Rejected applicants decry new Chicago FD exam procedures that shrink testing pool
Out of 15,250 total applications the city received, only about 4,971 applicants were invited to take the exam
By William Lee
CHICAGO — Retired Chicago first responder Monica Davis said she and her son Eulice thought he’d have a leg up in landing a job as a Chicago firefighter-EMT during an upcoming exam thanks to city rules aimed at giving a preference to young city residents. City rules give preference in hiring to city residents, Chicago Public Schools graduates, those with relatives killed in the line of duty or armed services and veterans.
Not only was Eulice Hudson, 24, a city resident and high school graduate, he had completed training in the Black Fire Brigade, a nonprofit program that trains young adults as firefighter-EMTs and he’s enrolled in school for emergency medical technician training.
Soon after he applied to the Chicago Fire Department, he received a rejection email and was told that he hadn’t proven his city residency, his mother said. She added that a system glitch prevented her son’s credentials from attaching to his application and was later told that nothing could be done.
“It kind of broke his spirit because he’s doing all these things to be a Chicago firefighter and it’s just not fair,” she said after gathering Monday afternoon outside a Southwest Side fire station with the mothers of several applicants and others to speak out against the city’s newly implemented invite-only job application system. The new system was designed to have a pool of candidates that better reflects city demographics.
Gone is the old-school method where tens of thousands of applicants sat at once for a written exam resulting in a hiring list whittled in the hiring process. City officials have abandoned wide-open hiring events of the past for smaller, more diverse pools of candidates, adding that those rejected could reapply to take the test in two years instead of the approximately 10 years between each exam.
Out of 15,250 total applications the city received, only about 4,971 applicants were invited to take the exam that is scheduled to begin this Wednesday.
While the city touts the greater ethnic diversity of the pool, with 1,836 Hispanic applicants and 1,012 Black applicants, retired Black first responders believe the number of Black firefighters was being intentionally undercut by hiring more Hispanic firefighters.
“The City is committed to a recruitment process that will welcome a new group of firefighters that reflect Chicago and will help strengthen the mission of the department,” a spokesman from City Hall said in a statement. “We saw an increase in minority applicants and minorities invited to sit for the exam. In 2014, 44.13% of those invited to test were white. That’s down to 34% this year.” About 1,669 of applicants were white, according to city statistics.
Black FFs, EMTs, medics make up only 15% of Chicago Fire Department
Still far short of a goal of 45% minority representation, veteran and retired Black members fear that upcoming retirements will further reduce the numbers
Outside Engine 121 on West 95th Street, Davis and about a dozen others gathered to demand a halt to the exam until the city implements something similar to the old system, where a large group is tested at once. They also complained that the electronic system that accepted the applications failed to attach some applicants’ credentials that confirmed their eligibility for city preference points. Several of the moms were former city workers skeptical of the city’s commitment to diversity.
“What we want is for everyone to take the test and, let us be clear, while we’re fighting as Black elected officials for the Black community, what I am advocating for is for everyone to get a fair opportunity and that includes people who are non-Black,” said state Sen.-elect Willie Preston who stood beside fellow Democrat, state Rep. Cyril Nichols, and activist Andrew Holmes.
Gloria Hanna said her oldest son’s second attempt at applying for CFD went bust like his first attempt, and said inquiries to find out whether city preferences were applied to his application haven’t been addressed.
“I’m not just here for my son. I’m here for each person who has applied to take the CFD exam because I think it should be fair and should be equitable and everyone should be given a chance to take this exam,” said Hanna, who is also a retired first responder.
The Black Fire Brigade is run by a Chicago Fire Department lieutenant and aimed at training young city residents as a way of bringing more community members into a department where members with certifications can earn $100,000. The brigade had encouraged its hundreds of graduates to apply for the exam that is scheduled to begin this week.
City College graduate Lauren Lashley was one of the Black Fire Brigade students who didn’t make the cut for the exam, saying she didn’t receive a response from the city.
“I’m just here to be a voice for the younger women that’s been fighting to be a firefighter. For us to at least get a chance,” she said.
Despite CFD outreach efforts to minority groups, particularly African Americans, the number of Black firefighter-EMTs, the department’s most common rank, has fallen to third behind Whites and Hispanic firefighters, according to an April Chicago Tribune article. CFD hiring is built on racial fault lines that retired Black firefighters blamed old discriminatory practices that kept the Chicago Fire Department predominantly white, with a large number of Black hires in prior decades having been forced by legal action.
“We’re not getting to the real deal. ... We’re talking about equity and inclusion. We’re talking about transparency, period. That can happen right now,” said Nichols.
A City Hall spokesman did not address whether the city would postpone the exam and confirmed that an “error made in reviewing some application materials related to applicant preferences” was made, but said it was corrected and had “no impact on the result of this new exam process.”
Despite his early disappointment, Davis said her son planned to finish his EMT and then make another attempt in joining the Fire Department — as a paramedic.
“He’s still in EMT school. He said if he can’t take the test, he’ll go to paramedic school, through the backdoor.”
Established in 1872, members of Chicago's first Black fire crew strived to prove themselves
Engine 21's Stephen Paine invented sliding poles, and a second Black company was established in 1943