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Thursday, July 1, 2004 12:47 am

Fired up

Springfield finally gets serious about recruiting black firefighters. Now all it needs is a generation that doesn’t remember its racist past.

art1195
Cover photo by Ginny Lee

Like a lot of little kids, Cecil Taborn Jr. always wanted to be a firefighter. Part of that dream was inspired by his neighbor, David Irwin, a Springfield Fire Department firefighter. Growing up on the East Side, Taborn lived half a block from Irwin, known to everyone as "Wolfman." So when Taborn had the chance to try out for the fire department, he called Irwin for advice.

"He just told me it was a great job, and he said hopefully you'll get on," Taborn says.

Taborn passed all the tests, ended up number eight on the hiring list, and graduated from firefighting academy in December 1999 -- just as Irwin was retiring. "He told me he was glad somebody from the neighborhood got on, and hopefully you can get somebody else on," Taborn recalls.

It was only after he started working at SFD that Taborn fully understood what Irwin meant: On a force of 211 firefighters, there were only two other blacks. In fact, Taborn's hiring marked the first time in almost 15 years that SFD had hired an African American.

As happy as he was to be a firefighter, Taborn was a bit stunned to discover the lack of diversity on the department. "I was like, 'Man, this kinda sucks,' you know?"

He's doing everything he can to improve the situation. At the recent Juneteenth celebration in Comer Cox Park, Taborn was there in his SFD uniform, standing in front of an SFD display and calling out to passersby like a carny barker, trying to coax anybody remotely resembling a 20-to-34-year-old to consider taking the "coming-on" test SFD has scheduled for later this summer.

From the number of takers, though, he might as well have been hawking rebel flags and old Billy Ray Cyrus CDs.

Taborn finds this reaction baffling. "I just don't see why more minorities don't want to take the test," he says. "I tell people this is a great job, great benefits, a great group of people to work with -- why don't you want this job?"

SFD's campaign to recruit minorities is so new, it's still in the formative stages. There's a video, but no Web site, no full-time recruiter, no written plan for attracting minority candidates. Capt. Mark Dyment, who handles recruiting along with about five other assignments for the fire department, has tagged along at job fairs with Springfield Police Department recruiters and realized how much better the police department's presentation looked than his. "They're way ahead of us," he says.

Even Taborn, who staffed a booth for SFD at the state fair last August, agrees. "SPD has been doing it a whole lot longer than the fire department," he says. "They have their stuff together! Their game is better."

SFD's lack of focus on minority recruitment shows in its scandalously low numbers: less than 1.5 percent black in a community that's 13 percent black. That's down from a department high of 10 or 11 black firefighters on a force of about 90 in the 1960s. And of the three black firefighters on the force now, two are over 50 years old, and will soon be eligible to retire. Because the fire department conducts hiring tests only once every two years, the test scheduled for later this summer (the first practice tests will be given July 10) could prove crucial. If no African Americans are hired this go-round, Taborn could become the city's only black firefighter.

Why would there be so few minorities on a job where the main requirements are a high school education and brute strength? One clue comes in the unique lifestyle. Firefighters work 24-hour shifts; they eat and sleep at the fire station. Not so long ago, firehouses were segregated, just like restaurants and motels.

In Springfield, Fire Station Number 5, located on the East Side was known as "the colored house" (originally at 1310 East Adams St., now at 18th and Clay). Its staff, all black until the late 1950s, was given both the equipment and the duties deemed undesirable by the white firefighters. It wasn't necessarily the kind of job that would inspire sons to follow in their fathers' footsteps. And SFD didn't try to recruit minorities because it needed only enough to staff Number 5.

Later, when the police department began accepting minority officers, black applicants who were interested in civil service jobs often opted to be cops instead.

But it wasn't just a lack of burning desire that kept African Americans from being firefighters. Tales of good ol' boys slipping payments to powerful people in return for passing grades, jobs, and promotions are accepted as historically accurate legend on the Springfield Fire Department.

"These are all things I've heard. The way it was years and years ago, if you wanted to be on the job, if your dad was on the job and he knew someone, he would give them money or whatever and you would get the job," Dyment admits. "But as long as I can remember, when I took the test, it didn't matter if you had pull or not."

Frank Edwards, who was chief of the department from 2000 through 2001, was aware of those yarns.

"I've heard the same rumors. People say that in the old days, you used to be able to pay to come on the fire department, probably the police department, probably City Water, Light and Power. It was probably all that way," Edwards says. "Thank god that's not the case anymore."

In 2001, the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city of Springfield complaining of discriminatory hiring practices by both the fire and police departments. The city signed a consent decree promising to "implement and maintain a recruitment program aimed at attracting qualified African-American, other minority, and female candidates in increased numbers and proportions to apply for firefighter and police positions."

In the same document, the NAACP promised to aid in those recruitment efforts. Today, the branch labor chairman, James Johnson, is trying to help Dyment and Taborn wheedle minorities into applying for SFD.

"Most reactions are that guys don't know nothing about the fire department. Once you start telling them about the benefits, the hours, and the money, people want to hear about that stuff," Johnson says. "Most people didn't know that firefighters start off at $33,700 per year and in four years they're up to almost $50,000. Who doesn't want to work for money like that?"

Of course, some potential candidates say they don't like the idea of going into burning buildings. These days, however, almost 70 percent of the calls firefighters respond to are "aid" calls, involving no flames whatsoever.

"We're like nurses in the field," Dyment says. "Every time someone calls 911, we show up -- car wrecks, shootings, stabbings, drug overdoses, strokes, anything."

But after going through academy and being taught how to handle fire, most firefighters find they enjoy the heat. "You're not going in there by yourself. You know what you're doing; you get all that in training," Taborn tells people. "Me, I can't wait for the next fire. I love it."

Elmer Renfro could be waiting for the next fire. Even though he retired from the fire department in 1999, his big brick home near Number 5 hums with the constant chatter of a scanner. He seems to take pride in telling how he never liked firemen, didn't want to take the test, didn't plan to respond when he got a letter from the city of Springfield offering him the job. It's as though all that initial reluctance proves that his eventual passion for firefighting was real.

He became a firefighter in 1966 at the insistence of his father, who reasoned it would provide a salary during the winter, the slow season for the family's trucking and excavating business. It took a couple of years on the job for Renfro to discover he loved it. By that time, he also realized something was wrong at SFD.

"I didn't like the way they treated the fellows at Number 5 engine house," he says.

The guys at Number 5 got second-hand, second-rate equipment: the old dishes, the fire truck that carried only 250 gallons of water. They had to pay for the same linen service that was provided free at other stations. And when a white firefighter was sent to work at Number 5, he was given a lock for his food locker, new dishes, new bed sheets, and occasionally even a new mattress.

After a couple of years, Renfro finally rebelled against this system. In an incident that's now legendary in the department, he requested a new lawn mower for Number 5. The chief and an assistant delivered a lawn mower, but it clearly wasn't new, and it bore the logo of station 4.

"They said, 'Well, we bought [Number] 4 a new one, and we brought you theirs.' And I said, 'Then tell 4 to come cut the damn grass.' And I threw it at them. I actually threw the lawn mower at them," Renfro recalls.

The chief took the mower with the "4" on it away and returned with the new mower. Renfro realized he had made his point.

"That's when it started. I said, 'Hey, all you gotta do is say something and you can get what everybody else has got.' So until the day I left, that was my attitude," Renfro says. "If I had a beef, I'd go right downtown and go right up in the chief's office. Didn't bother me, not one bit. And if I saw the mayor, I'd tell him, too."

It helped that Number 5 was known as the hardest working station in the Springfield Fire Department. Firefighters called it "a running house." It covered alarms across the city, from the eastern edge as far west as MacArthur Boulevard.

Once, they passed by Number 6 on their way to fight a fire in 6's territory. Someone on the Number 6 crew remarked, "There goes the African Express." When Renfro heard about it, he was furious.

"When it got back to me, I went right downtown, and I told the chief, 'Look, if I ever hear another statement like that, I'm going to go and clean 6 out. Or wherever it happens. And I mean that.' And he knew I meant that," Renfro says. "He went out and had a talk with the guys out there -- if he ever heard anything like that again, somebody's head was going to roll."

This kind of support from the chief wasn't unusual. Renfro served under a variety of chiefs, all white, of course. But he has story after story about how they took the right side when confronted by racism.

"There was one fire that I went to on Whittier Avenue, and for some reason, we're the first ones at this house. I get the hose off, and I'm going to start to fight this fire, and this lady just point blank said to me, 'I don't want no nigger fighting a fire in my house.' I said fine. So I just sat on the damn rig," Renfro recalls.

"When the chief came, he was angry. He said, 'What are you doing?' I said, 'You go ahead and put the fire out, then I'll tell you about it.' And when I told him, he said, 'I don't blame you, Elmer.' "

But there were some indignities Renfro never forgave. For example, his first year at SFD, he discovered that black firefighters weren't welcome at the Fireman's Ball. So in all his 33 years on the department, Renfro never attended a Fireman's Ball.

"I was asked a lot of times, and I said, 'No, you only do that to me once and that's it,' " he says.

Another slight he never forgave was not getting to be chief. By 1987, he had achieved the rank for division chief, second in command over the entire department. And tradition dictated that when the chief retired, the division chief would move up. But when the time came, the city of Springfield adopted a new system for choosing its fire chief -- a system that included making a video and bringing your wife along to a breakfast meeting with the selection committee. Renfro wrote the committee a letter stating his strenuous objection to these changes, and his refusal to make a video or participate in a breakfast interview. He never got to be chief.

Still, to this day, he is grateful his dad talked him into becoming a firefighter.

"Before he died," Renfro says, "I let him know that I was glad he made me take the job."

The next black firefighter hired by SFD applied for exactly the same reason Renfro did -- his father made him do it. David "Wolfman" Irwin attributes his 29-year career on the department to some "kind of forceful encouragement" from his dad.

"Daddy was right, though. It ended up to be the best thing for me," Irwin says. "I loved every minute I was on there."

After passing all the tests, Irwin had to jump through one more hoop before he could draw his first paycheck from the city of Springfield: he had to get his buck teeth pulled. The procedure cost him five months of seniority, and puzzles him to this day. "I never used my teeth to fight a fire," he says.

Unlike Renfro, he didn't campaign to correct the injustices he saw at the fire department. When he took the test for driver/engineer and was graded in what he thought was a discriminatory manner, he made a futile attempt to file a complaint, and then just opted out of future promotional tests. "It did discourage me and Clarence Bailey [another black firefighter]," Irwin says. "We always figured they had their eight, nine, 10 boys lined up that they wanted, so why mess with it? I just couldn't suck up or kiss up. That just never was my thing."

Besides, Irwin also discovered he'd rather not drive the engine; drivers had duties that kept them from getting into the action. "I hated the days when the driver didn't show up and I had to drive. I wanted to be in the house," Irwin recalls. "I wanted to be where the heat was at."

Eventually, Irwin achieved the rank of driver/engineer after the department eliminated the test -- which was only a formality, because any firefighter could drive the engine -- and switched to a seniority system. At that time, Irwin was surprised to find that he had been on the department longer than any other firefighter.

Aside from that one promotional test, Irwin didn't inventory the incidents that he felt may or may not have been racially motivated. "The fire department wasn't as blatant as the police department in discrimination," he says. "You knew when you were liked and when you were disliked. I mean, it wasn't hard to figure out."

What kept racial tensions lukewarm at the fire department, Irwin believes, was the reality that blacks were so outnumbered. "We weren't no threat. We weren't in any command. Most of the [black] captains were right here at 5; they didn't really go to other houses, so nobody had to worry about a black man giving them orders," he says. "If there had been four or five black captains, it might've been a different reaction."

Possibly in hopes of witnessing that experiment in his lifetime, Irwin -- unlike Renfro -- has agreed to help Dyment with his recruitment efforts.

Fred Phillips is also enthusiastic about helping enlist minorities. Phillips, at age 50, is the most senior black firefighter, and he's in line to be promoted to captain soon.

Charles Washington, at 51 the oldest black firefighter and a driver/engineer, takes a more neutral stance. "I'm not going to recommend come on or not come on. Just make a conscious decision," he says.

He believes promotions are tied to political connections, and calls Springfield "the most corrupt city in the most corrupt state in the union." But even Washington says 80 percent of his co-workers are the best, most decent guys you could ever want to meet. Ten percent are jerks, he says; 10 percent are "racist nazis."

And Phillips, who tends to be more jovial than Washington, agrees. "Racist -- that's a harsh word. But I would use that word," he says.

Half-black and half-Japanese, Phillips was asked to choose only one race on a form he filled out with his 1980 recruit class. Though he looks more Asian, he chose black. "I picked the one that would give 'em the most shock value," he laughs. "And I'm definitely proud. I feel my roots from both sides."

One of the older guys on the department tried to nickname him "Leroy Kawasaki," but it didn't stick.

Washington was the target of more harmful pranks. He says that years ago, his bed was sprinkled with an itching powder that caused him to break out in a rash. Worse, his breathing apparatus was jimmied on two separate occasions. Because all those incidents occurred at station Number 1, he avoids working there.

But Washington and Phillips also say such experiences are nothing unique to SFD; they would probably encounter some degree of racism on any job. Phillips, who has his hopes up for a young bank employee planning to take the firefighter exam, has already told this potential recruit that whatever he might face at SFD would also be a problem at the bank. "It may be white collar, but eventually it's the same thing," Phillips says.

"Anyway, when we put our rig gear on to go into a fire, we're all equal. We're following the red hat."

Cecil Taborn, the youngest black firefighter and the one most actively trying to help enlist more minorities, says the one response he simply doesn't understand is when people tell him they'd rather be cops.

To Taborn, "cops" is a noun most people preface -- fairly or not -- with an assortment of adjectives he won't say and we couldn't print anyway. Firefighters, on the other hand, are the good guys, he says.

"Firefighters show up and they know we're there to help -- whether it's a house fire, an aid call, or your cat's stuck in a tree," Taborn says.

The differences go a little deeper than that. Even though the criteria for employment are similar, the eventual pay range is comparable, and the two departments frequently answer many of the same 911 calls, they attract different personalities, and have distinctly different workplace cultures.

For example, it's not uncommon for a new police recruit to be mustered out during his or her probationary period. In the fire department, that's almost unheard of. Police are governed by a sheaf of rules and procedures thick enough to work as a baby's booster seat, whereas firefighter guidelines are slim enough that they could be ripped by the average driver/engineer. Furthermore, while the police department has an internal affairs office where officers can report complaints against each other, most conflicts at SFD are settled the old-fashioned way.

"We get in fights, we get in arguments, but we settle it in-house," one firefighter says. "For example, I know two high-ranking guys and one said something inappropriate to the other. He grabbed him by the neck and was gonna kill him -- and almost rightfully so. And what we did was we all got up and walked out, to let them deal with it. No one wanted to witness it. And that's the way it's always been in this department."

One thing they have in common, however, is that both departments are in a desperate race to get qualified minorities approved by a civil service commission whose procedures have lost all transparency. The last SFD exam included oral interviews given more weight than ever before, yet produced a recruit class of all white males. Some of the highest-ranking applicants -- according to a list showing scores representing written, oral, and physical tests -- were disqualified for flunking background investigations or psychological evaluations.

Don Craven represented eight of those disqualified applicants in a lawsuit that succeeded in revealing the grounds for disqualification, but not in giving the applicants any means to correct information in their civil service files. He describes the psychological evaluation and background investigation as "hoo-hah" designed to allow the city to manipulate the selection process.

"We ask to have opportunity to supplement information in the record, and the city said no, and they won. They have built the perfect mousetrap," Craven says.

Mayor Tim Davlin recently held a press conference with SFD Chief Bob Bartnick to announce new procedures for the upcoming test. Not only will applicants who took the 2001 test be allowed to keep their written test score, but also all applicants will be invited to take one practice written test and a half-dozen practice runs of the physical agility test. "The pre-agility test is something that's never been done before," Davlin said.

Other details are still being negotiated. Sources involved in the discussion say the psychological evaluation -- a relatively new requirement for firefighters -- could be eliminated from the process. Another idea being considered involves awarding points, similar to veteran's points, for candidates living in Springfield.

Frank Edwards, the erstwhile fire chief turned Ward 1 alderman, suggested the residency requirement as a way to help local minorities compete against applicants who have volunteer fire department experience from small towns outside Springfield.

"The problem is, you don't have minorities in the volunteer firefighting service because most of these little towns are all white. So it's going to be tough for minorities of our community to compete with that," Edwards says.

Data from the 2001 SFD tests prove Edwards' hunch. Almost 85 percent of the black males who took the test were from Springfield, while only 46 of the white males were local residents.

Dyment, the recruiter, likes both ideas. He even believes he may owe his career to the fact that no psychological evaluation was required when he applied to the fire department. "I don't know that I would've passed it," he says.

James Johnson, the NAACP representative helping with recruitment, says he feels confident more minorities will show up to take the test this year than in the past. "People have given me their word and picked up application packets," he says.

"I'm keeping a good spirit about it."

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