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Published: Wednesday, 2/26/2014 - Updated: 9 months ago

COMMENTARY

Luis Santiago: Hail to the city’s fire chief

BY KEITH C. BURRIS
COLUMNIST FOR THE BLADE

I walked all the way around Fire Station No. 1, the Michael P. Bell fire administration building, before I found a point of entry. And even then I had to be buzzed in. It was hunched-shoulder and running-nose weather.

That was OK. I was going to see Chief Luis Santiago, and I was still trying to think of what to say.

I badly wanted to meet the man who led our Toledo Fire and Rescue Department through the loss of two of their brothers. But I felt the way you feel when you know you are going to see an old friend who has lost a mom, or a dad. What do you say?

The chief is a compact man who conveys both force and warmth in his bearing. Like most police officers and firefighters, his gaze is steady and he doesn’t dance around a point. It’s interesting. My uncle was a test pilot and, later, a fighter pilot. He and his compatriots had the same direct manner. You see it also in the ICU and cancer wards. Not much patience for messing around.

The chief and his men have to figure out an ancient human riddle now: How to move on but not forget.

How do his men keep their grief for Jamie Dickman and Stephen Machcinski alive, but also let go of the pain and anger so many of them feel?

Not easy.

With the charges of arson and aggravated murder now pending, the tragedy has become an ongoing saga, a wound that will not heal. He’ll have nothing to say about the case on this or any other day. “We are very well aware of what country we live in,” the chief says.

What is he proudest of? “We still had to make the runs, and we did.”

How many runs a year? More than 54,000 last year. Some 56,000 the year before.

Toledoans know they love their firefighters, but most don’t know this.

Most also don’t know that every firefighter is either an EMT or a full-scale paramedic. Or that our fire department is nationally accredited — a rigorous process that only 177 of 33,000 departments have accomplished. The Toledo Fire and Rescue Department was the first in Ohio to achieve this standard.

The job, the chief tells me, has gotten increasingly “more cerebral and more technical” in the 30 years he has been doing it. And broader. Almost nothing is not included, he says.

A firefighter might be diving one day; saving a trapped kid from a fire another; reviving a heart attack victim another.

Firefighters do full-scale emergency medicine now. Thanks to them, and time saved, a “widow-maker” — a form of massive heart attack in which a primary coronary artery is 100 percent blocked — might be survived.

Chief Santiago is a relatively young man — 50. How long do fire chiefs do this job? Mike Bell told me he slept with his phone when he was chief. Mr. Santiago confirms that a chief is never “off.” He marvels that Mr. Bell did the job for 17 years. I ask the chief about a quote I found in which he said he was always happy on the street — as a firefighter, making runs.

He never imagined himself a manager. But in his business, the natural leader becomes a manager.

It has to be that way because the stakes are so high.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: kburris@theblade.com or 419-724-6266.



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