Rookie Ohio Firefighters Step Up

The rookie firefighters scaled a ladder against the side of a vacant North Akron house on Tuesday and sawed holes in the roof -- a technique called venting that sucks fire and smoke out of a building like a vacuum cleaner.

''You guys are forgetting something,'' said Brad Ager, a firefighter with five years in the department. ''You're forgetting a tool.''

Seconds later, Melanie Curry produced the tool in question -- a pike, or a long pole, with a hook on the end used to knock out drop-ceilings beneath the roof.

''Have you seen her standing around today?'' said District Chief Douglas Ott when asked why Curry, a petite 27-year-old, was chosen as one of two all-around outstanding recruits.

But then mothers of six such as Curry usually don't have time to let moss grow under their feet.

''She's always doing something,'' Ott said. ''She doesn't wait for somebody else to do the work. She just gets in and does it. She's all of 100 pounds, but she'll give you that 100 pounds 100 percent of the time.''

Curry is one of 25 newly hired firefighters who completed an intense 12-week training course last week and will begin working in the city's busiest stations. Last year, 24 firefighters were hired; both groups took their written test in 2003 -- a test that was challenged in a discrimination lawsuit.

Curry is one of three African-Americans hired from that test's eligibility list and one of two in this year's training class. Although the lawsuit was withdrawn in late March, concerns about minority representation in the city's fire department continue.

Four black men who took that test -- but didn't score well enough to advance to the next stage of the hiring process -- subsequently sued the city in an attempt to block any hiring.

The plaintiffs wanted a Summit County Common Pleas judge to block the city from certifying 64 people -- including three blacks -- to move forward in the hiring process.

Judge James R. Williams, now retired, denied that request because the plaintiffs couldn't prove they would be irreparably harmed if the hiring process went forward.

But the judge said he was ''very concerned and somewhat disturbed'' by alleged declining minority numbers in the department and a disparate number of blacks who fail the civil service exam compared with white candidates.

Attorney Dennis Thompson dropped the suit March 25 because he said the United Black Firefighters Association, which could not be reached for comment, was unwilling to pay for more litigation.

''It takes a lot of resources to do it,'' Thompson said. ''That's a business decision. I thought they had good merits to the case and we could have done some damage.''

Since 1995, Akron has hired 150 firefighter/medics and 10 of them have been black, according to the city's personnel department. In the same decade, the city hired 202 police officers, all white except for 25 blacks and four officers described as Asian/Pacific Islander.

The city is closer to its goals of recruiting more women. Curry is one of five women among the new recruits. They will join the six women hired since 1995.

Counting the recent hires, the fire department now employs 77 African-Americans out of 380 total employees -- about 20 percent. Akron police count 104 African-Americans out of 475 people in the department.

Only people 21 to 31 can become firefighters. Of that age group in Akron, about 26 percent are African-American, according to the 2000 census.

Many of the minority workers in both departments are nearing retirement and aren't being replaced quickly, said Brenda Chapman, who was the fire department's first female hire in 1985. She is also black.

She was hired when a consent decree was in force, requiring that the city hire one black for every three whites. That decree lapsed in 1988.

''They're not being replaced in high numbers and the visibility is not going to be there in a few years,'' Chapman said.

Chapman has worked in the training academy since 2000. After noticing a couple of classes go through without any minority students, she began a tutoring program for black applicants.

''We've had the numbers taking the test, we just didn't have the people scoring high enough on the written test to even get a shot at the physical agility test,'' Chapman said.

Curry and the other African-American hired in this year's class, Cameron Mack, were among her students.

''She inspired me. She helped me a lot,'' said Curry, who passed the test the first time she took it but didn't score high enough to advance.

Chapman helped Curry with the test, but also encouraged her to build her strength for the physical agility test, which historically has stopped a lot of female applicants.

''I was going to try until I couldn't try anymore. I wanted it too bad,'' Curry said.

Bonus points are added to the raw test scores for veterans, Akron residents and applicants who already have been trained as emergency medical technicians and paramedics.

''Looking at the numbers, the blacks scored pretty close to the whites, but they didn't have those bonus points,'' Chapman said.

In the last few years, Akron has offered eight scholarships to high school students who want to pursue paramedic training beyond the EMT training they can get at Buchtel High. They can also take classes at the University of Akron toward a fire science degree, which also adds points to the written test's raw score.

That encourages City Council President Marco Sommerville, but he thinks the city can do better.

''I don't want to get to the point where somebody will sue us again and cost us money in court,'' Sommerville said Thursday. ''It's a nationwide problem, but some communities have had more success.''

Milwaukee, for example, has a cadet program for would-be firefighters -- people 18 to 21 -- that places them in firehouses where they can learn the culture and what it takes to get hired.

Chapman wanted that kind of program, too, but thinks the paramedic scholarships the city is offering achieve a similar goal.

What she would really like to get started is a mentoring program pairing experienced black firefighters with the young men and women who could replace them if they had enough preparation and dedication.

Ultimately, it depends on how badly someone wants the job.

The other outstanding recruit in Curry's training group, Frank E. LaRock, showed the same hustle and leadership.

Both were acknowledged at a swearing-in ceremony April 29 for the 25 recruits, which include Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic's son-in-law, Michael J. Zupancic.

Plusquellic said during the ceremony that he expected Zupancic would take a lot of ribbing.

''He will continue to remind you that he is not related to me by blood, but only by marriage,'' Plusquellic quipped.

Chapman asked Curry how badly she wanted the job just before Curry began the 12-week training regimen.

''Being a woman and a mother increases the difficulty,'' Chapman said. ''I had two youngsters when I came on.''

So far, Curry hasn't disappointed.

''I told her she really did me proud,'' Chapman said. ''She's really proven herself.''