Lightfoot blames recruit negligence for COVID-19 outbreak that shut down fire academy

Recruits were told “over and over again what they needed to do” to stay safe but didn’t listen, the mayor said. But she and the firefighters union agreed adequate precautions are in place for department testing that started Wednesday at McCormick Place.

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A sign directs firefighters entering McCormick Place to the promotion tests being administered there starting Wednesday.

A sign directs firefighters entering McCormick Place to the promotion tests being administered there starting Wednesday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Wednesday blamed recruit negligence for the coronavirus outbreak that shut down the Chicago Fire Department academy and denied that testing for promotions now going on at McCormick Place poses a similar threat.

The fire academy was closed earlier this week for a deep cleaning, halting in-person training, after 46 instructors and firefighter candidates tested positive for the coronavirus.

Lightfoot said “a lot of precautions were put in place at the academy” to ensure training could continue safely during the pandemic. Recruits were “admonished over and over again what they needed to do when they left the academy” to stay safe and return the next day without endangering themselves, their families and their colleagues.

“Unfortunately, my understanding is that didn’t happen. And that was a significant problem. … People didn’t pay attention. They didn’t listen. They didn’t follow precautions. They were engaged in lots of activities after hours that put them and their colleagues at risk. I hope we don’t see a repeat of that. But [those are] the facts,” the mayor said.

“We can put rules and plans in place. We can advise people about what the best practices are. We can provide them with equipment and tools. But, all of this — as we’ve been saying since March — really comes down to the kind of individual decisions that are made by people.”

Training at Robert J. Quinn Fire Academy, 558 W. De Koven St., was temporarily suspended after multiple people tested positive for coronavirus.

Training at Robert J. Quinn Fire Academy, 558 W. De Koven St., was temporarily suspended after multiple people tested positive for coronavirus.

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On Wednesday, 116 Chicago Fire Department captains showed up at McCormick Place to take an exam for battalion chief. That will be followed by three days of exams for lieutenant, with up to 200 candidates per day on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Lightfoot was asked why the city is forging ahead with those tests during a pandemic when mask-wearing firefighters taking the exam “don’t feel safe” and the gathering of hundreds “violates the indoor capacity rule” in Illinois.

“I push back on some of the premise of the question. I don’t think that’s necessarily correct,” the mayor said.

“We’re having these … tests at McCormick Place, which is a massive indoor facility. And we’ve taken every precaution possible. It is not the same when you’re sitting for several hours in one test as opposed to the circumstances that happened at the academy.”

A spokesperson for the city’s Department of Human Resources said test takers would be “more than six feet apart and in individual cubicles that are approximately 10 feet wide with walls approximately six feet high.”

Masks will be required. Hand sanitizer will be provided. All “equipment and testing stations will be thoroughly cleaned between each test session,” the spokesperson said.

Jim Tracy, president of the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2, said union board members went to McCormick Place on Wednesday to observe the process. They were pleased with what they saw.

“Members were all in their own cubicle ... Checking in was done with social distancing 10 feet away from each other. There are 200 stations and extra computers should some not work properly,” Tracy wrote in a text message to the Sun-Times.

In January, hundreds of candidates who had studied for months in hopes of being promoted to lieutenant and battalion chief were sent home from McCormick Place after a widespread computer failure made it impossible to continue oral exams for both positions.

California-based CPS HR Consulting was paid $1.4 million to administer the oral exams, the first in eight years for lieutenant and the first for battalion chief in two years.

The city said the cost of the re-test would be absorbed by the vendor. It was not clear if the contractor also would be required to cover costs associated with having firefighters fill in for the test-takers.

This time, Human Resources said it took a “series of measures to ensure nothing but a seamless administration of the tests following technical difficulties experienced” in January.

“The problem earlier in the year had to do with the network. They have been testing it for the last four days and everything is fine. It’s the same company being used,” Tracy wrote.

As for the virus outbreak at the fire academy, Tracy said it will re-open in “about two weeks after all the candidates test negative” for COVID-19.

“It’s impossible to say it won’t happen again. Our job is hands-on work and the candidates need the training,” Tracy wrote.

“They are wearing masks and social distancing when possible. I just pray they all fully recover.”

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