The City Council, in a divided vote, chose to reject Fire Chief John Thomas’ request to scrap the position of assistant chief.

Thomas wanted to eliminate the assistant chief’s position in order to establish a chief of administration post, which the fire chief said was necessary to upgrade the department.

The council’s vote came after a lengthy public hearing during which several firefighters asked the council to retain the position of assistant chief, although other firefighters spoke in favor of the changes Thomas sought.

Those voting in favor of abolishing the assistant chief position were councilmen Jason Hood and Mike Williams while councilmen Lemar Marshall, Bobby Martin and Johnny Blount voted to keep the assistant chief.

The assistant chief’s position has gone unfilled for several months after the person holding the job retired.

Thomas told the council that the Hammond Fire Department needs an administrator who can oversee the growing amount of paper work that has to be processed, along with communications and training of firefighters.

He said the position would be competitive and would go to the best qualified person. He said the post would be administrative and the person filling it would not have any authority in the actual fighting of a fire.

Under Civil Service rules that govern how the department is managed, the assistant fire chief earns the job based solely on seniority.

The firefighters who addressed the council contended that by abolishing the assistant chief’s position, they would be denied the chance to become an assistant chief.

Thomas countered that many of the firefighters now in the ranks realize they will never have the opportunity to become assistant chief because one of their contemporaries with only a few months more seniority could automatically claim the position.

Thomas said the department uses three district chiefs who are in command “on the ground” at a fire and handle other emergencies.

He said an assistant chief isn’t needed, but that he needed help with the administrative side of the assistant chief’s job, which has grown increasingly complex.

Ben Gerarve, a retired assistant chief who serves as president of Firefighter’s Union Local 2361 argued against creating the position of an administrative chief.

He said that firefighters who climb up the ladder should be rewarded for their many years of work and that the seniority system was the only fair way to select the assistant chief.