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Smoking out iffy Fire Dept. policies

Carl Johnson is a candidate rejected by the Chicago Fire Dept. Monday, April 16, 2012 | Brian Jackson~Chicago Sun-Times

I don’t blame the president of the African-American Firefighters and Paramedics League for being concerned about the latest training class at the Chicago Fire Academy.

After all, the welcome mat hasn’t always been out for black firefighters, a circumstance that has played a role in the continuing lack of diversity among the ranks.

Last year, when a federal appeals court ordered the City of Chicago to hire 111 black firefighter applicants who were passed over for jobs decades ago, and the fire department put them in a class by themselves, it seemed a victory.

But Gregory Boggs is now worried the second chance is seriously flawed.

“[The Fire Department] passed over some applicants who were weightlifters, some avid runners, a professional body builder, even a Chicago police officer, because their CK levels were too high,” Boggs said.

CK stands for creatine kinase. High levels of CK in blood can be a sign of damage to the heart or other muscles. African Americans and people with large muscle mass, however, tend to have higher levels of CK.

Boggs is worried that some of the most qualified applicants may have been shut out because of the CK tests.

“If the applicants don’t make it, you don’t get an alternate or replacement,” he said. “If they don’t make it, you just lose those jobs. The way the [Chicago Fire Department] is doing the training this year, they are setting them up to fail.”

Under the court ruling, the city has to pay into the pension fund for each applicant who is hired as if they were hired 12 years ago.

Boggs also alleges that the Chicago Fire Department is using uncertified instructors to train the African-American class.

“Some of the instructors have less than five years on the job,” he said.

Larry Langford, a spokesman for the Chicago Fire Department, denied that any of the disqualified applicants were excluded solely on CK levels.

“We know that certain folks were rejected if there was a reason, but I don’t think someone was told that the elevated level was the reason,” Langford told me.

He also defended the academy’s use of “adjunct” instructors.”

“They are there to assist and kind of supervise the candidates to make sure they are on target,” he said.

Meanwhile, the disqualified applicants aren’t convinced they got a fair shake.

Carl Johnson, 41, a barber, said he had been working out four days a week, two hours a day and drinking regular protein drinks when he was called in for his physical. Although his doctor cleared him for higher CK levels, he was disqualified by the city.

“I took the test and passed it in 1995. Now it’s happened again. What made me curious was the fact that there were a lot of people over 50 who actually made it in. It raised suspicions about why the younger, more healthier people didn’t make it and the older people did,” Johnson said.

Steven Watson, 44, who works for the Chicago Transit Authority, said he had to stop working out and drink a lot of water to get his CK level down.

“I took [results] in and they told me it was too late. I didn’t even know there was a deadline,” he said.

About three weeks after taking the initial test that revealed a high level of creatine in his system, Shondrea Hopkins, 38, said he was asked to repeat the test.

“I got the info back to them and my levels were normal,” he said. “I never heard anything back from them. My thing is, we were told that we had the job and I lost my job over this.”