Former Chicago fire commissioner now deputy chief — in Carol Stream

Bob Hoff has been a firefighter for more than 35 years.

He twice received the Chicago Fire Department’s top award for bravery and rose through the ranks until he eventually was the man in charge.

When he stepped down in February as commissioner of the nation’s second-largest fire department, he planned to do some teaching at the Illinois Fire Service Institute and spend more time with his family.

Then he got a job offer to become deputy chief for the Carol Stream Fire Protection District, a 15-square-mile area that includes all of Carol Stream and parts of Bloomingdale, Winfield and Glendale Heights.

Since April, Hoff has been back at fire stations, going out on calls, overseeing training exercises and effectively serving as right-hand man to longtime friend and colleague Rick Kolomay, Carol Stream’s fire chief.

Now 56, Hoff says he still has a fire in his belly — no pun intended — even though he’s taken a job in a much smaller community with much less going on, and for less pay.

“To come here and start,” he said, “it’s a breath of fresh air for me.”

Leaving Chicago

Hoff, appointed as Chicago fire commissioner by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley in June 2010, says he was planning to retire last December.

“I had long talks with my wife. (The job) was seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. What worked on me the hardest — the city is very busy, fire-wise, EMS-wise — I was on the street a lot, at night, going to fires. You worry about your people. You don’t sleep at night. You listen to the radio 24/7.”

Insiders speculated Hoff’s move had to do with his opposition to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s budget-cutting plan to reduce fire truck staffing levels from five firefighters to four.

But Hoff says Emanuel “couldn’t have been nicer” to him, and when the mayor took office in May 2011, he asked Hoff to stay on a few months longer to see through the transition.

“He was really great to me.” he said. “All the baloney you hear about is just that — baloney. He was good, he’s dynamic, he was new, he’s full of energy. He wants a lot of good things for the city. It had nothing to do with him. It had to do with me personally shifting gears.”

Carol Stream calling

Hoff first met Kolomay in 1985 in a class at the state fire academy. Kolomay was the instructor, Hoff was the student.

Hoff later became an instructor himself, and the two co-authored a firefighting training manual in 2003.

By 2010, with Hoff at the helm in Chicago and Kolomay in Carol Stream, the two departments were partnering in training exercises.

Chicago firefighter candidates and officers used the training tower at Carol Stream’s headquarters on Kuhn Road, and Carol Stream officers and chiefs went to high-incident areas in Chicago to see fires and rescues — experiences that went “beyond any structured training” they would have otherwise received, Kolomay said.

In February, Kolomay proposed a reorganization of the district’s leadership posts. Then-Deputy Fire Chief Perry Johnson moved to a newly created civilian position, chief administrative officer, an office-based job overseeing the district’s finances, fire prevention bureau and information technology.

Hoff replaced Johnson as deputy chief, a sworn position that includes hands-on training and more day-to-day interaction with firefighters. Hoff is making a base annual salary of $115,000, slightly less than the $117,198 pension he’s collecting from Chicago.

“(Carol Stream) is smaller than Chicago, but what I look at, what (Rick) looks at, why we work so good together — it doesn’t matter the size, it doesn’t matter what the name on the patch says, because we’re all the same,” Hoff said. “The most important part of any fire department is the people. The people out here are no different than the people who are in the city of Chicago.”

‘It’s a passion’

Hoff, a third-generation firefighter, seemingly has been around the hook and ladder his entire life. And from a young age, he says he knew it was the profession for him.

When Hoff was 5, his father, a Chicago Fire Department battalion chief and assistant drillmaster of training, responded to an extra alarm blaze at a three-story apartment building at 70th Street and Dorchester Avenue.

He went in, but he didn’t come out.

The building collapsed and it took five hours for crews to recover his body.

“I can remember that day like it was yesterday,” Hoff said. “Valentine’s Day, 1962.”

His family’s story served as the basis for the 1991 movie “Backdraft,” starring Kurt Russell and William Baldwin. Director Ron Howard interviewed Hoff and his brother, a now-deceased former Chicago fire battalion chief, as well as a California family with deep roots in fire service.

The beginning of the movie shows a picture of Hoff’s brother holding their father’s helmet.

Hoff says that day was a “catalyst” for what he wanted to do the rest of his life.

“It’s a passion. I think because my father did it, I wanted to live up to what he did. He was into a lot of things that we’re into, (like) training. I guess I’m trying to fill his shoes.”

As a battalion chief, Hoff was awarded the Chicago Fire Department’s Carter Harrison award in 1992 and 1997 — the top honor bestowed for saving lives. In the first incident, he rescued two elderly people from a house fire fueled by a gas explosion. In the second, he saved 4-year-old twin boys who were trapped in a burning building.

Hoff says he was “in the right place at the right time.”

“I think anybody would’ve done it if they were in the same position.”

On the job today

Now at his job in Carol Stream, Hoff starts most days at 5 a.m. by going to the health club to stay in shape and keep up with the younger firefighters.

It’s important, he says, to set an example and pass on lessons that were taught to him.

As long as he stays healthy, Hoff says, he’ll keep doing the job in Carol Stream.

“I had a great run in the city of Chicago. I had a couple of rough days,” he said. “To start over again, it’s fun.”

Fire: Deputy chief says Mayor Emanuel didn’t prompt his move

  Carol Stream Deputy Fire Chief Bob Hoff says his new department is obviously smaller than the one he headed in Chicago, but “the most important part of any fire department is the people.” Paul Michna/
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