CITY HALL — Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago defended his department's response times and called a recently released inspector general's audit "inaccurate" during budget hearings Monday.
"Feel confident in our response times," Santiago said. He added the average response is 3 minutes and 35 seconds for a fire, 5 minutes for medical emergencies.
Santiago called a recent audit of Chicago Fire Department response times "inaccurate," adding, "We are No. 1 on response time in the country."
By comparison, he said, New York City's fire department has an average response time of just over 4 minutes for fires.
Santiago blamed the inaccuracies on the Office of the Inspector General using National Fire Prevention Association standards, rather than the Illinois Department of Public Health standards that Santiago's department cites as guidelines. State standards allow a 6-minute response for medical emergencies, 5:35 for fires, compared with 5 minutes flat and 5:20 set by the national association.
Santiago was questioned on response times by Ald. Mary O'Connor (41st), whose ward was the only one on the North Side where response times met nationally set standards less than 50 percent of the time, according to the audit.
Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) likewise raised issues on response time, as his ward was last in the city by either measurement. While calling CFD "the finest fire department in the country," he later told Santiago: "Do whatever you have to do. Make sure that problem's fixed."
While not using it as an excuse on response times, Santiago said the department had 394 vacancies due to "a series of legal issues" that had halted hiring. One of them was a suit brought by women who claimed the Candidates Physical Abilities Test was discriminatory, which recently resulted in a $2 million city settlement.
Santiago said the department had been cleared by the Law Department to resume hiring and was working to graduate a series of classes of recruits to keep pace with retirements. In the meantime, he projected 2013 overtime at $42 million, more than double the budgeted amount. He said the city expects to hire 405 new firefighters next year.
That was consistent with figures cited by Tom Ryan, president of the local firefighters' union, who estimated that the department was at 4,600 union employees, with as many 500 to be hired as required by the current contract.
Ryan blamed "attrition" from retirements for the staffing shortage, but likewise expressed confidence the department would soon be back at full strength, as required by the union contract. He added that a snag was the six months it takes to graduate a firefighting recruit, with three months spent on emergency medical training and another three months on fire suppression.
"It takes a long time to get a class through," Ryan said.
Santiago set full strength in the department at 5,100 firefighters and civilian employees, and estimated current staffing at 4,700.
"We'd always like to see more people hired," Ryan said. "We'd like to see as many as we possibly can, in part because it's a great department, and fully staffed we're the best in the world."