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Budget Cuts In Store For Chicago Fire Department

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Major budget cuts being planned for Chicago's Fire Department could lead to fewer firehouses, fewer firefighters, or both.

The choices facing Mayor Emanuel's new fire commissioner aren't pleasant, CBS 2 Chief Correspondent Jay Levine reports.

There are 96 fire houses spread all over the city. Some are big, multi-truck stations, while others are small one-door affairs, like the legendary Waveland Avenue house across the street from Wrigley Field.

It's one of 11 single-truck stations that fire department sources say are "old, inefficient and going away."

It won't be without a fight.

Thirty-sixth Ward Ald. Nick Sposato is on leave from active duty as a Chicago firefighter. He's aware but opposes cost-cutting alternatives like shutting down five or six firehouses and transferring firefighters to replace retirees elsewhere. The moves would cost taxpayers an estimated $15 million a year.

"I would think it would not be possible to close firehouses that keep the same level of safety for the citizens of Chicago," Sposato says.

Merging slower houses like Wilson Avenue in Uptown with others would reduce the number of fire houses and firefighters on duty the same way the ranks of police officers and police stations have been cut. Instead, Sposato points to a decade old study which found the department top-heavy.

"There's a lot of chiefs on the job," he says.

Retiring commissioner Bob Hoff made big cuts in top management but left untouched some unusual benefits, such as "duty availability pay" to make up for unusual hours. That costs taxpayers an estimated 15 million a year.

A clothing allowance, mainly for cleaning uniforms, costs $5 million a year.

And specialty pay, for hazmat, medical and diver training, boosts salaries 5 percent each.

"We have all have a lot of ideas but we can't share them now," firefighter union president Tom Ryan tells Levine.

No one disputes the fact that firefighters have difficult and dangerous jobs, risking their lives to save others. But neither they nor anyone else will escape the mayor's budget cutting juggernaut, which is certain to make upcoming contract talks very difficult.

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