Santiago succeeds mentor as fire chiefWritten by Patrick Timmis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
New Toledo Fire Chief Luis Santiago views his job as much more than putting out fires.
The chief’s responsibilities are not limited to running the fire department and directing the firefighters — the role also embraces politics, Homeland Security and response to non-fire-related disasters.
“2001 broadened our scope a little bit, and we’ve become really an all-hazards department,” Santiago said. “If there’s a problem … we’re going to be expected to deal with it.”
Santiago replaced former chief Michael Wolever on July 2, becoming the first Latino to hold that position in Toledo. Wolever served four years as fire chief, with Santiago as his assistant chief. The pair worked closely together to direct field operations and to shape the department’s practices and policy.
Santiago said Wolever was a mentor to him, involving him in the chief’s work and grooming him to be the next chief.
“We’ve pretty much been managing the department together for the last four years,” Wolever said. “If we didn’t both agree on something, we didn’t go forward with it.”
Santiago said he respected Wolever’s attitude that any decision they made would affect Santiago longer than himself. In fact, Wolever was more intent on Santiago becoming the new chief than Santiago was.
“I had much earlier in the relationship thought that Lou would be a good fire chief, and Chief Santiago was a bit reluctant to take it on, so we had some arm wrestling,” Wolever said. “Fortunately for all involved he acquiesced.”
Looking back and ahead
Wolever grew up in the Old West End and graduated from Central Catholic High School in 1966. After a couple of years in the Navy, a stint at the University of Toledo and an electrical apprenticeship, he joined the Whitehouse Fire Department in 1977 as a paramedic, drawn by the job’s excitement.
He moved to the Toledo Fire Department (TFD) the next year, where he began moving up through the ranks and met Santiago when he joined as a recruit in 1984. He viewed his occupation as a way to impact the lives of suffering people.
“You are what the people see at their lowest,” Wolever said. “Either you’re going to see someone who’s professional, compassionate and concerned with how they’re doing, or you’re going to see someone who’s not like that, and I chose the former.”
Wolever said major accomplishments have been developing a technical rescue team and his work with Homeland Security — he was the vice-chair for the Ohio Homeland Security Advisory Committee.
He also updated the process to become a battalion commander at TFD to reflect changing demands on the position. When Wolever and Santiago prepared to qualify for that rank, they had to memorize textbooks on fighting fires. Now, the chief administers a formal curriculum — designed in partnership with Bowling Green State University — tailored for battalion commanders.
“I think we both realized that the fire department was going to rely heavily on battalion chiefs being able to operate in this environment.” Wolever said. “So now they’re going to have a greater understanding of government and how it works and the political system and how it works.”
“We were preparing them to be street chiefs and not administrative chiefs,” Santiago added.
Wolever’s 33-year career at TFD ended July 1. The time felt right to retire, he said, and he does not have huge plans for the future.
“Chief Wolever, if you would consider what a fire chief was, he was truly a fire chief,” said Toledo Mayor Mike Bell, who as the former fire chief worked with Wolever and Santiago. “He was very strategic-oriented and he had a very good command presence at emergency scenes. That’s what he did, and he was very good at it.”
Santiago, who joined the department when he was 20, faces the challenge of upholding its performance in the face of tightened budgets, Bell said. He also has to deal with low staff levels and plans to bring on 25 to 30 recruits in the next year. But both his old chiefs believe he is up to it the challenge.
“He’s come through the ranks, so he has a pretty good knowledge of each position,” Bell said. “He’s very well-balanced, very stable [and] doesn’t panic in emergency situations.”
Wolever matches that confidence.
“The department becomes a huge part of you,” Wolever said. “I don’t think it would be easy to leave if the person who was your successor was less than what Chief Santiago is.”