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Bridge Collapse Hero to be Baltimore Fire Chief

MINNEAPOLIS — The leader of the rescue effort in last summer’s Minneapolis bridge collapse will take command of Baltimore’s beleaguered Fire Department this spring, Mayor Sheila Dixon plans to announce today.

Minneapolis Fire Chief Jim Clack, 48, won widespread praise for his response to the Interstate 35-W bridge collapse and also earned renown for turning around a department that had been embroiled in sexual discrimination lawsuits.

“He comes to Baltimore with an outstanding reputation in the business of firefighting and the business of running a fire department,” said Sterling Clifford, a spokesman for the mayor.

Clack will start in April. His compensation package has not been finalized, Clifford said. Clack will take over for acting Chief Gregory B. Ward, who has held the position since November when William J. Goodwin Jr. resigned. Forty people applied for the job.

“I will always consider Minneapolis my home, but this is a tremendous professional opportunity and something that I could not pass up,” Clack said in a statement released by Minneapolis officials yesterday. “I take great pride in the Minneapolis Fire Department and in the professionalism, courage and commitment to public service that each member of the department shows on the job every day.”

Clack, who has been a firefighter for 22 years, could not be reached last night for comment. He is expected to appear at the mayor’s 11 a.m. news conference today.

Richard G. Schluderberg, president of Baltimore Fire Fighters Local 734, said yesterday that he knows little about the new chief.

“I don’t think I want to burn down a bridge before I build one,” he said in withholding an opinion.

Schluderberg said he was not surprised that the mayor picked an external candidate for the job.

“I can certainly understand going outside in light of what happened to our department over the past year and a half, so let’s give the man a chance,” he said.

Bigger agency
The Baltimore Fire Department is four times the size of the department that Clack commanded. The city has roughly 1,600 firefighters, compared with 414 in Minneapolis, according to that department’s Web site.

In the past 18 months, two city firefighters have died while battling blazes – one a cadet who perished after a poorly executed training exercise – dealing severe blows to department morale. Investigations found that 50 national safety standards were ignored during the training exercise.

Clack has walked into difficult situations before. Several Minnesota officials praised his ability to calm tensions in the department after controversy swirled around his predecessor, Bonnie Bleskachek, who became the nation’s first openly lesbian fire chief of a major city.

Several female firefighters sued Bleskachek for harassment and sexual discrimination – all alleging that they were denied opportunities to advance because they are women, according to news reports at the time.

Bleskachek, who has denied any wrongdoing, was removed in 2006 after the mayor said she had “showed exceptionally poor judgment” and that her “actions were irresponsible and … jeopardized the reputation of the city and the department she led.”

Dan Winkel, president of the Minnesota State Fire Department Association, said he met Clack last fall after the chief agreed to join the association, which is made up largely of volunteer departments. Winkel said he has been impressed with Clack’s quiet, patient approach to the job.

“You’ll find him to be wanting to converse with people. He wants to find out what people are doing,” Winkel said. “You’ll definitely see him wanting to learn more and asking questions.”

Clack has held the top job at the Minneapolis department for about two years – first as acting chief and then as chief. His response to the collapse of the bridge that links St. Paul and Minneapolis has been the defining event in his career.

“Clack’s calm, collected leadership during the I-35W bridge collapse was one of the main reasons we were able to so effectively respond to one of the most serious disasters Minneapolis has ever known,” Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said in a statement. “We are sad to see him go.”

Clack was the unified incident commander overseeing rescue operations after the bridge collapse. Previously, he had served as an assistant chief of training, an EMS officer, deputy chief of personnel and assistant fire chief.

Doing it right
In a recent interview with the University of Minnesota News he said of the bridge collapse: “It’s a disaster that is going to be studied by Homeland Security to figure out what we did right.

“We rescued 50 people in an hour and a half and that is pretty impressive. It makes me have a lot of confidence that we can handle just about everything,” he said.

In the interview, Clack characterized himself as “a rural guy.” He said: “That is where I feel most at home – out in the country.”

Clack holds a bachelor’s degree from Southwest State University in fire administration. He is pursuing a master’s degree from St. Mary’s University. He is married and has three college-age children, according to his local newspaper, the Star News of Elk River.

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