Chicago Fire Department still dominated by white males, aldermen told

Of the city’s 4,767 firefighters and paramedics, 65.2% are white, 16.6% are African-American and 15.9% are Hispanic. The department also is over 90% male.

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Chicago Fire Commissioner Richard Ford II (right) testified Wednesday at his City Council budget hearing.

Chicago Fire Commissioner Richard Ford II talks to a department employee after testifying Wednesday at his City Council budget hearing.

Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

A Chicago Fire Department with a long and documented history of discrimination and racial hijinks remains an overwhelmingly white and predominantly male bastion, disappointed aldermen were told Wednesday.

Fire Commissioner Richard C. Ford II delivered the cold, hard statistics during his turn on the hot seat at City Council budget hearings.

Of the city’s 4,767 firefighters and paramedics, 65.2% are white, 16.6% are African American and 15.9% are Hispanic. And, they are over 90% male.

The numbers for CFD brass are even whiter.

With an eye toward the 2021 firefighters entrance exam, Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) asked what the department will do to improve those dismal numbers.

“The Police Department — they really blast, trying to get black radio and everything, posting fliers, all our officers trying to get minority participants to apply. Do you all do that, too? Do you have a budget to do that?” Burnett said.

“Well, no,” Ford replied. “We don’t right now have the funding to do that. But [the budget office] is going to assist us in doing some recruitment. But you’re right. It should be cable. It should be TV. It should be social media — blasting the colleges so that we, in fact, reach out to young people.”  

Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th) urged the department to advertise more.

“The Police Department … does a really good job of trying to penetrate the African-American community in terms of, ‘Be the Change.’ They recruit African-Americans,” Scott said.

“Your numbers are low. … You’ve done a great job of kind of diversifying management. What we haven’t done is penetrate the African American [community]. I’d really like to see more African Americans in the rank- and-file.”

Even more surprising — and disappointing to some aldermen — was the commissioner’s claim that the 450 female Chicago firefighters represent the largest contingent of women of any big-city fire department in the country.

Ford brushed past reporters seeking to question him about why so few women apply for the job. History may have something to do with it.

Under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Chicago taxpayers spent nearly $2 million — and $1.7 million more in legal fees — to compensate dozens of women denied firefighter jobs because of a now-scrapped physical test of upper-body strength.

A dozen women who wanted to become paramedics subsequently accused the fire department of devising two new physical agility tests equally biased against women.

One test required candidates to climb six flights of stairs with a 250-pound dummy in eight minutes. The other requires candidates to step onto and off of an 18-inch-high box to the beat of a metronome for 2 minutes without missing a beat while holding 25-pound weights in each hand.

The latest in a string of lawsuits filed in federal court alleged both tests were “invented to eliminate women” in a department where “discrimination against women is stubborn and purposeful.”

Last year, the department was accused of creating a hostile work environment in which women are sexually harassed with impunity by superiors and a “code of silence” covers it up.

The federal lawsuit filed by five female paramedics alleged the department “directly encourages” the illegal behavior by failing to “discipline, supervise and control” its officers and by intimidating and punishing women who dare to report the harassment.

Also under Emanuel, Chicago resolved a legal battle he inherited stemming from the city’s discriminatory handling of the 1995 firefighters entrance exam.

The city agreed to hire 111 bypassed African American firefighters and borrow the $78.4 million needed to compensate thousands more who never got that chance.

Three years ago, the African-American Firefighters and Paramedics League urged the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate their allegations of hiring and disciplinary discrimination at the Chicago Fire Department.

They argued a 1980 consent decree should be amended to require roughly 30 percent of all firefighters across all ranks to be African American, reflecting the city’s population.

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