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Will Chicago get its first Black female fire chief?

Possibility looms as Fire Commissioner Richard Ford
presides over final graduation

The search for a new fire chief accelerated this week as Chicago’s second Black fire commissioner on Tuesday, February 16, presided over his final graduation ceremony at the Robert J. Quinn Fire Academy, 558 W. DeKoven St.

One hundred and twenty-five newly minted graduates celebrated their latest achievement in a ceremony attended by Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Chicago Fire Commissioner Richard C. Ford II, who rose to the top job after three decades in the Chicago Fire Department, will step down in April because of the department’s mandated retirement age of 63 for fire commissioner.

Waiting in the wings is Annette Holt, a department veteran who Ford promoted in 2018 as the city’s first Black female deputy fire commissioner.

There was no mention of her possible candidacy during Tuesday’s graduation ceremonies.

With Lightfoot in the background, Ford looked back on his days as a rookie.

“I have enjoyed 30-plus years serving this department and it has been an honor and a pleasure to be your fire commissioner. You will be the last graduating class that I address. And I swear to you, I don’t know where all those decades disappeared to. But I can remember it just like yesterday standing in the same positions you are now and going, ‘Wow, it’s my turn’,” Ford told the graduates.

“Every exempt member, every chief on the fire department began exactly where you are now. We were all anxious, excited and, if I’m being really honest, a little nervous until that first call came in. But if you remember to … trust your training, everything will be fine. You’ve been trained by the best to be the best … You are the next generation of leaders.”

The 125-member graduating class of firefighter/EMTs includes 85 whites, 18 Blacks, 19 Hispanics and Asian Americans. Seven of the graduates are women, 27 are members of the military, and 24 are graduates of Chicago Public Schools.

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EIGHTEEN BLACKS were among 125 graduates participating in the Chicago Fire Department’s ceremony on February 16. (Photo courtesy of Larry Merritt/Chicago Fire Department

“Eighteen of you have turned your tasers and firearms in as police officers in exchange for facepieces and bunker gear. And 14 of you have decided to come over from the Chicago Police Department after originally being misguided in your attempt to be a real first responder,” Ford said.

Ford encouraged the graduates to uphold the standards of the department by serving with “professionalism and compassion.”

“That’s what you represent when you roll up on a 6-year-old trapped in a car or you go into a burning building where there’s a veteran trapped in a wheelchair. You are their hero. You represent strength, courage and hope,” Ford said.

Lightfoot inspired the graduates to join the ranks of firefighters and paramedics who persevered during a tough year of the coronavirus and recently the string of frigid temperatures that buried Chicago with over two feet of snow.

“Today, each of you will join the ranks of these brave men and women … For many of you, that work starts tomorrow … You’re starting your job when we are recovering from one of the most historic snowstorms that we’ve seen in quite a time. So, the needs will be many,” she said.

Ford’s last day on the job is April 2. Lightfoot is currently searching for his $217,728-a-year replacement. Lightfoot reportedly may go outside the city to find a replacement, as she did when she appointed Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown, who served as Dallas’ police chief before coming to Chicago.

Ford was appointed the city’s fire commissioner in 2018, two years after he was appointed deputy fire commissioner by then-Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago.

He was the city’s second Black fire commissioner in 159 years after Cortez Trotter left in 2007.

Two months after he was appointed the top job, Ford appointed Holt as his deputy commissioner as the second-highest official in the fire department.

It was the same trajectory that Ford had followed before he ascended to fire commissioner, fueling speculation that Holt may have been groom- ed for the top job. Holt, a 31-year veteran in the department, became the highest-ranking female, Black or white, to hold the No. 2 job as deputy fire commissioner.

The Chicago Fire Department has often been accused of racism and discrimination in its hiring practices, which have cost the city $100 million in settlements in the last several decades.

Lightfoot remains tight lipped regarding her search for candidates. Leading candidates reportedly include former Deputy Commissioner of Operations-turned battalion chief Tim Sampey, Deputy Commissioner of Administration Brian Helmold and Chief Paramedic Mary Sheridan.

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CHICAGO FIRE COMMISSIONER Richard C. Ford conducts his last graduation ceremony before he retires in April because of an age mandate of 63. (Photo courtesy of Larry Merritt/Chicago Fire Department)

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