Exclusive: Veteran firefighters tell of ‘unfair’ treatment

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From left, Zachary Ferguson, Robert McKay and Toni Stitch talked exclusively to the Defender about the many challenges some Black firefighters face working for the Chicago Fire Department. They allege sundry mistreatments including Black firefighters bein

A group of Black Chicago firefighters contend that working for the city’s predominately white fire department is challenging, stressful and they are often treated unfairly.

The group spoke exclusively to the Defender about how Black firefighters are often passed over for promotions, wrongfully terminated and isolated from their white counterparts. They allege that this type of treatment has gone on for years and they are now speaking out because “we cannot stand by and endure such unfair treatment any longer,” said Toni Stitch, 50, who is an 18-year veteran of the Chicago Fire Department.

Stitch has been on medical leave from the CFD since 2005 after suffering an injury on the job. She hopes to be reinstated this year but admits that she has run into some interference by upper management so her reinstatement has been put on hold.

“This is their way to force me completely out the door. Once a Black firefighter takes a leave – even if it’s for medical purposes – rarely are they reinstated,” she alleges.

Robert McKay, a 32-year CFD veteran, who is also on medical leave, explained how race relations between Black and white firefighters could have devastating effects.

“Basically you have them against us and it is more of them than it is of us,” he told the Defender. “A department this critical to the city should not have to deal with so much internal tension among employees. This can be very distracting and when you have people depending on you to save their lives you cannot be distracted.”

And Zachary Ferguson, a former firefighter, said he was terminated July 2008 after being gone on medical leave for a year. He had previously suffered a stroke and was a lieutenant before his dismissal.

Ferguson said his termination while on medical leave is a common practice the CFD uses to get rid of Black firefighters.

“It’s always easier to fire someone when they our not on the job,” he said.

However, Leslie Noy, who retired June 15 from the CFD as a deputy fire commissioner, said Ferguson was terminated after he failed to submit the necessary paperwork from his doctor to be reinstated.

Noy, who is Black, said he had recommended Ferguson for a promotion, so Noy had no motive to push him out the door, which Ferguson accused the former deputy commissioner of doing.

“I have helped many Black firefighters move up in the ranks and many do not even know that it was I who recommended them for promotions,” Noy told the Defender.  

Another example Stitch gave to bolster her claim of unfair treatment on the job was drug-testing procedures.

At any given time a supervisor can pull a firefighter off duty if the firefighter is suspected of drug or alcohol abuse, she explained. When this happens a firefighter could be ordered to submit to a drug or alcohol test that day.

But before any tests are conducted two managers above the battalion rank must approve the request, said Larry Langford, a spokesman for the Chicago Fire Department.

However, Stitch said approval is usually granted.

“When they test us (Blacks) they make us piss in the cup but with white firefighters they usually take a sobriety test,” Stitch said.

Stitch said in 1995 while battling a fire, a white firefighter allegedly turned off Stitch’s oxygen tank from the back but luckily she noticed it in time to turn it back on. She also described another 1995 incident where a white firefighter got impatient with her, asked her to move out his way, and when she did not move fast enough, he allegedly pushed her so hard she fell through one floor and landed on another, lower floor.

Langford said if such incidents did occur Stitch should have reported it. Stitch said she did report it but her complaints fell on deaf ears.

“I encourage Black firefighters to come forward if they are having problems with other firefighters,” Langford said. “The Good Old Boys network is not what the CFD is all about.”

Prior to becoming a firefighter Stitch worked as a registered nurse, and medical training has become an important component for firefighters. All firefighters are required to be trained as emergency medical technicians since a lot of calls the department receives are for medical purposes, according to Langford.

The CFD consists of 5,303 employees, which includes 64 Asians, 680 Hispanics, 978 Blacks and 3,354 whites, according to Langford. Men dominate the gender at 93 percent while women make up 7 percent.

Langford said when you have an organization the size of the CFD “you are going to have some who do not get along. You are going to have some differences in culture and yes pranks do happen.” Still, “African American firefighters should not feel isolated,” he said.

For the purposes of the fire department, the city is broken up into six districts and each district covers certain sections of the city. Langford pointed out that three of the six district chiefs are Black – in Districts 4, 5 and 6. Those three districts cover the South and West Sides.

The city is currently fighting a class-action lawsuit after 6,000 Black applicants who took the 1995 entrance exam for the CFD sued the city for discrimination because the city had used a cutoff score to determine who passed. The test is administered every 10 years and the last time the city issued the test was 2005.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that the lawsuit not only has merit but also was filed in a timely manner.

Langford declined comment on the lawsuit.

Copyright 2010 Chicago Defender.

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