Chicago firefighters mull alleged rift between city, suburb tactics

Editor's note: Neil Steinberg's article from earlier this week that referred to Chicago firefighters's pride at being more aggressive than their counterparts in the suburbs is attracting much debate. In addition to FireRescue1 members having their say, the latest article by Steinberg looks at the controversy his story created and presents perspective he's received from suburban firefighters and reaction from the Chicago Fire Department. Have your say in the member comments section below. 

By Neil Steinberg
The Chicago Sun-Times

CHICAGO — Building yourself up by belittling the other guy is a constant in human nature. Those who live on the mountaintops sneer at the timid souls farming the valleys, while valley-dwellers mock the buffoons hopping around rocky crags with goats. The Spartans slur the Athenians as effete; the Athenians dismiss the Spartans as brutes.

In Chicago, the big split — after race, of course — is city vs. suburbs. Chicago, with its big-city swagger, gazes beyond its borders and sees haystacks, shopping malls and Barney Fife. The suburbs, meanwhile, look at the city and see grime, crime and Al Capone.

These perceptions are not universally held, of course, but often harbored and sometimes even expressed, though what is felt in the heart is not what is said in private, and what is said in private doesn't always go down well in public.

When I set out to write about fighting a fire, my goals were to: 1.) convey the process accurately; 2.) not burn the guys I was talking to, since they seemed like good guys, and 3.) keep the media-shy Fire Department happy so it would let me do more stories about firefighting.

While I succeeded with No. 1, as far as I know, I failed at Nos. 2 and 3 by relaying the firefighters' comments about city vs. suburban techniques: that Chicago firefighters go in and attack fires, while suburban departments stand back and pour water on from outside.

These seemed like significant observations — that's why I passed them along — both sincerely held and reflecting the alpha-male, ribbing manner of firefighters. I never imagined it might cause dismay.

But it did. Big time. I heard from Chicago's top brass and from lots of suburban firefighters. While I don't often give the column over to letters, their thoughts were sincere enough, valid enough and (police officers, take note) polite enough that I feel they deserve sharing.

One last thought: While the suburban firefighters were quick to call the comments untrue and insulting, none seemed surprised to hear them. Just the opposite. "Chicago has and always will think they are better than everyone else for whatever reason," wrote one 15-year suburban firefighter.

Which leads me to suspect that the real problem is not that this attitude appeared in my column. The real issue, I believe, is that, true or not, some percentage of city firefighters believe it.

From Battalion Chief Larry Karp, Bensenville Fire Department:
"Most of the suburban firefighters take great pride in our aggressive, interior firefighting techniques, regardless of what the Chicago firefighters may think. We do not stand outside and allow a building to burn down as the Chicago firefighters are suggesting in your story.

"There is a big difference between us and Chicago Fire Department when it comes to getting firefighters to the scene. On a report of a fire, Chicago pulls up with an initial assignment of about 16 firefighters and five officers, one of them a chief officer. When I pull up to the same type of fire, I have eight firefighters, a lieutenant and myself. I like to think we can be just as successful in extinguishing a fire even though we don't have the resources of a 4,800-member department."

From Bob Hayes, Oak Forest Fire Department:
"I am one of those suburban firefighters that was mentioned in your article, and I am also a paid and trained professional to the exact same level and standards as any Chicago fireman [so I] find it very arrogant that they think they are God. . . .

"[These] comments about the Chicago way of doing things and how aggressive they are at putting out fires is an insult to all of the firefighters in the area. I have worked and fought many fires with my suburban brothers, and I can assure you that not one of us has ever shown up to a fire and said right off the bat let's hit this fire from the outside and not go in. I have entered many buildings and have done the same thing as our Chicago brothers many times.

"I have also had the chance to see in person just how the mindset of some Chicago guys are on big fires and I can say this: When they are called to come help in the suburbs they have an attitude when they get there of, 'OK, we are here, and we will show you how this is going to be done,' and they make jerks of themselves doing it.

"Last time I checked, all firefighters are equal, and some may be better than others at times. We are all trained and pretty good at what we do, including the surround-and-drown suburban guys."

From Robert S. Hoff, First Deputy Fire Commissioner, Chicago Fire Department:
"The majority of Chicago firefighters, from the top on down, consider the city and the suburbs as all one family. We learn from them, and they learn from us, constantly working and training together. The only difference is the name on the patches.

"There are tremendous firefighters outside the Chicago Fire Department, and I've worked and trained with many of them. I would put my life in their hands. They are great, aggressive, knowledgeable people. I personally apologize for ignorant comments that were made by members of the Chicago Fire Department because it does not reflect the true meaning of being a brother or sister in the fire service."

Copyright 2009 Chicago Sun-Times, Inc.
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