Wednesday, March 10, 1999

whites challenge firefighter selection process

They're claiming reverse discrimination

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A decade after a federal judge threw out affirmative-action rules for hiring firefighters, eight white Cincinnati firefighter candidates are challenging the selection process.

        The men have taken their complaints to city leaders, claiming reverse discrimination and saying they've been passed over for people with lower scores and women with less physical ability.

        The group has turned to Councilwoman Jeanette Cissell to help fight its battle. She has taken fire training on as an issue and expects to respond to the group's concerns at her com mittee meeting Tuesday.

        Larry Martin, 29, a suburban firefighter, scored 29th on the city's list of 157 eligible candidates for fire recruit classes from a test taken nearly two years ago.

        He already had been skipped over by candidates who ranked as low as 108, and he wonders why.

        “To score (that high) on the list, out of maybe thousands of applicants, to me was a big accomplishment,” he said. “Getting nowhere out of that was a big letdown.”

        The complaints come two months after Allen Boyle, a former training commander who retired in January, sent a letter to city administrators and council members criticizing fire training, calling it understaffed and outdated.

        But Fire Chief Robert Wright dis agrees and says choosing recruits is more than about looking at raw scores. He says he takes the attack against his choices personally, being the city's first black chief.

        “The process was laid out, and it's very clear,” he said. “Just because they're on the final selection list doesn't mean they're guaranteed a job.”

        The chief says it's his prerogative to skip over candidates. Besides raw scores, he relies on results of background checks, polygraphs and personal history. And he says he's not ashamed that it's a goal of the city to make the fire division more diverse.

        The Cincinnati Fire Division, the nation's oldest paid fire department, hired its first black firefighter in 1955. By 1974, only four of the city's 910 firefighters were black, and a federal judge ordered the city to hire and promote more black firefighters.

        Under the 1974 consent decree, each recruit class was to be 40 percent black until 18 percent of the entire force was made up of minorities. The city used two separate race-based eligibility lists to meet that goal.

        That changed in 1990, when U.S. District Judge Carl Rubin ruled in favor of white firefighter candidates who had sued the city, claiming they were unfairly barred from jobs. Judge Rubin said the consent decree could no longer favor blacks over whites.

        Without the two lists, the city reverted to civil-service selection, which ranks candidates on a single list according to written and oral test scores.

        Under state law, the fire chief can use the test scores, background checks, personal history and polygraphs to choose the candidate he wants from each group of 10 eligible people.

        Today, 14 people on the 784-member force are women and the entire force is about 32 percent black. The last graduating class had five women.

        Cincinnati chooses its firefighters from a list of candidates with the highest scores on a civil-service test.

        Two classes have been chosen and a July class is anticipated from a test taken nearly two years ago.

        Eight white firefighter candidates who made the list of finalists but have not yet been selected are challenging the process.

        According to eligibility lists:

        • The fall 1998 class hired 42 recruits, including 11 black men, two black women and three white women. The group challenging the process says 12 qualified white men were passed over.

        • The winter 1999 class hired 24 recruits, including six black men and three white women. Three other minority candidates either declined the job or did not pass the physical tests. The white firefighters challenging the selection say 31 qualified white men were skipped.

        Chief Robert Wright says choosing recruits is more than about looking at raw scores and that skipping over candidates is his prerogative.


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