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`I believe I have a lot of answers'
After being introduced Thursday as the next fire commissioner, Cortez Trotter told the story of watching as a child when a firetruck rumbled through the Stateway Gardens public housing complex, where he lived.
He recounted how he looked on in awe as the firefighters battled a small blaze nearby, then felt the excitement as a white firefighter leaned over the side of the ladder truck and said hello.
It was telling that Trotter, who is African-American, chose to share that anecdote, however gilded it has become with age, as he inherits a department divided over race.
A man known by friends and colleagues as a demanding but understanding boss, Trotter, 49, said he is up to the challenge of taking over a department dogged by questions about its response to a deadly Loop fire last October and stung by slurs voiced over its radios.
"I don't want to sound like I have too much bravado, but I believe I have a lot of the answers to a lot of the problems," Trotter said Thursday. "There won't be anyone at this department who will work any harder than I will."
As the city's first African-American fire commissioner, Trotter is viewed by some as the perfect person to heal tensions in the department and create a more inclusive atmosphere.
"Just his personality and his management style will bring more sensitivity to the communities in Chicago, which are very diverse," said Ald. Latasha Thomas (17th).
Trotter grew up on the South Side with his mother and five siblings.
He called his mom an inspiration, who raised her family in public housing but moved them out when she got the means.
The family moved to south suburban Markham when Trotter was a preteen. He graduated from Thornridge High School in Dolton and joined the Markham Fire Department as a part-time firefighter and paramedic at age 18.
He returned to Chicago in 1976, when he was hired as a paramedic with the Fire Department. He steadily rose through the ranks, often forgoing his college education because of repeated promotions. Although he still does not have a college diploma, he is pursuing a degree at Dominican University in River Forest and an MBA at the University of Chicago.
He was named an area supervisor, then a district officer, then assistant chief. In 1999, he became first deputy commissioner.
He was put in charge of the city's 911 center two years later and was tabbed to take over as commissioner Thursday, when James Joyce announced his retirement, effective at the end of the month.
Trotter said he had been told about the promotion by Mayor Richard Daley weeks ago but kept it quiet out of loyalty to Joyce and a sense of discretion.
They are traits, friends and relatives said, that Trotter has always exhibited.
"That's the kind of guy he is," said state Sen. Donne Trotter, his cousin. "He's not heavy-handed. I wouldn't call him a micro-manager. He's detailed in all operations. If there's a problem, he doesn't rest until he finds a solution. If anyone can find out what's going on with the miscommunication, or the perceived miscommunication, at the Fire Department, Cortez is the guy."
Described as a religious family man, Trotter has earned a reputation as a hard worker who at times has ruffled feathers.
Trotter admitted he can be demanding. He often works past 9 p.m. and asks his chief officers to work late as well.
"I will ask people to step up with me," Trotter said. "I'm not asking people to follow me down the barrel of a cannon, just give me as much as you can give to help this department grow."
Patrick Kelly, a field officer for the city's emergency management services, was Trotter's first partner when he became a paramedic in 1976. In the years since, Kelly has often sought out Trotter for advice and believes he is the right person to lead the department.
"He's extremely fair with people," Kelly said. "If somebody is found to be less than competent in the role they're playing, they may find themselves to have a little bit of difficulty in dealing with him. But he will find a better way for that person to contribute."
Trotter minimized the significance of being the city's first African-American fire commissioner. He said his race will make no difference as he tries to sort out the recent problems of racial epithets aired over department frequencies.
He said he has a plan for the issue but was coy about specifics.
"I don't want to disclose it because I don't want to put people on the defensive right away," Trotter said. "Some of it has to do with technology, some of it has to do with training, and some it has to do with supervision."
Battalion Chief Nick Russell, president of the African-American Firefighters League, said he would wait and see how Trotter implements his ideas to combat racism in the department, but he likes what he hears so far.
"He speaks from the heart and on a high moral ground," Russell said. "That's where the Fire Department should be. It will give respect and get respect."
Rev. Jesse Jackson called Trotter's appointment a meaningful step toward recovering the credibility of the department.
"Cortez Trotter is smart, and he has experience. He has respect of the order because he came through the ranks," Jackson said. He called Trotter a very religious man with high ethical standards.