James S. Clack

James S. Clack (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun / June 7, 2013)

Baltimore Fire Chief James S. Clack announced Friday that he will step down, ending a five-year tenure in which he oversaw historic lows in fire deaths but implemented budget cuts that critics said compromised safety.

Clack, 52, the first chief hired from outside the department's ranks, said in an interview that he is resigning in July to be closer to family in Minnesota. He said this year's budget is the first he's had without substantial cuts, and he wants to leave on a high note.

His move surprised some, as Clack had agreed to a contract extension last year that would have kept him in the post through 2018. Clack, who is paid a salary of nearly $165,000, will serve through the end of July.

"I think we've accomplished a lot," Clack said. "The command staff has certainly made this a safer place to live."

Clack's resignation is the second by a top Baltimore public safety official in the past year. Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III left last summer to spend more time with family after a five-year tenure in which he oversaw a steep decline in the city's homicide rate.

Clack came to the Baltimore Fire Department in 2008 amid a national recession. He immediately confronted a fiscal crunch, cutting back on the number of fire companies working at any given time. Last year, Clack closed two fire companies for good, drawing criticism from department members and union leaders.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake kept Clack on as fire chief when she took office amid a scandal that forced her predecessor, Sheila Dixon, out of office. Since then, he has led the department through extended litigation over a firefighter pension overhaul and a labor battle over a cost-saving measure to institute intermittent 24-hour shifts.

In a statement, Rawlings-Blake said Clack's legacy will be one of improved safety. She noted a program, which Clack has pushed heavily, to distribute free smoke alarms to city residents.

"Chief Clack worked successfully to increase our focus on the safety of residents and fire personnel," she said, noting that the 12 fire deaths in the city last year were the lowest ever recorded. In 2007, 34 people died in Baltimore fires.

"Chief Clack's commitment to improving the overall operations of the department has prepared us for further achievement in the coming years," she said.

Rawlings-Blake appointed Jeffrey Segal, the department's assistant chief of operations, as Clack's interim replacement.

Rick Hoffman, president of the firefighters union, said he respects Clack but thinks the native Minnesotan had too little experience to run a big-city agency.

"On a personal level, I think Jim Clack was probably one of the finest men I've ever met in my life, a churchgoing man faithful to his family," Hoffman said. "On a professional level, I think ... he was swimming upstream since the time he put his boat in the water."

Clack spent too much time appeasing the administrations of Dixon and Rawlings-Blake and didn't do enough to fight cuts to personnel, Hoffman said. The union leader said department morale is low.

"I simply don't think he fought the administration tooth and nail, and he was just probably too easily swayed by, 'Hey, I need $5 million from your budget,'" Hoffman said.

Mike Campbell, president of the union that represents the department's officers, said he is surprised by Clack's departure, given the recent contract extension.

Campbell said he felt it wasn't "the right thing to do" when Clack was hired from outside the department and that the decision "didn't sit well" with officers. Since then, Clack has tried to keep the unions involved in decisions, Campbell said, despite their frequent disagreements.

He said he hopes Segal will continue to keep the unions involved.

Segal, 44, a Baltimore native who has risen through the ranks of Baltimore's department since 1987, has a master's degree in the science of management from the Johns Hopkins University. In his present post, Segal, who makes a salary of $130,000, oversees field operations, including fire suppression, emergency medical services and hazmat response.

"I love the city; I enjoy being in the city," Segal said in an interview. "And being able to be in charge of the Fire Department is a privilege that usually doesn't come to people."