Many of us believed back then that we were on our way to building a truly integrated Fire Department.
But more than six years later, the effort to hire more black firefighters seems to have stalled.
Despite giving lip service to the idea of increasing minority hiring, the Fire Department has been half-hearted in its efforts to do so. Worse yet, it has adopted some policies that have served to undercut its affirmative action efforts. It has also allowed an atmosphere of racism and cronyism to prevent African Americans from advancing to the upper echelons of the department.
The numbers tell the story of slow progress.
Currently, about 17 percent of the Fire Department's 2,600 firefighters are African Americans. And as you go up through the ranks, you find fewer and fewer African Americans. Only one out of 16 deputy fire chiefs is an African American. Out of 65 battalion chiefs, four are African American; out of 130 captains, seven are and out of 340 lieutenants, 28 are.
Why have the department's affirmative action efforts failed to show results. Outright resistance within the department is certainly a part of it. But the key reason is that the department has not hired any firefighters at all in recent years. As part of the nationwide trend toward upgrading emergency medical services, since 1988 the department's entry-level hiring has focused on certified paramedics in lieu of firefighters.
The problem is that the pool of black certified paramedics is small, and they are much in demand. And rather than hire and train local residents to become paramedics - which would open the door to African American candidates - the department asked to be excused from the city residency requirements so it could recruit on a national level.
Although the Valiants objected to this practice, which effectively circumvented the hiring provisions of the consent decree, no legal action was initiated immediately because Fire Commissioner Roger M. Ulshafer's insisted that the Fire Department would make a concerted effort to recruit and hire African Americans for those positions. But that has not happened.
The national recruiting effort has drawn mostly white applicants. Of 99 hired by the department, only 11 have been black.
Meanwhile, since the 1985 consent decree, racism has been more covert and permeates the department in the form of subtle policy decisions and practices as well as outright harassment.
Recently the department's only black battalion chief was a victim of a vicious prank in which white firefighters spit in his hat just before he put it on. Although two of his officers were subsequently transferred, the actual culprits were never disciplined.
Another problem is the department's substance abuse policy. A disproportionate number of African American firefighters have been disciplined for substance-abuse problems. White firefighters, however, are more likely to be protected from discipline by their superiors, who will help them seek out- patient assistance - protecting their confidentiality and their job.
Then there was the investigation last summer into irregularities in the
examinations for deputy chief and battalion chief. While this was not a racial issue at it's inception it soon became one because several of those involved were black.
The investigation into allegations that some firefighters were given the answers to the test was mishandled by the Fire Department and the Inspector General's Office.
The anonymity of the complainants (who were African American) was violated and key witnesses were not carefully interviewed. There was no attempt to corroborate indications of misconduct through alternate means. Additionally, conclusions made by the Inspector General, who eventually said he was unable to determine if cheating occurred, were contradictory and inconsistent with many of the facts raised during the investigation.
Worse yet, the final report was released and freely disseminated to parties who had been under investigation, which exposed the complainants and other participants who had been promised confidentiality.
It's time for a change. We need more black firefighters in the department and stationed in the black community as role models for black children. The department must also do a better job of providing opportunities for blacks to advance within the department.
The Fire Department also needs to come up with a fair testing procedure to ensure the integrity of the test. Department officials should not be in charge of the testing.
Finally, the department needs new leadership, leadership committed to integrating the department, living up to the letter of the consent decree and creating an atmosphere of esprit de corps among firefighters of all races.