Spotlight: Steve Chikerotis
The real-life heroes behind our shows lay the foundation for our fictional first responders to be portrayed as accurately as possible. Steve Chikerotis, known lovingly as Chik, is an invaluable member of the Chicago Fire team, bringing knowledge and experience from his 36-year career in the Chicago Fire Department to every step of the process. His expertise positions the cast and crew to capture a firefighter’s varying degrees of emotion and roots the series in scenarios that don’t stray too far from reality. We spoke with Chik to hear all about his history in firefighting and film, his favorite moments on set, and what it means to work in his home city.
Q: You worked with the Chicago Fire Department for 36 years — can you tell us about your career journey? What inspired you to become a firefighter?
A: Starting out, I didn’t know too much about the fire department. At the time I was going through college and I thought I wanted an action job, so I had a roofing company and had taken the Chicago Police test.
One day, we were putting a roof on a large factory, and there was a tremendous explosion inside. It almost knocked us off our feet. The door flew open and about 50 factory workers and office workers sprinted out of there. A girl about my age stopped to kick off her high heels to run faster, looked up at me, and told me to get off of the roof and run. My crew and I ran across the street, and then I heard sirens, saw the flashing lights, and watched these heroic firefighters run into what I had just run away from. That’s what inspired me. I went and took the test, worked really hard, and ended up being number 31 on a test that 30,000 people had taken.
That led me to a wonderful career. I always worked for the busiest companies and spent most of my time on the rescue squad. I was on Squad 2 on the west side of Chicago, where I did crazy stuff like going over the edge of high-rise buildings on a rope to rescue a window washer or jumping out of a helicopter into Lake Michigan for boat accidents. I gravitated toward the excitement of it all.
Q: You’ve now been working as a consultant for Chicago Fire for 12 years — how did you end up in this role?
A: From the beginning, I’ve had a dual career, working in two industries at the same time. I’ve worked in the film industry for over 30 years now. I was a technical advisor on the movie Backdraft (1991) with a second AD at the time, John Roman. 22 years later, I was in my office as a deputy district chief, and I got a phone call from John Roman asking if I would help out on a television project.
A couple of hours later, John, who became our first line producer on Chicago Fire, and I are having lunch with Derek Haas and Michael Brandt, the creators of the show. At that lunch, I was pitching ideas for the show on a bar napkin, many of which we still do today. We got along well and we were firing off each other’s ideas and enthusiasm.
Q: What is it like to consult and produce for Chicago Fire? What does your job entail?
A: As a consultant and producer, I do a lot on the average day. I pitch storylines to the writers, and I am constantly fielding questions from the writers as they’re going through the outline process and script process. I attend concept meetings, production meetings, and location scouts, as well as meet with incoming directors to go over the script and break it down for them.
On set, I’m there to train actors on technical issues like using tools, ladders, hose lines, and executing rescue techniques with an eye for safety. I also serve as an advisor for the director and cast for whatever they may need while shooting. Because of my fire background, it’s certainly a dream job for me.
I also have a recurring role on the show as Chief Walker. I’ve played that role around 25 times over the first 11 seasons. My favorite scene we did was when I called Herrmann into my office and denied his promotion, and he went off into a comical tirade that can be heard down the hallway.
Q: What is the process of working with the show’s writers? What kind of training and information do you offer for the cast and crew?
A: When we first started 12 years ago, we had an initial training session. I set up a boot camp at our Chicago Fire Academy and I had all the actors and some of the writers attend. Going through that allowed them to understand what the job’s about, what the technical skills are, and what the mindset of a firefighter is like. I was so blessed for 36 years to work with such a noble breed of selfless people who throw their lives on the line for total strangers every day. However most people don’t see it, because we work in dangerous situations with little visibility.
Our show enables people to see through the smoke and witness what’s actually going on. I always stress the emotional aspect of the job to our showrunner and our team of seasoned writers. Firefighters live roller coaster rides throughout their careers. You have the highs all the time, like when you change the course of someone’s life or save them, but you also have the lows when you’re losing lives or seeing people maimed and losing everything.
The next morning the sun comes up and you have to go home to your own family like nothing’s happened — but it has happened. We try to bring those emotional experiences into the show, along with a sense of humor. I think our cast and writers do such an excellent job portraying the actual life of firefighters, and I’m just so proud to be part of it.
Q: What does it mean to you to have this show based in Chicago, the city you were born and raised in?
A: It’s wonderful. When Dick committed to bringing Chicago Fire, and eventually Chicago Med and Chicago P.D., to the city, it brought a lot of jobs with it. Like I said, I’ve worked in the industry for so many years, but that was always my side job. I always felt terrible for crew members in Chicago, because we’d shoot one movie and then there would be lulls. Chicago wasn’t like LA or New York at that time, but now we have studios and so many brilliant, talented crew members locally, and we can support several TV shows and movies at the same time. Dick Wolf and the Wolf Pack offered a tremendous opportunity, and the people of Chicago picked the ball up and ran with it.
Q: Do you have a favorite episode of the show?
A: I always come back to Season 5, Episode 6, called “That Day.” In the episode, Boden returns to New York City for the first time since 9/11, in this case 15 years after the fact. Boden’s journey really mirrored my own. On September 11, 2001, I was running training for the Chicago Fire Department. As soon as the second plane hit, we put together a team of a hundred Chicago firefighters and took off for New York City, where we stayed for several days. It was emotional, like it was for the entire country. On a personal level, losing 343 firefighters was incredibly hard. I myself had not gone back to Ground Zero since 2001.
We cast a friend of mine, a retired chief from New York named John Salka, as Boden’s friend in the episode. The plot of the episode is that it is Salka’s last day, so Boden goes to visit him and takes Severide and Casey along with him. It was emotional for me when we filmed. We were the first crew that was allowed to film at the actual site, right by the memorial. When it aired, I got countless calls and emails from the families of firefighters that died that day, thanking us for the heartfelt tribute. It was really, really special.
Catch up on all episodes of Chicago Fire on Peacock.