practice of promoting an internal candidate for chief is not.
City governments in Bloomington, Champaign, Normal, Urbana, Decatur and Peoria all are able to choose a fire chief from outside their current rosters.
Champaign’s fire chief was hired from Memphis, Tennessee, after three nationwide searches, according to Lt. Chris Zaremba, the firefighters’ union president. However, by city ordinance, the department’s deputy chief has to be hired from within the department, he said.
“It’s more common than not to hire internally,” Zaremba said. “They have a history with the department and they know what’s going on.”
With the exception of six years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the hire-from-within clause has been in the Springfield union’s contract since it began to collectively bargain with the city.
In 1997, then-Mayor Karen Hasara pushed for the requirement to be dropped from the union’s contract. She had recently recruited a police chief from outside of Illinois. Plus, the fire department was split among political factions, and union had delivered a no-confidence vote against then-Fire Chief Russ Steil.
“I can’t let the reputation of the fire department be destroyed over two groups bickering,” Hasara said in July 1997.
Steil retired shortly after, and Hasara wanted to conduct a national search to find a replacement that would restore order.
“The community felt strongly about being able to go out and get the very best person,” Hasara said in September 1997. “It very well may be that that person comes from within the Springfield Fire Department, but to limit ourselves to that would be a mistake.”
The union was initially resistant to the change in their contract. Seventeen months after their contract expired, a new one was ushered, without the clause but with concessions the union backed.
The new chief would be chosen with the help of a selection panel, which had representation from the union. The committee reduced a pool of 54 applicants to five finalists. Three were local; one was an assistant fire chief in Independence, Missouri; and the other was a battalion chief in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.
In the end, Hasara selected James “J.D.” Knox, a 28-year veteran of the Springfield Fire Department and acting fire chief at the time he was chosen.
Hasara didn’t look outside the department again, though she hired chiefs after Knox.
Even so, the chief selection clause was resurrected in 2003, according to Tom Roate, the secretary-treasurer of the Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois. Roate was the president of the Springfield firefighters’ union in 2003.
He said Hasara told him she wanted to appoint the acting fire chief Ron Hasara, her ex-husband’s cousin, as the permanent chief without going through the selection committee process or looking at other candidates.
Roate countered with reinstating the chief selection clause.
“She said no,” Roate said. “So I said I would help her find members for the selection committee.”
Two days later, Roate received a call from Hasara’s office saying that she would reinsert the clause, he said.
Roate said he pushed for the clause, partly because of its “historic factor.” Springfield had never hired a chief outside of its ranks since a memorandum of agreement between striking firefighters and the city was reached in 1976.
By choosing a chief from the department, everyone wins.
“When the chief gets made, everyone moves up,” Roate said.
The most significant factor, though, Roate said is the incoming chief will have familiarity with the department and Springfield politics and, therefore, can hit the ground running.
In an interview, Langfelder said he was not bothered by the rule that limits the pool of candidates he can consider.
“One of things we do well is we train our firefighters very well,” Langfelder said. “Even if I could, I wouldn’t bring someone from the outside.”
He did admit his sentiment was based on the present condition of the fire department. If the times were different, his answer might change, he said.
Langfelder has already interviewed six candidates for the chief position, with more interviews lined up. He’s hoping to forward his choice to aldermen for approval within the month.