Racial Problems Plague Chicago Fire Department

CHICAGO (AP) -- After 25 years as a firefighter, Curtis Humphries knows his job on certain calls is mostly limited to helping paramedics.

A recent call was different. ``Black people did not want to talk to the whites,'' said Humphries, who is black. ``I told them, I said, 'I can help you, but to be honest, you just threw out the guy that knew more.''

As Humphries' experience illustrates, these are tough times at the Chicago Fire Department. A white firefighter's racial slur over a department radio triggered a spate of anonymous slurs and once again racial problems that have plagued the department for decades were exposed.

Mayor Richard Daley blasted the ``cowards'' making the anonymous calls and a black battalion chief received a death threat. A newspaper ran an editorial cartoon that showed firefighters spraying water on blacks - a scene reminiscent of the early days of the civil rights movement.

Two months after the first slur, the fire commissioner announced his retirement, replaced by Daley with the first black commissioner in Chicago history.

While Commissioner James Joyce insists the slurs didn't prompt him to quit, few believe they didn't at least hasten his planned retirement. Whatever happened, his successor made it clear he won't stand for the racism critics say has been allowed to fester in the department.

``Let me serve notice to those who wrongfully believe that the department is a haven for small mindedness, offensive behavior and stagnation,'' Cortez Trotter said last week. ``We are entering a new era for the Chicago Fire Department. Please recognize that for what it is or be prepared to face the consequences of your actions.''

Trotter's challenge is to take over a department that, when it comes to race, ``is always simmering,'' said Nicholas Russell, president of the African American Fire Fighters League of Chicago and the battalion chief who received the recent death threat.

The simmering dates at least to 1965 when a fire truck operated by an all-white crew in a predominantly black neighborhood struck a stop sign that hit and killed a black woman, triggering a riot.

Then, in an effort to ease tensions, the department's handful of black firefighters, who had been segregated from their white counterparts, were assigned to every station in black neighborhoods.

Ever since, race has been at the center of one fight after another. In the 1970s, when blacks and Hispanics made up less than 5 percent of the department's uniformed employees, the U.S. Justice Department sued the city.

Court orders settled the case, and Chicago was required to hire and promote more minorities. The city's response? ``They stopped hiring for years,'' said Judson Miner, an attorney who has represented black firefighters and was the city's corporation counsel in the 1980s.

Minority numbers really jumped during a 1980 strike when hundreds crossed a picket line. When the strike was settled, a new contract called for affirmative action until minorities held 45 percent of the department's jobs.

Today, 948 blacks, 510 Hispanics, 45 Asians and 21 American Indians hold uniformed jobs, accounting for about 31 percent of the department's 4,896 uniformed employees.

No one, it seems, is satisfied.

Whites, who have filed a flurry of lawsuits - unsuccessfully so far - claim they've been illegally passed over for promotions in favor of less qualified minorities.

``Everybody knows somebody who was passed over,'' said Lt. Dan Mullaney, a third-generation firefighter. ``There is resentment, no question about it.''

Minorities, too, have fought what they say is discrimination - both to keep them out of the department and then once they get in. They say it's no accident that blacks account for only 16 of 107 battalion chiefs, 26 of 182 captains and 94 of 594 lieutenants.

Today, the reaction to the latest slurs suggest Trotter inherits a deeply divided department.

James McNally, the firefighters' union president, said the slurs are nothing more than isolated incidents.

But Russell said he and others see the slurs as a continuation of an ugly history that has included incidents such as McNally's appearance in blackface to protest affirmative action years ago and a widely-shown videotape of a fire house retirement party that showed firefighters making racist comments.

Wherever the truth lies, firefighters feel the heat when they go out and do their jobs.

``We're all being punished for the actions of a few idiots,'' said Lt. Mauricio Rodriguez, a 17-year department veteran.

And Ed Smith, a black City Council member wonders whether the slurs will lead to more problems.

``I'm just concerned that we don't rekindle some of the things that have happened in the past,'' he said. ``We need to put that fire out.''