Chicago's next fire chief credits mother for success

February 27, 2012 4:50:35 PM PST
Jose Santiago has been picked by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to be Chicago's new fire commissioner.

He still has to be approved by the City Council, but that is not expected to be a problem.

Santiago is expected to replace Commisioner Robert Hoff, who is retiring. The 56-year-old was a high school dropout who spent several years catching up on his education while moving up through the ranks of the fire department.

Growing up without a father, Santiago credits a strong mother and a fire captain for his success.

The stage is all his after years of education, hard work and luck. But Santiago says it was his late mother's encouragement that took him from the streets of Humboldt Park to the Chicago Fire Department's top job.

"She raised me up telling me dreams and stories and you can do anything and be anything. She would be very proud," said Santiago.

Santiago is the only son of a single mom that raised 4 children...his mothers deep sense of patriotism is what led santiago to drop out of high school and join the marine corp at 17. Santiago says the military was also a way out of a tough neighborhood.

"I knew that the Marine Corp would set me straight and I had a lot of dreams I knew I could fulfill with their help. Best choice I ever made in my life," he said.

After three years of helping the boat people flee south Vietnam, Santiago returned to Chicago and went back to school. While he had dreams, they did not involve the fire department. Santiago was talked into taking the department's tough physical entrance exam by a group of friends who knew they couldn't pass it.

"Matter a fact, they took me to my first fire and I was watching some firefighter sticking his head out of a burning building, and I looked at them and he was gasping for air, throwing up and everything, and I said, you want me to do," said Santiago.

Santiago passed the test and never looked back, falling in love with a career that started with a strike back in 1979. He saw it through for 23 days and to this day says he will never cross a picket line.

As for tough talks between the city and the union that may involve closing fire houses and cutting back the amount of people on fire apparatus, Santiago says he has not taken a position yet.

"I know I have my work cut out trying to find out how I can make this dept more cost effective," said Santiago.

Santiago says his goal is to be known as the commissioner with no fatalities or injuries under his command.

The only hiccup in Santiago's city career is his year at the 911 center. Santiago was in charge during last last year's blizzard that shut down Lake Shore Drive. He says he has no regrets about how he handled the situation.