At least 20 of the 111 black firefighters hired by the Chicago Fire Department after a marathon discrimination lawsuit had not been medically cleared by a department physician before starting work and two of them “suffered serious medical events and died while off-duty,” the city’s inspector general disclosed Tuesday.
Under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Chicago resolved a bitter legal battle the mayor inherited from former Mayor Richard M. Daley stemming from the city’s discriminatory handling of a 1995 firefighters entrance exam.
The city agreed to hire 111 bypassed African-American firefighters and borrow the $78.4 million needed to compensate nearly 6,000 African-Americans who never got that chance.
Two weeks ago, Emanuel proudly pointed to that legal resolution as he fended off demands by an organization of African-American firefighters calling for the dismissal of Chicago Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago and a federal investigation into what the group says are racist policies at the Fire Department.
“We settled that. Paid out somewhere around $60 million to $75 million to the individuals. Then produced the class for  individuals to fulfill their dreams of becoming Chicago firefighters,” the mayor said.
On Tuesday, Inspector General Joe Ferguson added a new chapter to the long-running legal saga.
In his quarterly report, Ferguson disclosed he had conducted an investigation that revealed that “at least 20 firefighters” in the so-called Lewis class of African-American firefighters “had not been medically cleared” by a Chicago Fire Department physician before starting duty, contrary to “national standards” and the city’s own “established practice.”
“Two of the 20 improperly cleared members suffered serious medical events while off-duty and died not long after they began their full duties, highlighting the importance of a CFD physician to provide medical clearance for all new firefighters,” Ferguson wrote.
“OIG strongly urged that CFD consider immediate action to assure that the remaining 18 members who had not been medically cleared by a CFD physician were, in fact, medically fit for duty. OIG further urged that CFD devise and implement a formal medical clearance policy consistent with national standards to assure that similar deviations did not occur in the future.”
The Chicago Fire Department responded to the inspector general’s findings by claiming that all 111 black firefighters had been “medically examined by an outside vendor” that reviewed the candidates’ medical history and conducted a physical exam and blood tests.
The Fire Department’s own doctors then conducted an “initial review” of the outside vendor’s files to “either clear the candidate” or order “additional steps,” including follow-up exams by the candidate’s personal physician or retesting if initial blood tests showed “anomalous results.”
But the Fire Department acknowledged that department physicians “fell behind” in its subsequent review of applicant files aimed at making certain those additional steps were taken.
“CFD further [acknowledged] that, operating on the advice of counsel and in order to ensure compliance with a court-imposed hiring deadline, it decided to have administrative personnel conduct a limited and administrative follow-up review of the medical files of 53 yet to be cleared candidates,” Ferguson wrote.
Those administrators ultimately cleared 19 of 53 candidates and rejected 34 others whose documentation was incomplete. The Fire Department subsequently acknowledged that a 20th candidate “may have been administratively cleared.”
Joshua Karsh, an attorney representing the 111 black firefighters, said the Chicago Fire Department “did not set out to do black firefighters any favors” by failing to clear them adequately for duty.
“The department’s history of discrimination against both minorities and women makes that utterly implausible,” Katsh wrote in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times.
“Instead, the news here, and unfortunately it’s an old story, is that too often when the Fire Department’s hiring practices are subjected to scrutiny, whether for hiring firefighters or for hiring paramedics, what we discover is that the department’s practices lack validity.”
In his quarterly report, Ferguson disclosed that a “current and former” medical director for the Chicago Fire Department told investigators that administrative personnel performing the document check “lacked the medical judgment necessary to evaluate” whether candidates met the required medical standards for the rigorous job of being a Chicago firefighter.
Even when a candidate’s file contains a letter from a family doctor attesting to a candidate’s fitness for service, a CFD doctor should “evaluate that letter in the context of any accompanying test results before clearing the candidate,” Ferguson said.
National standards clearly state that when medical evaluations are conducted by a doctor or medical provider other than the Fire Department’s own physician, the evaluation must be reviewed and approved by the Fire Department’s own doctors.
After the first of the two cleared firefighters died, the Chicago Fire Department hired an outside doctor with “particular experience with fire service requirements” to conduct a more thorough review of the medical files of the 19 other candidates “administratively cleared,” Ferguson said.
Six of those 19 candidates “should not have been cleared without further inquiry regarding medical conditions of concern,” Ferguson wrote.
“Soon after, a second of the 19 administratively-cleared candidates died while off-duty. Both of the firefighters who died were among the six candidates who the outside doctor identified as having medical conditions warranting further inquiry, which CFD has acknowledged,” the inspector general’s report states.
Three of the four surviving administratively-cleared firefighters for whom the outside physician recommended additional screening later “experienced a medical issue unrelated to the condition of concern,” Ferguson disclosed.
The Chicago Fire Department’s medical staff “subsequently cleared all three as fully fit to return to duty” after a wellness exam that did not include blood tests and other “diagnostic components” that are part of a candidate’s screening process. The fourth firefighter “had no occasion to be evaluated” by department physicians.
“CFD stated that it had discussed performing a medical exam for all the administratively-cleared firefighters and was willing to pursue such examinations, but was advised by outside counsel that doing so would be improper and potentially violate” the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA),” Ferguson wrote.
“Going forward, CFD noted that its current medical director ‘has developed detailed internal operating procedures that follow National Fire Protection Association standards, which the department is now following.'”
The Chicago Fire Department’s “Medical Division Handbook” dated June, 2015 states that a CFD physician must “make a final medical clearance determination on applicants,” Ferguson wrote.