Man of calm demeanor

The Baltimore Sun

MINNEAPOLIS-- --Fire Chief James S. Clack pulled up outside this city's biggest firehouse and walked down to the "coop" - a dispatch center - to say hello. Nobody snapped to attention or appeared particularly ruffled.

"Why don't we have people come down here? I'll just let them know what is going on," Clack, who a day earlier had been chosen to head Baltimore's Fire Department, suggested to the on-duty officer.

Firefighters wearing navy blue department T-shirts gathered around and marveled as he explained the paramilitary traditions he had seen on a visit to a Baltimore fire station near the Inner Harbor. Firefighters had come running and had lined up according to rank. "It went from the chiefs down to the lowliest firefighter," he told them, joking: "And I can't get people here to slide down the pole."

Clack's soft-spoken, easy-going style has served him well in Minneapolis, a city roughly half the size of Baltimore, with far fewer problems. The pace is slower, and the fire chief who plays competitive chess, collects farm machinery and gives Sunday homilies once a month at his local Catholic parish has fit in well.

"He's a good administrator," said Tom Thornberg, the Minneapolis fire union president. The police chief, Tim Dolan, predicted that Clack will have "a lot of respect at City Hall." Mayor R.T. Rybak added: "We're really going to be sorry to lose him."

Clack is no stranger to difficulties. Here he managed to keep the unions calm despite a round of firefighter layoffs and budget cuts. He has maintained racial harmony in a department with greater racial diversity than the city it serves.

And he attracted international acclaim because of his steady demeanor when portions of the Interstate 35W bridge tumbled into the Mississippi River last summer, killing 13 people.

But the department Clack now runs is far smaller and fights far fewer fires than Baltimore's. Minneapolis firefighters respond to about 22,000 fire calls a year, compared with nearly 50,000 in Baltimore. Last year in Minneapolis, two civilians died in fires, compared with 34 in Baltimore.

When he takes over in Baltimore in April - he still must be approved by the City Council - Clack will inherit a department steeped in tradition and fraught with problems. The paramilitary-style atmosphere that took the new chief by surprise masks profound divisions in the ranks.

Members make openly racist and sexist remarks on public Internet forums. A history of betrayals has embittered relations between the union and management, leading to arguments over budget cuts, training and the closing of fire stations.

Two firefighters - one a cadet in a training exercise - were killed in the past 18 months in cases that drew criticism of the department for violating safety standards. Three civilians died late last year when a firetruck speeding to a call plowed into a car; the accident was determined to be the fault of the firetruck driver. And the academy is under investigation by city auditors for questionable spending practices.

Already, Clack has voiced surprise over a comment made about him by the president of Baltimore's firefighters union. Rick Schluderberg predicted that the city's rough-and-tumble politics would be a shock to the new chief, reminding him: "You're not in Kansas anymore."

Clack joked: "Hey, I'm from Minnesota, not Kansas."

But Clack, who has been in Minneapolis for his entire 22-year career, said he does understand he is moving to a more volatile place.

"I think there is risk in moving to Baltimore to a department that is in some turmoil," he said. "Things in Minneapolis are going really well. I'm comfortable, but it isn't challenging. I am really interested in problem-solving. I love to engage other people in solutions and coming to the best possible solution. That is what energizes me and gets me out of bed in the morning."

Downtown Minneapolis is somewhat similar to Baltimore: There are a few skyscrapers, a gothic City Hall, a utilitarian convention center and predictable chain stores. Parts of downtown are linked by skyways - a network of enclosed, above-ground passages that enable people to go from place to place without stepping into the bitter winter cold.

But local residents can't protect themselves from the cooling national economy. Thursday, Clack drove the chief's red SUV in the snow through the poorer areas of the city, where "For Sale" signs in the front yards of detached houses show areas hard-hit by the subprime mortgage foreclosures. He said there seem to be more unexplained fires in those homes.

The city is far less diverse than Baltimore. Blacks make up about 18 percent of the population , according to a 2000 census, though city leaders say the numbers have since increased. Baltimore is a majority-black city, and race and politics are often intertwined.

With Clack's appointment, the heads of both the city's public safety agencies will be white men.

Minneapolis' poorer area has a South Baltimore feel. "In this area there is church on one corner and a bar on the next," Clack said.

One of the bars is the 311Club, which on Friday, a day when Clack was in West Virginia giving a speech about the bridge collapse, happened to be hosting a retirement party for a longtime paramedic. People there knew Clack's name and between sips of the local Summit winter ale described him as an intellectual who is good with numbers and budgets and keeping people calm.

A father of three grown children, Clack, 47, lives with his wife about an hour north of the city in a small town called Zimmerman. This is where he keeps his collection of large farm equipment, which at one point included 24 earth-moving machines.

"That was excessive," he said.

He has sold off all but three of them and plans to store the rest at a friend's farm in Wisconsin. He enters chess competitions - he won two games, lost three at the Minnesota Open. And he researches his family genealogy - he says the Clacks have been in America since the 1600s and he's related to Pocahontas. He is the first firefighter in his family. Clack's wife, Rose Marie, works from home as a nutrition coach, helping people to lose weight.

Clack said that one of his concerns about leaving is abandoning his parish, St. Pius X Roman Catholic Church, an hour north of Minneapolis, where he serves as deacon and delivers a homily once a month. As part of a jailhouse ministry run by the diocese, he has listened to the problems of Minneapolis' juvenile offenders. He also has spent hours and hours earning the trust of alcoholic men living in a last-chance shelter.

"Nine out of 10 of those men will die from their disease, and they know it," he said.

When Clack applied for the job in Baltimore, he mentioned his department's diversity in his cover letter, writing that the department is "one of the best managed and most diverse" in the country. Thirty percent of the department are minorities, and 17 percent are women, he wrote.

He gave a reporter a printout that showed color pictures of his management team. Of the 12 top managers, three were black, including an assistant chief, and four were women.

The leaders of the local African-American firefighters group were in a jubilant mood last week. They had just met with Clack to discuss concerns about how discipline was meted out in the department. Charles Rucker, the president of the African-American firefighters group in Minneapolis, said: "He's been fair."

Sitting in a conference room, members of the group said Clack and his predecessors have been steadily removing the traditional barriers that blocked black firefighter from entering the service. There used to be a lot of uncertainty in the physical fitness tests - some portions were weighted more than others. Now there is a simpler pass-fail system. And there is also a new test that they believe is more fair.

Deputy Chief Jean Kidd, a fire commander who has criticized Clack in the past as being inattentive to the concerns of women, praised the chief for promoting her through the ranks.

"He doesn't like being surrounded by 'yes' people," she said. "He is very secure with himself. He has a place of peace with himself. You can't put that on."

Kidd said Clack has improved: "He challenged himself to listen and to hear what I was saying."

When Clack's men and women gathered to hear him at Fire Station Six, they eagerly gave a tour of the immaculate station, which has two exercise rooms, a classroom for training and rows of dorm-style rooms with pull-down beds. Lighting fixtures have motion detectors and energy-efficient bulbs.

The firefighters are used to seeing Clack from the frequent "fire station chats" he routinely holds so he can hear concerns from the rank and file.

And on that visit Thursday, firefighters peppered him with questions about Baltimore.

"Do they have a seaport?"

"How many ride on a truck?"

But the talk quickly turned back to Minneapolis.

"Who is going to replace you?"

There was no immediate answer.

"Don't you have to be politically connected to be the chief?" one firefighter wanted to know.

"I wasn't," Clack answered.

The final question: "Are you going to miss us?"

"Yes, I am," he replied.

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

Department comparison

............ ....... ...Baltimore Minneapolis

Population 636,000 372,000

Staffing * 1,695 426

Fire stations 40 19

Budget $140 million $47.6 million

Fire apparatus 55 27

Paramedic units 26 29 (city and county)

Medic calls 156,265 (2007) 22,199 (2006)

Fire calls 132,560 (2007) 49,404 (2006)

Structure fires 2,275 (2007) 959 (2006)

Civilian fire deaths (2007) 34 2

* Baltimore counts firefighters and paramedics; Minneapolis includes only firefighters; paramedics are assigned to the county health department.[Sources: Baltimore Fire Department; Minneapolis Fire Department; Extra Alarm Association of the Twin Cities Inc.]

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