Friday, July 17, 2015

Chicago Fire Week #5: Firemen in pajamas

I had planned to round out Chicago Fire Week with my story about the Paxton Hotel fire, but it somehow never made its way into Nexis, and this one is perhaps even better, because it's representative of a problem in the department. I've been talking about it when I give speeches to PR groups for the past 15 years, a perfect example of how a hostile media office can turn a generic puff piece—the fire department starting to issue pajamas—into something negative. 
     The Chicago Fire Department began issuing pajamas in 1999, because firehouses were increasingly coed and you couldn't ask fire fighters to sleep in clothing unless clothing was provided. But the fire department, stung by some video that a local television station had run about a beer party in a firehouse, didn't want to cooperate with this story. He said they would drop off a pair of pajamas, but wouldn't allow us to photograph a firefighter actually wearing a pair. So we had to pose a photographer in the pajamas, for illustrative purposes. Nor would they say enough to round out a brief news story. So I had to go looking for someone who would say something, in this case a pissed off union head, who explained why the money being wasted on sleepwear should have been spent on better protective clothing.  A textbook example of turning good press into bad by holding grudges, which should be saved for junior high school.  It's a vicious circle: the fire department, like cops, bungles opportunities for good press, so disproportionate amount of press about them is bad, which makes them more bitter and press averse, which leads to more bad press.  It's sad really. 

     The phrase "firefighter pajamas," conjures up images of cotton PJs, about a Size 3T, brightly decorated with hook and ladder trucks and red helmets and Dalmatian doggies.
     The reality is not quite so festive.
     The new standard issue Chicago Fire Department pajamas -- or "authorized sleeping attire" -- are dark blue shorts and V-neck T-shirts, each decorated with the Fire Department logo. They're a part of the uniform as of Wednesday.
     But in the troubled Fire Department, even an issue as initially simple and innocent as pajamas is fraught with controversy.
     "It's humiliating, absolutely," said Bill Kugelman, president of Firefighter's Local No. 2. "The money that they're using for this could be used for other purposes, like safety and health and equipment."
     Fire Department spokesman Will Knight said he had "no idea" what the pajamas cost.
     Kugelman said he had just returned from a union convention in Washington, D.C., where the pajamas were the cause of much merriment at Chicago's expense.
     "We were the laughingstock," he said. "It was the talk of the seminar."
     On the record, firefighters -- who tend to keep an eye toward department politics -- were uniformly positive about the change.
     "They're comfortable," said John Sullivan, a 20-year veteran at Engine Company No. 98, on Chicago Avenue just east of Michigan. "They fit."
     Off the record, they were more critical.
     "Some of the men think it's ridiculous," said a firefighter who didn't want his name used.
     Ridiculous enough that someone at the department created a parody of the general order establishing the sleepwear. The joke "general disorder" mandating "nightly jammie checks" offers this synopsis:
     "It is the policy of the Chicago Fire Department that the fully grown personnel of legal majority (otherwise known as adults) who comprise this department and who operate equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, make life and death decisions on a daily basis and manage to lead normal, healthy and productive lives are not capable of making a decision on how to dress for bed."
     After initially suggesting there was no particular reason for the new sleepwear, fire officials admitted the change had to do with the growing number of women in firehouses. Of the 4,200 Chicago firefighters, about 200 are women -- mostly paramedics -- and they share fire stations during 24-hour shifts.
     "More and more female firefighters are on the job, and that is only going to increase," department spokesman Kevin MacGregor said. "We'll eliminate any kind of problems that could occur. . . . That's what we hope to do with this thing."
     Kugelman said he imagined the move was done with sexual harrassment lawsuits in mind.
     "Why else would they do this?" he said. "No other department has them. People are wondering why in the hell we have jammies when we don't even have bunker gear (special protective clothing). New York City got bunker gear and cut their injury rate by 85 percent. They don't have jammies."
                    —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 2, 1999

19 comments:

  1. I believe it was WGN Channel 9, that was showing the firehouse beer party clip, every day for at least a week. As beer parties go, it didn't seem particularly outrageous. With no apparent evidence in the clip, the news announcer would declare the firemen as racist. Does anyone know the back story on that?

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    1. IIRC, someone was retiring. Firefighters were getting drunk while on duty (while filming it). One firefighter started singing a song as others joined in. The song was about sicking their dogs on black people.

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    2. Is that you, Ana? You used to use the term IIRC.

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    3. Thanks Anon 8:14AM, that matches my recollection. Four to six fireman sitting around a kitchen table, with one or two beer bottles on the table for each. One fellow looking a tad old to be a fireman and couldn't have been too drunk, he tossed an empty bottle across the room and it landed in the sink. No mention in the story of being drunk on duty. Even if there was a designated driver, showing up at a fire drunk, sounds like a recipe for bad outcome.

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  2. Yes, the media can be hostile on many topics.

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  3. Or they could have told the to bring their own pajamas, but must wear them.

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  4. I never understood the reason behind the fire pole. Is that really faster than stairs?

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    1. Much faster. Also fun, I was allowed to slide down it a few times, not too much:"Stations not a play ground" was said a lot.

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  5. It's a complicated relationship. Not always the case of a "hostile media office." The PR people sometimes do their best to be cooperative with journalists, but get their heads handed to them by the higher ups when things seem to go amis. In the case of cops and firemen, when the unions are always looking to get something on management -- and vice versa -- I would imagine being a "spokesman" is a bit like tip towing through a mine field.

    Tom Evans

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    1. Since I wrote "bail of hay" yesterday, myself, I've got no business picking on you, Tom, but is "tip towing" a service that towing companies provide for really successful waitresses and waiters? ; )

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    2. I was going to decry the crazy competitive world we live in today, but on second thought, realized that we're better off than in the good old days when the only way for the third son to rise in the world was to kill (quite literally) numbers one and two. And leaders of countries and legislatures competed with each other in the number of heads they chopped off (again quite literally). I dearly wish that we could "all get along." But it doesn't seem to be in the cards (or the DNA).

      John

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    3. Or John in the middle ages, the 2nd or 3rd son could enter the clergy.

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  6. Good catch Jakash. Pick away. Bloody homonyms again.

    From my time in England I learned that to members of the construction trades there a "tip" is that useful receptacle we colonials refer to as a "dumpster." Perhaps I had in mind a complaint from an English friend about the damage wrought to her garden by a builder tip towing through the tulips.

    Tom

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    1. Talk about making lemonade from the lemons one's dealt... Nicely done; LOL!

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    2. Since there's no way of upvoting here, may I tip my hat to that one, sir. Well said!

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    3. As your English friend might say, brilliant!

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    4. Tom, Were you born in England?

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  7. Anybody seen the cover of this week's Economist? Funny!

    Tom Evans

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    1. Just looked that up. Very funny, and the lapel pin is a nice touch.

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Thanks for commenting. As soon as I vet your remarks, they'll be posted, assuming they aren't, you know, mean and crazy.