Number low on newly hired black firefighters

December 2, 1999


A fresh class of Chicago firefighters needed to staff new basic life support ambulances started training Wednesday, but only 13 of the 120 new hires are African-American.

The 80 percent white rookie class shows newly appointed Fire Commissioner James Joyce was paying lip service to black aldermen when he promised to bolster the Fire Department's minority ranks, said Capt. Ezra McCann, who has long advocated bold steps toward affirmative action.

McCann is the black fire captain who touched off a political firestorm in 1997 when he leaked the videotape of a raucous 1990 firehouse party showing firefighters drinking, mooning and using racial slurs.

``It's business as usual. ... You will never achieve a diversified work force with numbers like this,'' McCann said Wednesday.

Joyce said his hands are tied by the next 120 names on a list of ``well-qualified'' applicants drawn by lottery after minorities fared poorly on a 1996 firefighters entrance exam. Five classes have been hired from the list and 300 remain.

The rookie class includes 96 whites, 13 blacks, two Asian Americans and five women, one of them Hispanic. They will be trained as emergency medical technicians and assigned to a dozen ambulances to be reserved exclusively for nonlife-threatening calls.

On the eve of Friday's City Council confirmation hearing, Joyce pledged to use the class as guinea pigs for an intense round of diversity training tailor-made to ease racial tensions in the Fire Department.

In the political fallout from the Engine 100 party, all 5,000 Fire Department employees were required to undergo four hours of sensitivity training. The intensified training is expected to last ``several days,'' according to Fire Department spokesman Will Knight.

But McCann said more is needed, noting that blacks comprise just 16 percent of the city's 4,800 firefighters and paramedics. ``If we're in the hole, how is 11 percent going to bring us out of the hole? If we don't see numbers like 60 or 70 percent of minorities coming onto the job, we're never going to diversify. We need to do the hiring now and put the race issue behind us.''

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