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City Council’s Black Caucus wants to delay Fire Department exam to boost diversity

Mayor Rahm Emanuel visits class 111 firefighters-in-training Chicago Fire Academy Friday April 6 2012. | Phoby Patrick L. Pyszka~City Chicago

Mayor Rahm Emanuel visits a class of 111 firefighters-in-training at the Chicago Fire Academy on Friday, April 6, 2012. | Photo by Patrick L. Pyszka~City of Chicago

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Updated: May 13, 2012 8:18AM

The City Council’s Black Caucus is urging Mayor Rahm Emanuel to postpone the Chicago Fire Department’s April 21 promotional exam for battalion chiefs or risk locking in a lily-white leadership team for the next decade.

Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), chairman of the Black Caucus, said it makes no sense for the mayor to embrace and encourage 111 middle-aged black firefighter-trainees who finally got the chance to pursue their dream thanks to a court order without addressing the lack of diversity among Fire Department brass.

The problem will only be perpetuated if Emanuel insists on proceeding with the April 21 battalion chief’s exam, Brookins said.

The Fire Department currently has 14 African-American captains, three of whom will be retiring in November. That leaves 11 who have signed up to take the exam, the alderman said.

If the test is put off until February or March, an expected wave of retirements could pave the way for as many as dozen more African Americans to be promoted to captain. That would dramatically increase the pool of African-Americans eligible to take the battalion chief’s exam, Brookins said.

“We are concerned about the potential leadership of the Fire Department in the future. By not having more African-Americans taking the exam, we will retard the ability of people to move up for another decade,” the alderman said, noting that the battalion chief’s exam is given every six to eight years.

“It’s well-documented that the number of African-Americans in the Fire and Police Departments is a paltry number which in no way reflects the racial make-up of Chicago. It’s time to turn the page on that chapter.”

Emanuel’s office did not rule out the possibility of postponing the exam.

“We are committed to building a Fire Department that is diverse in both rank and file and leadership — and [new commissioner] Jose Santiago is exploring every opportunity to do this,” the mayor’s office said in a prepared statement.

“The Fire Department is also working with the Black Caucus on this particular exam issue to review options and determine the best course of action.”

Federal hiring monitor Noelle Brennan, who must approve any decision to put off the exam, could not be reached for comment.

Lt. James Harvey, a relief officer in the Fire Department’s 6th District, is among those waiting to be promoted to captain. That would make him eligible to take the battalion chief’s exam.

“If this exam is given in April, you’ll only have nine blacks who’ll be taking the exam out of 187 possible captains. As a result, these people will lock up these positions and you won’t have any black chiefs with the exception of those nine for the entire city,” Harvey said.

“If the exam is postponed for six months, and you wait for those 200 people retiring, those positions will open up and allow at least 11 or 12 more blacks and one Hispanic to take the chief’s exam. If we don’t do that, those positions will be occupied by approximately 96 percent white firefighters.”

He added, “If we don’t diversify, the Fire Department will revert back to pre-1980, when we didn’t have any diversity. The Fire Department needs to reflect the racial make-up of Chicago.”

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