Chicago firefighters praised for opening doors to black youth

The Chicago fire department has come a long way from its former 'old boy's network' to an equal opportunity department

By Fran Spielman
The Chicago Sun-Times

CHICAGO — In 2004, a racist transmission over fire radio got a white firefighter transferred out of Chicago's predominantly black Austin community for fear the racist attitude might translate into lax fire protection.

What a difference six years makes.

On Tuesday, black aldermen whose complaints about racial tensions and lack of diversity hastened the appointment of the city's first African-American fire commissioner sang the praises of the Chicago Fire Department.

"There has been a systematic and seismic change in the receptiveness of the department to go out into the community and open the doors to the community," said Ald. Freddrenna Lyle (6th). "Children would bypass fire stations. They'd peek in and run. Now, they have relationships with firemen. They go in. Firemen come out. They fix bikes for 'em and all sorts of wonderful things."

Lyle went out of her way to praise Nick Russell, the former president of the African-American Firefighters Union who is deputy commissioner in charge of the Fire Prevention Bureau. Russell spent years protesting hiring and promotion practices and received an anonymous death threat during the 2004 uproar over racist radio transmissions.

"When young [black] boys look up there and they can see Russell, they say, 'I can do that, too,'" Lyle said.

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), chairman of the City Council's Police and Fire Committee, applauded the "wonderful" outreach program in which firefighters distribute 20,000 smoke detectors and install 3,500.

After testifying at City Council budget hearings, Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff was asked how the Fire Department managed to transform its image.

"Everybody reaches out. People know that won't be tolerated. They'll be disciplined. They'll be fired. It's proven. I mean — we're here to do our job," he said.

In 1999, a $410,000 consulting study portrayed the Chicago Fire Department as an "old boys' network" that divided employees between black and white, strikers and non-strikers and firefighters and paramedics.

Copyright 2010 Sun-Times Media, LLC

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