Blazing Battles

Mike Newall, Philadelphia CityPaper, July 7

The Philadelphia Fire Department recently announced a new entrance exam which will open the job of firefighter up to a new crop of candidates for the first time in four years. Ten thousand men and women are expected to sign up for the test, tentatively scheduled for mid-fall. All applicants are offered an extensive study booklet. Those that pass will be ranked in order of their scores and placed on a hiring-eligibility list. Then candidates wait in hopes that their number is called for one of 300 likely vacancies.

Skin color will play a large role in determining the next batch of Philly’s Bravest.

For years, a court-ordered consent decree has mandated that each fire class be 12 percent African-American, regardless of whether candidates rank near the top of the list [News, “Smoke and Quotas,” Brian Hickey, Oct. 23, 2003]. The decree has long been controversial among firefighters but today, the heated debate is threatening to boil over.

A group of 400 predominantly white firefighters—armed with department documents they say prove the city has consistently been eclipsing the quota and passing over hundreds of more-qualified white firefighters—is calling for a complete re-examination of the department’s hiring practices. The newly founded group, a local chapter of the Chicago-based Concerned American Fire Fighters Association (CAFFA), is already backing one member’s claim of reverse discrimination against the department, which is currently being reviewed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

There have also been four claims of reverse discrimination brought against the city by white fire candidates in recent years. All were settled when the city granted the candidate employment in a subsequent fire class.

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During a 2003 arbitration hearing, former Commissioner Harold Hairston testified the racial breakdown of the department ought to mirror the city’s population. Fire classes consistently exceeded the 12 percent decree during his tenure. According to department records obtained by CAFFA, from 1997 to 2002, 80 additional black candidates were hired in place of white candidates with higher scores. In one class, more than 800 higher-scoring candidates were passed over before the department could fulfill the decree. That statistic, Philly’s watered-down entrance exam—which many firefighters describe as a “comic book test”—and the fact the physical portion of the entrance exam was abandoned to help women get on the job lead some firemen to believe the department is compromising quality for quotas.

“It’s scary,” says Bresnan. “These are people you might have to rely on to save your life someday.”

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