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Wednesday, June 28, 2006 11:34 pm

Still fired up

As one veteran retires, city picks up pace of black-firefighter recruiting

Thirty-three percent of all black Springfield firefighters retired this week. Actually it was just one man — Charles Washington — but his departure leaves only two African-Americans on a force of more than 200. As of today, blacks account for less than a tenth of 1 percent of all Springfield firefighters, in a city where blacks represent almost 15 percent of the population.

But Washington, never known for mincing words, says he has seen the department improve significantly in his 21 years on the job.

“I’d say the guys coming on the job are a lot better educated, a lot better socialized to deal with people from different cultures, different races. I think it’s gotten a lot better,” he says.

Washington’s retirement comes as a result of arthritis in his hands, knees, and back. “It was just getting to the point that it was painful,” the 53-year-old says. “If they want to pay me all that money to stay home, OK, I can do that. No more ladders, no more long flights of stairs.”

Washington has spent much of his career at the Toronto Road firehouse, Station 11, which covers one of the largest and most confusing swaths of turf, including Lake Springfield, Lincoln Land Community College, the University of Illinois at Springfield, many dead-end avenues, and an abundance of streets with identical or similar names, such as Hazel Dell and Hazel Lane. Station 11 Capt. Buddy Neighbours says that Washington’s precise knowledge of the area has meant that they get to calls in the shortest time possible.

“That’s where Charlie’s really good,” Neighbours says. “He knew the district really well. As a captain, that’s a big worry you don’t have to worry about.”

Neighbours admits that Station 11 isn’t one of the most active fire stations, in terms of the number of calls, and that his firefighters find themselves making repeated trips to the dorms to remind college students how to cook. “Sometimes you gotta take the cardboard out from underneath the pizza before you put it in the oven,” Neighbours says.

But Washington has liked the pace of Station 11 just fine.

“It’s a real good mix of different things — the industrial park, the lake . . . a pretty good territory to cover. It’s always a barrel of fun on the weekends,” he says.

As a farewell gesture, Neighbours treated Washington to lunch at Red Lobster last week.

Chris Miller, vice chancellor of student affairs at University of Illinois at Springfield and the city’s minority-recruiting consultant, is optimistic that he can improve minority representation at SFD. Contracted by the city in April, Miller is already credited with recruiting 38 black candidates to apply to the Springfield Police Department. To achieve these results, Miller persuaded the city to improve its advertising campaign, create a database of candidates, and drop its $25 test-taking fee. He made sure candidates received more than a dozen personal contacts from city officials and established workshops to help candidates prepare for each part of the test. He plans to implement similar strategies for next fall’s firefighter exams.

“The mayor’s office has been incredibly supportive and extremely active in this entire process. There has not been anything we have asked for that we did not get,” Miller says.

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