The man chosen to take over as Baltimore's new fire chief talked frankly yesterday about easing racial tensions and his desire to improve safety and professionalism as the city's department recovers from the deaths of two firefighters and a cheating scandal.
James Sterling Clack, a 22-year veteran of the Minneapolis Fire Department, still must be confirmed by the City Council. He would take the helm of a fire department that is four times larger and significantly more complex than the one he has led for the past two years.
"I'm a diplomat," he said, "and I believe in relationships. Any time there is a crisis, those skills are critical in getting though those crises. ... I can't manage a 1,700-member fire department myself. I can bring a lot of ideas to the table."
While he did not detail specific plans for Baltimore, he said he has read about racial tensions at the department and reviewed the investigations into two recent firefighter deaths, including the scathing 121-page report that concluded that 50 national safety standards were ignored during a live burn training fire that killed a cadet.
Mayor Sheila Dixon said she picked Clack from among 40 applicants because she was impressed by how he handled the rescue operation after the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, which killed 13 people and sent more than 180 plummeting into the Mississippi River.
The mayor said that as an outsider, Clack might be able to change what has become a bitter workplace.
"I think a fresh mind sometimes creates a different environment within an organization," she said. "There's a culture in our agencies that needs [a] little fire under its feet to get folks moving a little differently in providing an effective and efficient service."
The new chief is expected to start in April and will take over from acting Chief Gregory Ward, who has led the department since William J. Goodwin Jr. resigned in November. If confirmed, Clack would be the first outsider to lead the city Fire Department, according to Kevin Cartwright, a department spokesman.
Clack said he has no plans to bring staff with him from Minneapolis. "I think this department has plenty of talent internally," he said.
Rocco Forte, the Minneapolis director of emergency planning and retired fire chief who promoted Clack in the past, said the chief would evaluate what the Baltimore Fire Department needs with a methodical eye. He said Clack had been good at identifying outside sources of funding to help fill needs of the Minneapolis Fire Department.
"He will be able to look at the operation plans [and] do the gap analysis to identify the shortcomings, and he'll look for the dollars to close those gaps," Forte said.
Clack has been trying to secure federal grants to make up for staffing shortfalls at the Minneapolis Fire Department, according to the Star Tribune. The shortfalls have taken a toll on firefighters there, with a 10 percent increase in fire-related injuries during his tenure.
"We were short-staffed," he said. "We hired a class in January to try to alleviate that."
In Baltimore, Clack will have to soothe both a jittery command staff and the rank-and-file firefighters who have been through a tumultuous year in which the mayor dismissed a commander and top staff members have left the department.
Clack has demonstrated grace in such public controversies. He became acting fire chief after then-Chief Bonnie Bleskachek was put on leave while the city sorted out multiple sexual discrimination lawsuits that drew national attention.
At the time, he said he played a role of shuttle diplomacy between Bleskachek and the City Council - many of whom initially wanted her fired. She ultimately was demoted to captain and still works for the department.
"She is doing a great job, which is a testament to what we were able to accomplish though a very tough time," Clack said yesterday. "To have her still working for the Fire Department successfully and being accepted again is another great accomplishment, I think."
But the extent of racial tensions in the Baltimore department will be new to him. He noted yesterday that Minnesota is not a very diverse state.
Yesterday, before he was officially introduced at a news conference, Clack met with about 40 members of the Vulcan Blazers, the city's black firefighters organization, and faced questions about appointments and recruitment.
"We talked though those things," Clack said. "I think honesty is important and putting those things on the table and not trying to pretend there are not tensions."
Henry Burris, president of the Vulcan Blazers, said the meeting was candid. "I gave him a brief history of the Fire Department and the racial tension from its inception to the present," he said. "He fully understood them. He felt that his philosophy was to be inclusive rather than exclusive.
"We will not prejudge him," Burris said. "We will give him ample time to do things that are needed to correct the problems in the Baltimore City Fire Department."