Leading the Way

RECENTLY IN CHICAGO, Mayor Richard Daley selected First Deputy Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff, 54, to be the commissioner of the Chicago Fire Department. The appointment of Hoff, a 33-year veteran and an award-winning, third-generation firefighter, was approved by the aldermen while rank-and-file firefighters lined the City Council chambers. One alderman described this as one of the mayor's finest appointments.

I first met Hoff in early 1985, when he was a lieutenant assigned to CFD Squad 2. He was on vacation in New York City and we were both visiting the temporary quarters of FDNY Rescue 1 in Manhattan after its firehouse was destroyed in a seven-alarm fire on Jan. 23, 1985. Hoff told me he had just responded to a three-alarm fire on Milwaukee Avenue. During that fire, which occurred on Feb. 1, 1985, a roof collapsed, killing three firefighters and injuring four others. Soon after our meeting, I traveled to Chicago to conduct interviews regarding the fire for an "On the Job" article for Firehouse®.

As a result of that deadly fire, Hoff and Rick Kolomay, then a lieutenant in Schaumburg, IL, and now the fire chief in Carol Stream, IL, worked on rapid intervention training and put together so much information that the document they compiled turned out to be the size of a book. Both spoke for me when we presented classes in San Jose, CA. Along with Chicago Fire Lieutenant Pat Lynch, they taught live-fire exercises during hands-on training in Baltimore. I interviewed Hoff about the 1993 Paxton Hotel fire in which 21 people were killed. Hoff's brother, Ray, was the first-due truck captain at that job. I also spoke with Hoff several years later after a devastating fire on the upper floors of a downtown high-rise building that took several hours to control. Many high-rise firefighting procedures were changed after that incident. Hoff was the incident commander when the Chicago Fire Department responded as part of a nationwide response to help the City of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

I met several times with Hoff after the Chicago Fire Department asked Firehouse® to plan a seminar on the Navy Pier a few years ago. At that time, he was in charge of Fire Rescue. He moved up to first deputy fire commissioner in 2008. Hoff has twice received the department's highest award, the Carter Harrison Award for bravery. He also spent 21 days in the burn unit after being injured in an attic fire. We wish the commissioner all the best and success in his new position.

SPEAKING OF HURRICANE KATRINA, the fifth anniversary is approaching. I had been in New Orleans and left three days before the hurricane hit. I traveled back there several months later to conduct interviews. Before the hurricane hit, about 350,000 people lived in New Orleans. The fire department was at or near full strength. Since the devastation, only 275,000 people have returned. The fire department, despite adding numerous candidate classes, is still below Katrina strength. Three fire companies are unmanned due to budget cuts. One fire station uses a trailer to house personnel while the apparatus is left outside. A two-company fire station is planned for the Lower Ninth Ward, but not yet been constructed. The majority of buildings destroyed have been demolished. Apparently 60% to 70% of the remaining vacant buildings have been demolished.

Fires that the department has responded to recently have been contained to one or two rooms. The reconstruction and adherence to newer building codes have limited fire spread. I haven't been back to the Gulf Coast recently, but reminders of hurricanes that occurred in the early 1960s were visible during my visit five years ago. I'm sure that reminders of Katrina will be around for years to come. Now with the BP oil spill in the same region, another disaster of enormous proportions will linger the same area for a long time.

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