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New Fire Commissioner Promises to Embrace Older Black Applicants

New Fire Commissioner Promises to Embrace Older Black Applicants

Chicago Sun Times via YellowBrix

June 29, 2010

CHICAGO – Mayor Daley’s appointment of third-generation firefighter Robert Hoff to replace ousted Fire Commissioner John Brooks sailed through a City Council committee on Monday — with a promise from Hoff to embrace older black applicants bypassed by the city’s discriminatory handling of a 1995 firefighters exam.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last month that African-American applicants did not wait too long before filing a lawsuit that accused the city of perpetuating the predominantly-white status quo by establishing a cut-off score of 89 and hiring randomly from the top 1,800 “well-qualified” applicants.

The landmark ruling could force the Chicago Fire Department to hire roughly 120 bypassed black firefighter applicants — and distribute $45 million in damages to 6,000 others who will never get that chance.

The 38-year-old cutoff point for hiring new firefighters does not apply because it was not in place when the alleged discrimination occurred.

On Monday, Hoff said he’s awaiting final word from Corporation Counsel Mara Georges before putting the bypassed applicants through the fire academy.

“The Fire Department is ready to put these people in school when we get the information needed from the Law Department. We’re gonna go as a candidate class. It’s gonna be positive,” Hoff said.

The fact that some of those would-be firefighters are now in their late 40s is of no consequence to the new commissioner.

“I know firefighters who are 55- or 60-years-old who can do a lot of work — more than a 20-year-old. It just depends on your physical condition,” said Hoff, 54.

“Whether you’re a new recruit or you have 30-years on, you have to be physically fit. Five- or ten-minutes of full, total exertion is what you need. You have to be in shape to do that . . .They’re gonna go through the training like everyone else. They’re gonna have to be physically fit. [If they can cut it], welcome aboard.”

The Chicago Fire Department has a long and documented history of discrimination and racial tension.

The most glaring example was a raucous 1990 retirement party at Engine 100, captured on an infamous videotape that showed firefighters drinking beer, using racial slurs and mooning the camera.

On Monday, Ald. Robert Fioretti (2nd) asked Hoff what he intends to do about lingering racism in Chicago firehouses “real or perceived.”

“Whether they’re true or not, when we read in the Defender that [black firefighters] feel it’s us-against-them, it’s a problem we have,” Fioretti said.

The new commissioner said he plans to appoint a diverse leadership team that reflects Chicago’s racial make-up with marching orders to “lead by example.”

“I’ve worked in firehouses with African-Americans, Hispanics, white firefighters. It’s all in your attitude. . . . As a company officer, a chief officer, an exempt-rank officer, people are gonna follow your lead,” he said.

“There’s personality conflicts and clashes. If you stop them in the beginning, most of the time they can be resolved. But people have to get involved. That’s what our administration is gonna do. If there are issues like that, we nip it in the bud.”

Hoff replaces Brooks, who resigned two months after the Chicago Sun-Times reported that a sexual harassment complaint against him was allegedly swept under the rug. Hoff is expected to be confirmed by the full City Council on Wednesday.


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