Chicago Fire Department hiring exacerbates racial divide

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The Chicago Fire Department has hired 300 firefighters and 162 paramedics this year to reduce runaway overtime, but the hiring spree didn’t do a thing to bridge the racial divide in a department that has long been lily-white.

Only 33 of the 462 new hires —s even percent — are African-American. The overwhelming majority—338 or 73 percent—are white. The list also includes 81 Hispanics or 17 percent of the pool.

Chicago Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago said Friday he hopes to reverse that trend on Dec. 13 and 14 when 23,375 applicants in three separate shifts arrive at McCormick Place to take the city’s first firefighters entrance exam in nearly a decade.

After an aggressive outreach, the applicant pool includes a better mix. It’s 44 percent white, 24 percent Hispanic, 22 percent black and 14 percent women.

“We had a team of firefighters, firefighter/EMT’s and paramedics who formed teams and were assigned territories throughout the city of Chicago. They were responsible for distributing information, attending job fairs. They went to events. We had a Facebook page,” said Adrienne Bryant, the Fire Department’s personnel chief.

“We also had billboards. We had ads in all of the community newspapers. We had radio. We also had 15-second ads in the movie theaters over Labor Day weekend. We did all kinds of marketing to let folks know who, what, when and where they could apply. It was a successful event.”

Santiago said he’s pleased with the “robust” recruitment to bolster minority involvement.

“We went out there, and we got the voice and the face of the Fire Department out there. We explained to the young people, `This is a great opportunity. You might not want to be a firemen this year, but maybe next year. Please sign up. This is a great job,’ “ Santiago said.

African-American aldermen were not appeased. Especially not after hearing some equally lop-sided breakdown for promotions. There were no African-Americans in the latest promotion to lieutenant.

“I’ve been in the City Council for seven years. These numbers look the same. I don’t know how we’re gonna achieve parity in the Fire Department,” said Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd).

Retiring Ald. Latasha Thomas (17th) added, “Throughout your ranks, you need more minority representation. And I don’t think we can have a plan that does that over the next ten or fifteen years. That’s really too long to wait.”

Santiago replied, “Our plan has always been to go ahead and create a large, diversified pool, a base. That’s why recruitment is so important to us. In order to get to the top, we have to have large numbers. … When we get these numbers put together, they put together, they work their way to the top.”

Two years ago, Chicago borrowed the $78.4 million needed to compensate nearly 6,000 African-American would-be firefighters bypassed by the city’s discriminatory handling of a 1995 entrance exam. The borrowing compounded the cost of a settlement that was twice as high as anticipated.

The city had already agreed to hire 111 bypassed black firefighters. The cash damages went to about 5,900 others who never got that chance.

Delays in settling that case were blamed, in part, for a hiring slowdown that prompted the Fire Department to wrack up $43 million in overtime spending last year and $28.3 million this year through the end of May alone.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposed 2015 budget includes just $20 million for Fire Department overtime.

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