Questions over Rochester fire chief’s qualifications

Local News

Rochester’s new fire chief Willie Jackson does not appear to meet the new state standards for fire departments with 5 or more career firefighters.  

Mayor Lovely Warren’s office is responding to this News 8 investigation saying the new standards took effect after Jackson was appointed and the questioning of his qualifications is at least partly based on race.

The new qualifications list provides several ways to qualify for chief: (1) Have Fire Officer 3 certification from the National Fire Protection Association, or NFPA, (2) have NFPA Fire Officer 2 certification plus a certain amount of secondary education or a combination of specific experience and other certifications, or (3) have state certification and 10 or more years of service as a fire chief.

Chief Jackson’s resume shows he does not fit into any of those qualification options.

Bruce Heberer, a board member of the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs, says the new standards represent minimum qualifications.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Heberer said. “We (fire chiefs) are ultimately responsible for everything that happens on the fire ground and although experience is a huge factor in the process, education is also required.”

We took all this to City Hall because it was Mayor Warren who appointed Jackson- who had become deputy chief in 2016,  having been a lieutenant before that.

Her office sent over a letter that called Jackson the best choice to lead RFD saying,  “He has risen through the ranks for over 22 years, and most recently led the education of our firefighters as deputy chief of the fire academy.”

But Warren’s office did not refute our findings that Jackson doesn’t meet the qualifications.

Instead, they implied questioning Jackson’s qualifications is racially motivated saying, “Chief Jackson is the son of one of our city’s first African-American firefighters, who over 50 years ago experienced discrimination and racism. Now, an anonymous attack is attempting to discredit Chief Jackson, calling into question the motivation behind such an attack.”

By “anonymous attack,” the city is referring to the news tip News 8 initially received about this from someone in the fire service.

The same letter does address an error on Jackson’s resume.

Jackson said he was graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Chief Officer Program, but that program does not exist.

Former Fire Chief John Schreiber says he had encouraged Jackson to enroll and take courses at the NFA and, when asked, Schreiber says he told Jackson to categorize that education as the “Chief Officer Program.”

“I have known Chief Jackson for over 20 years. He is a man of tremendous integrity who continues to be dedicated to serving our community. I regret if any counsel I provided him has caused anyone to doubt this,” Schreiber wrote in a letter.

All of this surprised the lawmaker behind the law that resulted in the new standards, Assemblyman Peter Abbate, a Democrat from Brooklyn.

“With a department like that you’d think there would be some oversight,” he said. “You’d think the men and women of the department themselves and the local union should be looking into it.”

The local union, IAFF Local 1071, declined to comment for this story.

Of note, the qualifications list became mandatory on Jan. 20 of this year, meaning anyone who was chief before then is grandfathered in.

Jackson was unanimously approved by City Council on Jan. 15.

The dates do not mean much to Abbate.

“Even if he was appointed a day or two before it, it seems a way to get around the intent of the law,” Abbate said.

Back to the letter, Warren’s office says the new qualifications “affect most fire departments throughout the county, and it seems most current chiefs do not meet these new standards. The reason why only Chief Jackson’s experience is being questioned is highly suspect and troubling.”

But, in fact, this new list only appears to affect 5 other fire departments in Monroe County (Ridge Road, Ridge Culver, North Greece, Gates, and Henrietta) and News 8 did question the chiefs there.

3 of the 5 chiefs said they met the standards and the other 2 told News 8 they were only one test away.
Most of them, without prompting, praised the qualifications list saying their profession needed better standards to better ensure safety.

One chief, though, did worry the qualifications are more trouble than they’re worth and will impact several departments across the state.

Willie Lightfoot, who leads City Council’s public safety committee, fully supports Jackson as chief and maintained Jackson qualifies for the job through his experience as a firefighter, lieutenant, and deputy chief.

News 8 has requested the resumes for the leaders of both the Buffalo and Syracuse fire departments, but neither has produced anything.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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