There was smoke, fire

Robert J. Quinn’s tenure as commissioner of the Chicago Fire Department spanned the Daley Machine era. Quinn took over the department in 1957, two years into Mayor Richard J. Daley’s first term. His subsequent 21 years in office made him a Chicago institution in his own right. Today, the city’s fire academy bears his name as a tribute.

But the beginning and end of Quinn’s  career were marked by crisis: In 1958, with a massive and deadly school fire at Our Lady of the Angels, and with a pair of Chicago Reporter stories that examined the fire department’s poor performance in the 1970s.

In 1975, Vernon C. Thompson found that Chicago’s fire death rates ranked worst among the country’s largest 10 cities, despite the fact that the department had been undercounting the deaths of low-income, mostly black Chicagoans.

Three years later, a follow-up by Sharon McGowan found that the department had made little headway in cutting the city’s death rate. The poor performance was hardly a surprise, given that the department had cut its force by 615 firefighters in the previous eight years.

By the time McGowan’s story was published in February 1978, Quinn was already under investigation by the Better Government Association for alleged shakedowns by fire inspectors. And the U.S. Court of Appeals had just ordered the department to cease its discriminatory hiring practices.

“As a result of my story, other media outlets picked up the story and asked for a response. I believe that was a time when [Quinn] said something about, ‘We don’t count people who jump out of windows,’” McGowan recalled.

Quinn soon resigned. In the ensuing media flurry, the Chicago Tribune wrote that the Reporter’s story “capped” recent criticism of “Quinn’s 21-year reign as fire commissioner.”

McGowan’s investigation led to something else: A lead for her story on the city’s emergency services. At the time, 10 of Chicago’s 36 ambulances did not have “telemetry”–including basic supplies such as medicine, bandages and intravenous equipment. Nine of them were stationed in black and Latino wards.

“We got a tip from a paramedic who pointed out this discrepancy, and he also pointed out there was a fire department booklet that literally showed which firehouses had telemetry and which didn’t,” McGowan said.

Nine months later, all of the city’s ambulances were fully equipped.

 

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