Burning Down the Firehouse

Before the bile can really get flowing, though, a scratchy loudspeaker announces a car fire at 29th and Girard. The crew flies through the kitchen door, climbs into their boots, pulls up their suspendered pants, grabs their jackets and helmets, and is out the door.

I’m maybe a minute behind them when I spy the red sedan and the embarrassed woman on the corner. Whatever fire there was has been extinguished, and the crew is already climbing back on the big truck. Later, back at the station, I ask the firefighter on the tiller (who steers the rear end of the truck) the cause of the fire. “Fireworks,” she says, with a grimace. “We’ll be busy tonight.”

Talk with firefighters—especially some of the almost 40 percent of the force who have been hired in the past five years—and you can’t help being struck by how passionate they are about their job. And if it’s part of some post-9/11 hero posing, I’m not seeing it. These people are jazzed about what they do. “I love the ambiguity of it,” one guy tells me. “You never know what’s going to happen from one day to the next.”

Rocco Forte also loves his job. But to talk to the chief is to descend into a realm of firefighting that most firefighters neither completely understand nor respect. This is the world of NFPA standards and department accreditation, strategic planning and council politics.

“I’m a statistics person,” Chief Forte tells me, as we sit at a conference table in his spacious office. “I look at the fire department as a business.” Forte’s come a long way from his North Side childhood to this corner office on the third floor of City Hall. A 29-year veteran of the force, the gray-haired, crisply dressed chief says he first fell in love with firefighting during navy boot camp in the 70s, and the passion he once felt for putting out real fires in houses he now uses for putting out administrative fires in the department.

Even his fiercest critics admit that, at least as a manager, Forte may have no peer in City Hall. Most agree that his work on the diversity issue over the past several years has been superlative, and some, like firefighter Jeremy Norton, admit that while the cuts have not been handled with great elegance, the chief at least seems to appreciate the severity of the city’s fiscal crisis. “Rocco’s been doing a great job being an efficient manager,” Norton says ruefully. “To the detriment of the rank and file.”

Elsewhere, the accolades flow more freely. “We have a very efficient Fire Department,” says the City Council’s Niziolek. “The chief has clearly demonstrated to us what the impacts of the cuts are. Other managers, you won’t take them seriously.”

Even so, Forte doesn’t seem too concerned about what others think of him. He’s more concerned about making his numbers. “It’s an interesting dynamic when you get blamed for being too efficient,” he says, when I ask him about union allegations that he was too quick to cooperate with the council on the budget cuts. He’s heard all the criticism about the public safety risks and his alleged betrayal of the rank and file that has come in the wake of the five-year plan. But he argues that he’s not at all happy about cutting his force. “The worst thing I’ve had to face in my career was having a firefighter friend die in a fire,” he says. “The second worst were these layoffs.”

He says his plan simply lays out the various scenarios if the budget is cut further. It is, he argues, all about contingencies. “We’re getting further and further away from where we should be,” he says, pointing to the projected staffing cuts in the plan on the table before us. “We should be at 109 to 110 firefighters on duty per day. This chart is not something I’m recommending. We won’t go here,” he says. He points to a gray line denoting a daily staffing level of 79.

The cuts, he explains, are simply a management problem, one that can be solved with a little innovation and a hefty dose of patience on the part of everyone involved. Resources are getting tighter for the city, so the department has to reinvent itself as a profit center, find new ways to pay for the staffing and equipment the city can’t afford.

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