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Chicago fire officials criticized for not attending meeting on race in FD

Aldermen, residents criticized fire department leaders for not being at a meeting about race, discrimination and lawsuits in the department


Members of the Black Fire Brigade talk to Ald. James Gardiner, 45th, after a meeting on racial disparities in Chicago Fire Department hiring practices, May 2, 2024, at City Hall.

Vincent Alban/Chicago Tribune

By Olivia Stevens
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Chicago aldermen and residents criticized Fire Department brass and officials from Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration for not attending a Thursday meeting on a lack of diversity in the ranks of the Chicago Fire Department.

A joint meeting of the City Council’s Police and Fire Committee and Workforce Development Committee addressed the long-running problem, which has prompted lawsuits over the years and calls for changes in the way the department tests prospective members and awards promotions.

But citing active union contract negotiations, key leaders declined to appear to hear the concerns of aldermen and affected residents, frustrating North Side Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th, and others on hand.

“We need people to answer questions,” Vasquez said. “If we don’t know what scenario we’re actually in, how are we going to improve it?”

Discrimination in hiring practices and denial of promotion opportunities were among concerns brought up during the committee meeting to improve the representation of Black people in the department. The CFD workforce is about 63% white and 90% male, according to the city. About 14.4% of the Fire Department is Black, compared with 30% of Chicago’s population.

Though early in the meeting chairs of the joint committee contemplated whether moving forward with testimony was even worthwhile without CFD and Johnson administration officials present, they soon called on advocates of increased diversity among firefighters to answer questions about their experiences with department hiring and promotion process.

CFD Lt. Quention Curtis founded the Black Fire Brigade in 2018 because he said he noticed a dramatic drop in Black Chicago firefighters compared with when he entered the force in the 1990s. The organization recruits and trains Black youth in the Chicago area who hope to become medical technicians and firefighters.

Curtis said during the meeting that the low number of Black firefighters fails to comply with the decades-old affirmative action provision of the city’s contract with the local firefighters union that establishes a goal that 45% of the workforce be Black and Hispanic. He said to help the city meet the standard, the Black Fire Brigade has tried to partner with the CFD to aid in efforts to hire more Black firefighters, but to no avail.

“We have to provide opportunities for these kids in the community,” he said. “Every time a fire truck pulls up in a Black community, they can’t see a Black firefighter. So if they can’t see me, they can’t believe me, they can’t become me.”

A major barrier to inclusive hiring, Curtis and other advocates said, is the mystery surrounding the entrance test required to become a Chicago firefighter.

Curtis said little is known about the lottery system used to select a group of 4,500 candidates who meet minimum requirements to complete the written exam only offered at select times each year. In addition, the CFD only recently stopped publishing the eligibility list so that those who pass the exam know where they stand in the hiring process, which is standard in other major cities where thousands of applicants may be considered in a single testing cycle.

“The first thing the Fire Department needs is immediate oversight,” Curtis said.

“We need a committee that looks at candidates who have been disqualified, you know, who’s making the decisions on disqualifications? We need to have an opportunity to look at that. We need pure transparency. A candidate should know exactly where they sit in the Chicago Fire Department .”

A federal judge in 2022 dissolved a court mandate on minority hiring within the Chicago Fire Department, finding that minority representation had increased substantially since its implementation in early 1980.

Several aldermen echoed the concerns of Curtis and others who testified and said they hope to hold another meeting with city leaders present to answer such questions.

However, the call for changes was not unanimous. Former firefighter and Ald. Nick Sposato, 38th, defended the city’s application process, saying toward the end of the meeting that aldermen can themselves provide updates to Fire Department applicants about the status of their applications. He also said those interested in becoming firefighters should seek openings at departments outside the city.

“There’s a whole load of fire department jobs out there, people, so check things out — it doesn’t just have to be Chicago,” Sposato said.

Still, Sposato said working for the CFD was “life-changing” for him, as it will continue to be for many others.

“I had a great job before it, but this was obviously the best job I ever had in my life,” Sposato said. “There’s nothing like helping people out. I loved it, and most people do.”

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