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."
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. Six other firefighters have retired and 43 face suspensions.
Inspector General Joseph Ferguson had recommended that all 54 firefighters be fired.
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 river rescue Nov. 1.
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.
Whatever the reason for Hoff's resignation, the void leaves firefighters without a champion at the worst possible time. Their contract expires June 30.
When Ferguson suggested that 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.
"Any decrease in manning - any decrease in fire companies, ambulances or closing of firehouses - I am literally deathly against," Hoff said.
Emanuel applauded Hoff for his candor but made it clear that he plans to take a hard line in contract talks with Chicago firefighters.
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."
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.
"It was a flashback," Hoff recalled. "The day I got burned, my son was 5 years old."
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 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.
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