City plans first firefighter exam in a decade

  • By MAX FOLLMER
  • Medill News Service
  • February 01, 2006 @ 12:38 PM
Chicago Fire Commissioner Cortez Trotter said Wednesday that he expects legal challenges to the upcoming fire fighter entrance exam, the first such test in 10 years.

A little under a year after a federal judge ruled that the 1995 entrance exam discriminated against African-Americans, Trotter appeared alongside Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley to announce the date of a new test to determine who is eligible to be a fire fighter or paramedic in the city.

"I anticipate some challenges," Trotter said during a news conference at Navy Pier. "Will this be above reproach or above challenge? I don't think any test is above reproach or challenge."

Fire Department officials have scrapped the old scoring system used in 1995 that grouped test-takers into categories such as "well qualified" and "qualified" based on their exam score.

In a March 2005 ruling, U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall agreed with the African-American Firefighters League's claim that the city's decision to randomly hire new fire fighters from the pool of "well-qualified" candidates discriminated against blacks. That pool of candidates had five times as many whites as blacks.

Fire officials will now use a pass/fail scoring system on the new exam. Applicants who score higher than a certain cutoff score will be considered as having passed the written test. There will be no categories such as "well-qualified" and "qualified," Trotter said.

Candidates who pass the new exam will be put onto a randomized list of people eligible to enter the Fire Academy. The Fire Department will fill new classes by working its way through that randomized list. Although Trotter said he expects thousands of people to apply for the exams, the department only has a handful of openings. The two cadet classes the academy offers annually each have about 60 recruits.

Chicago Fire Fighters Union Local 2 President John Chwarzynski said the new pass/fail system appeared to be problematic because it does not guarantee that the most qualified candidates will be hired by the Fire Department.

"In this country we have examinations to determine excellence," Chwarzynski said. "Someone who gets a 100 [on an exam] before someone who gets an 80 should be called first," he added.

Chwarzynski said that while the Fire Department appears to be doing everything it can to ensure that the city continues to have enough fire fighters on the streets, he said it is potentially problematic when the department only offers entrance exams every 10 years.

Trotter pledged on Wednesday to conduct an entrance exam every three years.

"Three years is a good mark," Chwarzynski said. "I hope the commissioner is able to deliver on that promise. It's never materialized once."

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