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