Smoldering Resentment | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Smoldering Resentment 

The firefighters have finally got a contract, but it's not going to solve their problems.

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In the first week of the New Year, a little over a month before the mayoral election, the city quietly let it be known that the firefighters were about to get their contract--almost three and a half years after the last one expired. Word was leaked through the Chicago Tribune: a January 7 article by Gary Washburn quoted various sources to the effect that the money end of the deal had been negotiated and firefighters were set to get a 4 percent raise. All that remained was tying up a few loose ends--matters such as promotions and staffing.

If the purpose of the leak was, as some skeptical firefighters suspect, to get them to support the mayor in the February 25 election, it probably won't succeed. The great open secret about firefighters in Chicago is that many despise the Daley administration, for the way it's dealt with everything from safety conditions to the contract. A last-minute contract will hardly wash away the enmity. "No one's fooled--everyone knows what's going on," says a firefighter from the northwest side. "Actually it's pretty insulting. We've been waiting all these years for our contract, and now they want to use us to make the mayor look good. It's a joke."

Go to any firehouse in the city and you'll hear similar complaints. According to some firefighters, a big bone of contention is equipment, particularly the fire trucks and engines, many of which are old and rickety. "We had a truck that was over 26 years old that was always bleeding hydraulic fluid and breaking down every day," says Chris Casey, a north-side firefighter with about 15 years on the job and one of the few firefighters willing to be quoted by name. "Every truck has hydraulically controlled stabilizers, which are these heavy metal frames that come out of both sides of the truck. They rest firmly on the ground to stabilize the truck, to keep it from rolling over when we raise the ladder. They're supposed to come in and out of the truck when you pull a lever. On our truck they came out OK, but they wouldn't go back once you had them out. You'd have to bang on them with a sledgehammer to get them to retract. Can you imagine that? After a fire we'd be banging at the stabilizer, trying to get it back into the truck. And sometimes the aerial ladder got stuck in the upright position. We'd have to call the repair shop, and they'd send out a crew to retract the aerial."

About a year ago Casey's firehouse finally got a new truck. "It's all computerized, top of the line," he says. "Guess what? The computer that ran the truck crashed within a week, and no one had a clue about how to fix it. We took it to the city repair facility, and they said, 'You have to keep it here. Take a spare rig.' We had to walk through a boneyard of old jalopies to find a replacement. We wound up with a spare that was worse than the one we traded in. We had the spare for a couple of days until they found someone who could fix the computer glitch that had busted the new truck."

Casey and other firefighters also complain that the city too often forces them to use their big fire trucks for nonemergency runs. "Fires are down, so they have us doing other things," he says. "The public may not realize this, but when an emergency call comes to 911--even if it's not a fire--they send out a truck or an engine. If a grandmother falls out of her bed, they send out a truck to pick her up--they call it invalid assistance. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with helping someone's grandmother get back in bed. If my grandmother needed assistance I would want her to get it. I think we should offer such assistance, and I take those calls. But a truck? With five firemen? Don't you think there's a more important use for a fire truck? You're leaving yourself vulnerable by taking a truck or an engine on a nonfire run. You're leaving yourself exposed in case a fire breaks out in another part of your area. Our ability to keep a fire from spreading, especially on a windy day, is based on a fast response. But if you send us out of our area to help grandma get back in bed, you make the public vulnerable."

The obvious answer, Casey says, is to hire more paramedics and put more ambulances on the street. "It's a traffic hazard to use the trucks. You've got a semi--that's what a truck is, you know?--shooting through crowded streets at full speed with the horns blowing and the siren blaring. You can't stop on a dime. You can't thread through crowded streets like you can with an ambulance. There is so much danger to have a 66,000-pound projectile--that's how much the new trucks weigh--flying through city traffic. You're putting so much at risk. You're ripping up the streets. You're wasting a ton of gas. Isn't there a more economical way to get this job done?"

Another cause of concern is the city's failure to buy the firefighters bunker pants--full-length fire-resistant pants that fire union officials say almost every other big-city department in the country has. "In Chicago we just wear rubber boots--you know, like fishing boots that come up to your thighs," says Casey. "We need bunker pants to protect our privates. There was a fire on the north side. Two firefighters, including one of my best buddies--he'd just got married in August--got burned up bad. They were in the kitchen of this addition to the building. Well, the floor below them collapsed, and they slid into the flames that were beneath them. They barely managed to crawl out, and their inner thighs and buttocks were scorched. These are the parts that would have been protected by the bunker pants. My buddy was out for months. He was fortunate to get out alive. Those boots don't protect you. When the fire comes through the floor it burns your balls. There's no other way to put it. It's a joke already--just buy the pants! How many guys are gonna get cooked before they buy those pants? The department's going to give you a million reasons why they don't have the money. Meanwhile the city's putting planters in the middle of the street and iron fences around the parks."

There's nothing new about firefighters criticizing the city. In fact, a lot of old-timers say things are better than they used to be. "These guys have it easier than we did," says William Cosgrove, who was a firefighter for nearly three decades before he retired in 1996. "We had to go on strike to get five men on a truck. We always had the crummiest equipment. We used to say, if there's better equipment I'm sure it's somewhere else."

He can laugh at some of the situations his crew got into. "I remember when they first started sending us on nonfire runs," he says. "We didn't know what the hell we were doing. They didn't even give us any bandages to take. You'd get a call and wind up walking 15 flights of stairs, and some lady would tell you, 'I've got piles.' 'Piles? What are piles?' She'd say, 'Hemorrhoids--take me down.' I'd say, 'Listen, lady, you think we're going to carry you down 15 flights of stairs? Hell, I've got hemorrhoids too.'"

Cosgrove, who's written several books about fire fighting in Chicago, agrees that the city should buy the firefighters bunker pants and put more ambulances on the street and buy better equipment. The problem, he says, is money--for which he too blames City Hall. "I think the fire department's the greatest thing in the world, but the city does what City Hall wants," he says. "There's just so much string, and that's all they get. My friends in the department tell me they have to play so many games with the budget--don't buy toilet paper, no more overtime. It's a stupid, big paper-shuffling game."

Fire department officials say such criticisms are exaggerated and unwarranted. According to Molly Sullivan, press secretary for the department, the city plans to buy bunker pants sometime in the future. As for using big fire trucks for nonfire runs, well, why not? The city has had far fewer fires in recent years--about 21,000 last year, compared to 42,000 in 1979--so it might as well put the firefighters to good use. "We have devised what we consider to be an excellent system for responding to emergency calls," she says. "We have 71 ambulances on the street, and 59 have advanced life-support systems, which deliver the highest level of care you can get. The other 12 are BLS--basic life-support--ambulances. They can transport people with broken arms or scrapes. We also have an increasing number of advanced life-support fire engines. They have fully certified paramedics on board. We utilize them for response time and to deliver the best hospital care we can. They get there fast because they're right around the corner--they don't have to come across the city. We have a system in place that serves the citizens of Chicago with great efficiency."

What's more, Sullivan says, the department has brought in about 50 new vehicles since Commissioner James T. Joyce started, in 1999. "This department has made great progress since Commissioner Joyce took over," she says. "Since January of 2001 we've added 26 new hook and ladders and two new tower ladders and 22 new engines and ten new-design ambulances. We also bought a new helicopter--that gives us three. All of this equipment was [chosen] by a committee of firemen, OK? They were part of the process. Commissioner Joyce feels very strongly about this. He is a career fireman who was burned and severely hurt on the job. He understands the job every day. He understands that we are all a family."

As she talks, Sullivan gets increasingly irritated about the criticisms the firefighters are making, but she doesn't attack them. One department insider is less reluctant: "They complain all the time--it's almost part of the culture. They have a dangerous job. They walk into fires. Then they come back to the firehouse and sit. They can be like old ladies with the moaning. Nothing we do is right. Everything we do is wrong. Usually they don't want to go public--I'm surprised you found anyone willing to use his name. They aren't going to say anything that makes us look good--you could win a Pulitzer Prize for finding a guy willing to say something nice about the department."

The rank and file have had a tempestuous relationship with Mayor Daley for years. In 1996 a group of them picketed outside the Democratic National Convention, embarrassing Daley, who blamed the union president, William Kugelman, for making him look bad. Kugelman says he had nothing to do with the protests, then adds, "but Mayor Daley takes it all very personal."

Kugelman says the city was slow to agree to contract negotiation meetings. "Our last contract was signed in 1997, and it was up in July 1999," he says. "I thought negotiations might speed up after September 11. Remember, the world was in love with firefighters after they saw how we put our lives on the line. But it didn't work here in Chicago. They continued to stall."

Last spring union members ousted Kugelman and replaced him with a veteran south-side firefighter named James McNally. An outspoken opponent of gun control and affirmative action, McNally has been surprisingly restrained when it comes to firefighter issues. He says he generally favors bunker pants--"I think we're deciding how to go about that"--then adds that he's not sure most firefighters do. "Our guys sometimes are resistant to change," he says. And he avoids any criticism of Daley--he won't even complain about the contract delays. "We won't negotiate in the press," he says.

Few firefighters want to go public with complaints. Why? "We talk about this all the time," says another northwest-side firefighter. "When it comes to putting out fires we're like lions. But when it comes to opening our mouths we're like sheep. It doesn't make any sense."

The last time firefighters got angry enough to go public in a big way was in 1980, when they went on strike for 23 days after Mayor Jane Byrne broke her campaign promise to give them a contract. "Before Byrne, it had always been a handshake deal under the first Mayor Daley," recalls Cosgrove, whose book The Noble Breed tells the story of the strike. But since the strike union members have been relatively quiet. "I think a lot of it has to do with our schedules," says a north-side firefighter. "We work 24 hours on and then 48 hours off. You do that for two weeks, and then you get five days off. Those days off help. They always seem to come at the right time. A guy goes home, chills out--and forgets what he's so mad about."

Some firefighters say the rank and file also fear retaliation from the top brass. Sullivan insists the department would never punish a firefighter for criticizing the department. "We follow the discipline code. We follow the regulations," she says. "We do not punish firefighters who speak their minds. We appreciate whatever kinds of feedback we can get from everyone who gives it."

But few firefighters are convinced. "Everyone in this department has long memories," says yet another northwest-side firefighter. "You never know when one little thing you say or do might come back to bite you in the ass." He says the retaliation is most likely to come at promotion time: "Say you want to become a lieutenant. Well, you have to take a written and an oral test. The written test's pretty straightforward. But the oral is strictly subjective. They sit you in a room with a couple of chiefs, and they ask you questions. They give you a fixed situation--you pull up to a fire and what do you do? Then they grade you on your response. If you've been outspoken, if you've ruffled someone's feathers in the past, they hold that against you. I've heard chiefs say, 'If I ever get that asshole on an oral, watch out.'"

This firefighter thinks the relationship between firefighters and the city will change only if the firefighters get more politically involved. "I can't blame the city for sticking it to us--they have no reason to fear us," he says. "But just imagine if all the firefighters and their families got together behind some aldermanic campaigns. We'd be a major force, particularly on the northwest and southwest sides. Man, we could defeat a few aldermen. Then you'd see things start to change."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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