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Thursday, June 23, 2011 05:42 am

Finding minority firefighters

City partners with advocacy groups to boost minority hiring

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Fire chief Ken Fustin.
PHOTO BY HOLLY DILLEMUTH
The father of Chatham resident Alexander Thomas told him before taking a June 18 written test for the Springfield Fire Department that he should study hard because efforts by the city to boost minorities on the city’s payroll might give him a better chance of getting the job.

But after taking the first of a series of tests for the $44,000-per year position, Thomas says, “I don’t think it matters that much what race you are being saved by.”

The SFD has seen an increase in applications from minorities like Thomas, who is African-American, for firefighting positions since the last application process in 2006, when 58 of 496 applicants were minorities, at 11.96 percent. The fire department has now tested 743 applicants, 90 short of the 833 who originally signed up. But 111 minorities still made up 14.93 percent of the applicants by the end of the testing day.

The department selects applicants through a banding system, which groups similar test scores into higher or lower ranking bands, dependent on score. The fire department must choose as many applicants as possible from a higher band before moving to the scores in lower bands.

Fire chief Ken Fustin says that the number to be hired depends on how many people retire in the next six to 24 months, and on how many new firefighters the budget will support. But he estimates a class of at least 10 to 12 new firefighters by March 2013. Of 203 firefighters on staff, according to Fustin, there are three African-Americans, three Hispanics and one Asian-American.

Springfield advocacy groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People are focusing on increasing minority numbers, including at the fire department.

Teresa Haley, president of the Springfield chapter of the NAACP, says that the late Mayor Tim Davlin offered to include the NAACP in the city’s hiring process by having seats on the oral assessment board. But she says there wasn’t any follow up between the late mayor’s office and NAACP.

“It was more lip service,” says Haley. “So we’re looking for action.”

City officials have met advocacy groups like the NAACP, Abundant Faith Church, the Springfield chapter of Frontiers International and Union Baptist Church to find ways to draw minorities to jobs within the city. And the NAACP expects Houston to take action to hire more minorities.

Houston said during his campaign for mayor that he planned to hire 25 percent minorities in the police and fire departments during the first two years of his term, after which he said the process would be evaluated [See “Who will move Springfield forward?” by Patrick Yeagle, March 31].

As part of the city’s effort to raise awareness of firefighter testing, Fustin reached out to Pastor T. Ray McJunkins at Union Baptist Church, where he encouraged members of the congregation to apply for the fire department. McJunkins was pleased with Fustin’s visit, and called Fustin “…someone who is sensitive enough to the way, perhaps, that a minority feels.”

“In the nine years I’ve been here, no fire chief or any other kind of head official has ever come in here unless they were wanting my vote,” he says.

“We want complete representation from all corners of the city,” says Larry Selinger, the city’s director of human resources. “We were doing everything we could to get our minority numbers up.

Contact Holly Dillemuth at hdillemuth@illinoistimes.com.
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