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James Clack

James Clack

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Fire chief heads for Baltimore

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT
  • Star Tribune
  • February 26, 2008 - 11:04 PM

Minneapolis Fire Chief James Clack announced Tuesday that he's leaving after just 14 months in his job to head the fire department in Baltimore.

Clack, 48, said he expects to leave in early April. Mayor R.T. Rybak plans to name an interim chief by March 26, spokesman Jeremy Hanson said.

Clack called Baltimore one of the few jobs he'd leave Minneapolis for, and said its location near the National Fire Academy, where he hopes to teach, is a factor in his decision. He's been with the Minneapolis department for 22 years.

He applied for Baltimore in December and had confirmed last week that he was one of three finalists after Baltimore began checking his references in Minneapolis. The appointment hasn't been announced in Baltimore but Mayor Sheila Dixon has scheduled an announcement for this morning.

Although he was named interim chief in April 2006, after Bonnie Bleskacheck's complaint-riddled term, Clack didn't get the job permanently until 14 months ago.

"I'm really sorry for the department because the rapid turnover now of two chiefs doesn't give it the stability it needs," said Council Member Sandra Colvin Roy.

Firefighter Tim Dziedzic called Clack a calm leader for a department that's been squeezed budgetarily.

Clack will have 40 fire stations to visit in Baltimore, compared to 19 in Minneapolis. He'll supervise 1,700 uniformed and 69 civilian employees, or almost four times the Minneapolis fire staff. The Baltimore department also handles ambulance runs.

He'll fight fires in considerably different conditions. Minneapolis is dominated by single-family homes, but of Baltimore's population lives in brick rowhouses where a fire can quickly mushroom. "It's a very dangerous place to be a firefighter," he said.

The department has seen plenty of second-guessing after a series of highly publicized incidents. According to the Baltimore Sun, a veteran firefighter was killed in 2006 while fighting a rowhouse fire, a death blamed on communication problems. A fire cadet died early last year in a rowhouse fire training exercise. In December, a ladder truck on an emergency run plowed into a sport utility vehicle, killing three people.

Rybak cited Clack's role in the Interstate 35W bridge collapse. He served as the unified incident commander, which meant he kept in touch with all agencies that responded to look for overlap and gaps in their duties.

One challenge for Clack will be diversifying Baltimore's force. He noted Tuesday in an interview that he joined the Minneapolis force in 1986 as it hired its first female firefighter and watched her struggles. After a long fight, the department has made large gains in hiring women and minorities.

But Baltimore was still hiring an all-white recruit class several years ago, the Sun reported.

Clack gained his job after Bleskacheck stepped down after only two years. That resulted from a settlement with the city that unfolded after her tenure was marked by lawsuits by subordinates.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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