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Firefighters Aren't Sure How They Help Safe Passage, But They Do

By Mark Konkol | August 28, 2013 8:28am
 Firefighter Rey Wilder says a student's thanks made his Safe Passage stint worth all the risks.
Firefighter Rey Wilder says a student's thanks made his Safe Passage stint worth all the risks.
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DNAinfo/ Mark Konkol

WEST SIDE — Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and the City Council’s Progressive Caucus have called Mayor Emanuel's $15 million school Safe Passage system mismanaged, poorly planned and unsustainable.

And some community activists say flooding the school zones with unarmed crossing guards only creates an illusion of safety in school/gang zones.

But for at least two school days, the bottom line is all 53 Safe Passage routes have been spared bloodshed.

So far, so good.

But on Tuesday, I still didn't understand how this Safe Passage business works.

So I took a self-guided tour of a few Safe Passage routes.

Along the way I talked to people keeping watch over the kids and their parents, who have little choice but to trust that flooding school/gang zones with good people will keep their kids safe.

Parents, for the most part, seemed happy to see so many people lining Safe Passage routes, but still worried that violence that plagues certain neighborhoods remains a completely unpredictable reality.

They’re not the only ones.

In addition to Safe Passage and Streets and Sanitation workers, Chicago firefighters parked their engine — or a truck, there’s a difference you know — on the route to help keep the peace as ordered by City Hall.

I asked a few rank-and-file firefighters exactly what part they played in keeping kids safe, and they weren’t really sure.

They didn’t get any special training or instruction except on when to show up and how long they had to stay on the street. So I called firefighters union boss Tom Ryan.

“My biggest concern is if something violent in nature happens, people will run to someone in uniform for protection, and we don’t have the tools, nor the training to do that,” Ryan told me. “Nothing has happened so far, but that’s a concern of ours that’s there.”

Now that’s not a complaint. It is what it is.

“We’re protecting kids every day. And when people do get shot in Safe Passage zones, we’re the ones who are there to respond and get them to the hospital,” Ryan said. “It’s public service, and that’s what our men and women do.”

But unlike police officers stationed on Safe Passage routes who told me that they’re “off the radio” during Safe Passage assignments, firefighters also respond to dispatchers' calls.

On Tuesday, one West Side fire company’s afternoon Safe Passage stint was interrupted three times when a dispatcher called to send it on medical runs just as school kids spilled out into the neighborhood where streets were clogged with waiting cars.

Ryan says he’s concerned about that, too.

“It’s a real safety thing for us. When people come to pick up their kids, they do some of the most incredibly stupid things,” he said. “I saw one woman back her car the wrong way on a street between two school buses to pick up her kids in the middle of the road. And with kids all over, that can be a chaotic situation when we have to respond with sirens and lights.”

But, really, it’s a risk that rank-and-file firefighters didn’t complain about too loudly.

“See what it says there,” one firefighter said, pointing at the slogan printed on the engine, “We’re there when you need us.”

And for a few hours every day, even though a lot of firefighters aren’t sure why, Chicago kids need them there.

Plus, there’s a few perks.

Firefighters — with their big, red engines — clearly seemed to be the stars of Chicago’s Safe Passage show.

Out on the West Side, a little girl on her way home from school rushed past a group of cops to give Firefighter Rey Wilder a hug before the engine pulled away on a medical run.

“It was really cool. I was really surprised,” Wilder said. “Whether or not Safe Passage is being done right, that made it all worth it.”