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As Relationship Simmers Between Chicago Fire Commissioner and IG, Management Questions Persist

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In the opening scenes of the 1991 Ron Howard film Backdraft, two young brothers are horsing around in the Chicago firehouse where their father works when an emergency call comes in. As firefighters ready their engine to answer the call, the younger brother beams when his dad asks if he wants to ride along.

They reach the scene with sirens blazing, and the son watches his father pull a child from the top floor of the burning building. But then a tragic turn: A gas leak leads to an explosion, and the boy's father dies in the blaze. From there, the film flashes forward decades when both brothers are Chicago firefighters.

The movie is loosely based on the lives of Chicago Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff and his older brother Raymond Hoff, third-generation Chicago firefighters whose father was killed fighting a fire in a South Side apartment building in 1962, according to media reports.

The film came to mind recently because Commissioner Hoff -- presumably depicted as the younger brother in Backdraft who rode along with his firefighter-father -- is now at the center of a controversy involving fire department "ride alongs."

Investigators with Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson's office discovered that a battalion chief took an adult son along on fire emergencies and allowed him to stay overnight at a Chicago firehouse for a period of nearly two years. Ferguson recommended a 20-day suspension for the battalion chief, who "recklessly exposed the City to liability," according to the OIG's office.

But Commissioner Hoff ignored that recommendation and gave the battalion chief -- whom city and fire officials wouldn't identify -- a "verbal reprimand" with no time off, in the process creating more friction with Ferguson's office. (This is at least the third time in the past few months that the commissioner and Ferguson have squared off.)

Fire department spokesman Larry Langford insisted the battalion chief received the lesser punishment because the agency follows a practice of "progressive discipline," where employees with otherwise good personnel records start with softer punishments. "A 20-day suspension as the first step in discipline jumps over a lot of territory," Langford said in an email.

According to Langford, Hoff said his childhood experiences didn't weigh heavily on how he decided to discipline the battalion chief.

Even so, the similarities between this case and Hoff's personal story are hard to miss. In a 2011 Chicago Sun-Times article on the death of his older brother Raymond Hoff, Commissioner Hoff recalled how he lived with his firefighter-brother. "I was 14," Robert Hoff said, according to the article. "Every weekend he took me to work with him. He showed me everything."

Langford said requests for ride alongs are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, but approval is typically reserved for individuals with a legitimate interest in firefighting activity or research -- such as journalists or academics. Anyone approved for a ride along must complete a waiver of liability (which apparently was not filled out in the case of the battalion chief.) Langford said the department also has a program allowing medical students to ride along in ambulances as a part of their educational process.

The disagreement over the battalion chief's discipline is just the latest incident in which the fire commissioner and the inspector general have butted heads.

In a letter dated Dec. 1, 2011, Ferguson asked Robert Hoff to retract an emailed directive that all fire department communications with the inspector general had to first be approved by the commissioner.

The inspector general disagreed with Robert Hoff's assertion that the email was misinterpreted, quoting the email's language: "no correspondence, documents, interviews, or any other requests from the Inspector General shall be honored unless approved by the Fire Commissioner. Any contact initiated by the Office of the Inspector General should be directed to the Office of the Fire Commissioner." The directive has since been rescinded, according to the inspector general.

And last fall, while city officials sought ways to trim the city budget, the inspector general recommended that fire department staffing levels be reduced, specifically by cutting back the number of firefighters on fire trucks and engines from five to four. But Commissioner Hoff strongly opposed the move and said doing so would lead to more fire fatalities.

We respect the fire commissioner's background, experience and passion, but we hope he doesn't hold a "can-do-no-wrong" view of the fire department.

The ride along controversy presents a delicate balance. On one side, if Commissioner Hoff's life illustrates how ride alongs can spark the passion and work ethic necessary to become a highly decorated firefighter capable of rising to the department's top job, they should be encouraged. Harsh discipline for the battalion chief might do the opposite.

On the other side, Ferguson points out that light discipline sends the wrong message: That leadership is unconcerned with reporting misconduct or cooperating fully with the inspector general's office.

In a letter accompanying his quarterly report, Ferguson notes that several of the battalion chief's subordinates failed to report the alleged misconduct for fear of reprisal.

"The appearance of such an attitude at the senior level filters down to rank and file City employees and freezes out those who would want to blow the whistle on waste, fraud, or abuse of City resources," he wrote.

In other words, there are bad actors out there. Let's make sure they don't get a free ride.

This blog post was written by BGA Senior Investigator Alden Loury, who can be reached at (312) 821-9036 or at aloury@bettergov.org. The BGA is a nonprofit watchdog group that promotes reform through investigative journalism, civic engagement and advocacy.