Two high-ranking FDNY chiefs surrender titles in protest after commissioner demotes three other chiefs in shake up
After FDNY Commissioner Laura Kavanagh demoted three FDNY chiefs over the weekend, two of the department’s top uniformed officials gave up their own positions in protest, the Daily News has learned.
The turmoil in the highest levels of the FDNY began when Kavanagh demoted Assistant Chiefs Fred Schaaf, Michael Gala and Joseph Jardin to deputy chief, and then called other top chiefs on the carpet, multiple source told The News.
Outraged FDNY Chief of Department John “Jack” Hodgens, the most senior uniformed official in the agency, then voluntarily stepped down from his post in protest of Kavanagh’s move, with Chief of Fire Operations John Esposito following suit, the sources said.
Both men technically remain in their posts but will return to their civil service rank of deputy chief. They asked to be placed in their prior units. Kavanaugh was “disappointed” by their decision and hoped they would reconsider and not just throw it away “for a few bad apples,” sources said.
“We do not comment on personnel moves,” FDNY spokesman Frank Dwyer said Monday.
Kavanagh ordered the demotions Friday and then called in the department’s 20 appointed chiefs and said she had become frustrated in recent weeks because the chiefs had been pestering her for promotions and personal cars, department sources said.
But she said she hadn’t heard a peep from them about much more pressing problems like the spike in fire deaths in the Bronx and a pending critical decision on the purchase of air respirators for firefighters.
“She challenged them to stop focusing on their own perks and careers and focus on the people of this city, which is what they had originally signed on for,” said one source familiar with the meeting. “It was a call to action.”
A second source familiar with the sequence said Kavanagh did not do the demotions herself but directed an aide, Fire Lt. Tracey Lewis, to handle them. She also did not notify Hodgens or Esposito before doing it, the source said.
Hodgens and Esposito, the source said, wrote in their resignation letter they should have been consulted.
“You can’t send a lieutenant to fire people. You can’t do that,” the source said. “You can’t demote three guys and not tell the chief of department and the chief of operations. It’s a no brainer.”
Kavanaugh did not consult with Mayor Adams before making the demotions, the sources said. It was one of the unions that first alerted the mayor’s office to the demotions and resignations Sunday night, the sources added.
A spokesperson for Mayor Adams said Kavanagh “makes the personnel decisions she feels that are in the best interest of the FDNY.”
“It’s important for New Yorkers to know that the FDNY remains ready to respond in case of an emergency,” the spokesperson added.
The departures sparked criticism of Kavanaugh from at least one of the FDNY unions and concern about the leadership of the agency going forward.
“It certainly is a rebuke of the commissioner that culminated this weekend,” said James McCarthy, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association.
“But the biggest impact is on the safety of the people of New York City. We’ll be losing all this talent and fire experience and leadership at the top of the department. These are the people that come when a fire gets out of hand and cover the logistics and this is going to impact the way we protect the life and property of the city.”
The uproar comes at a time when the department is facing staffing struggles, retirements at the rank of deputy chief and continued federal scrutiny over its hiring practices. A slate of promotions are scheduled for Tuesday.
Hodgens made $242,193 in 2022 as chief of department. He’s a 36-year veteran who joined the department in 1986 and has been twice cited for bravery. He was named to the post in July and Kavanagh called him at the time “forward-looking and innovative.”
A former colleague of Hodgens told The News, “He is the most honorable individual I ever met in the FDNY.”
Esposito was named chief of fire operations by Kavanagh also in July after serving as commander of Special Operations including the rescue and hazardous materials units.
Schaaf, Gala and Jardin are close to retirement age. All three, one source said, were not pleased with the direction Kavanagh was taking the FDNY.
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“They wanted to stick with the status quo, and that’s not what we are trying to do here,” a source said.
Schaaf was the Queens borough commander when allegations of racism were made in one of the firehouses. Sources said he resisted transferring and disciplining some of the firefighters.
Jardin was chief of fire prevention where he objected to allowing buildings to self-certify their fire safety systems, sources said. But he also was the subject of a series of EEO complaints over his tough-guy management style. The Fire Prevention Division also has the largest black workforce in the FDNY.
Gala, a disciple of former Chief of Department James Leonard who clashed with Kavanagh, sued alleging he was passed over for promotion for criticizing a diversity push in the FDNY. His current responsibilities were unclear Monday. Gala was considered a divisive element in the department, the source said.
Sources said other chiefs may step down on Tuesday.
Despite the upheaval, the source said, fire operations continued through the weekend, overseen by the citywide tour commander.
“We still have a deep bench of talent that will step in and keep the city safe,” the source said.