Huffpost Chicago

Chicago Fire Department: Fifteen Years After The Test, Would-Be Firefighters Contemplate Job

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CHICAGO — When Aldron Reed took a test in 1995 to try to get into the Chicago Fire Department, he was 25 years old and had been out of the Navy less than a year.

Now, at 39, Reed works at a suburban Chicago chemical company and says there would be a lot to consider if the department offered him a job to resolve a long-running discrimination case – including whether he wants to move back to the city.

Chicago says it's ready to hire firefighters if a court orders it to after the U.S. Supreme Court decided Monday that a group of black applicants didn't wait too long to sue over a test they challenged as discriminatory.

Physically, Reed is sure he's up to the job. "Of course I'm older but I'm still in decent shape," said Reed, one of the plaintiffs who lives in the Chicago suburb of Justice.

If the city is ordered to hire, there won't be an age restriction on the new recruits because there wasn't one when the applicant test was administered, said the city's corporation counsel Mara Georges. Currently, people can't enter the fire academy if they've turned 38, said fire department spokesman Larry Langford.

Another plaintiff, 47-year-old Anthony Sturdivant of Chicago, said he wouldn't leave his job as an assistant superintendent of building services at the University of Illinois at Chicago for a chance to join the department.

"I'm 20 years into my job now, 10 more years I get a nice little retirement so I'm not trying to start all over again," Sturdivant said.

The Supreme Court's decision sends the case back to a lower court and Georges said the city would hire the would-be firefighters if the court determines it should. City officials say about 111 recruits could be employed.

"We stand ready and willing to do so, but we need some ruling from the 7th Circuit (Court of Appeals) first," Georges said.

The city estimates damages and pension obligations in the case could be as high as $45 million.

The court action is the latest in a case challenging a 1995 test that was used to cull applicants who hoped to become firefighters. It's also the latest episode in a department with a history of acrimony over racial issues in hiring.

In 2001, a group of white firefighters lost a Supreme Court appeal that challenged an affirmative action plan to promote minorities in the department. In the 1970s, the federal government sued the city, alleging that the department discriminated against blacks and Hispanics.

In this case, officials told applicants who scored below 89 but above 64 on a 1995 test that they had passed but likely wouldn't be hired as firefighters because a large number of test-takers had scored 89 or above. The majority of those in the top-scoring group were white; only 11 percent were black.

The city's firefighter applicant test is now pass/fail, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said.

"For decades we have tried to diversify the Chicago Fire Department," Daley said. "But at every turn, like most cities, we have been met with legal challenges from both sides. Still, this administration remains committed to ensuring that the department more reflects the racial makeup of the city."

The 5,000-member department is about 19 percent black and about 10 percent Hispanic, Langford said.

In a landmark case last year, the Supreme Court said in a 5-4 decision that New Haven, Conn., violated white firefighters' civil rights, throwing out an exam in which no African-Americans scored high enough to be promoted to lieutenant or captain.

People are supposed to sue within 300 days in an employment action, and Chicago claimed that clock started ticking when it announced how the test scores would be used in January 1996. The first lawsuit wasn't filed until 430 days after the test results were announced.

The plaintiffs argued there was a new act of discrimination whenever the scores were used in hiring firefighter trainees between May 1996 and October 2001.

A U.S. District judge had agreed with the plaintiffs and ordered the city to hire 132 randomly selected black applicants who scored above 64. The court also ordered the city to count up the back pay and divide it among the rest of the applicants. But the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision.

City officials say they would have to hire about 111 applicants because a statute of limitations means one pool of applicants is no longer included. The city also has since hired others who were originally told they wouldn't get the chance to be firefighters.

Sturdivant said he did get a letter several years ago inviting him to take a physical for the department but by then he was long established in his current job.

Working in the fire department was a dream when he was younger.

"It was considered a prestigious job and it was something that I always wanted to do," he said.

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Associated Press Writer Jesse Holland in Washington contributed to this report.