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Program in Chicago attracts more minorities into the firehouse


A low number of Black firefighters in a lot of big cities across the country is a concern. In Chicago, for instance, lawsuits over the years haven't done much to boost the ranks, but one innovative program there is making progress and bringing more minorities into the firehouse. Michael Puente from member station WBEZ explains how.

MICHAEL PUENTE, BYLINE: While Chicago's Black population is nearly 30%, less than 16% of Chicago's fire department and paramedics are Black. Lieutenant Quention Curtis is in his 34th and final year with the CFD. He's aware of the lawsuits and federal consent decrees over the decades to force the Chicago Fire Department to diversify hiring.

QUENTION CURTIS: When I came on the fire department, there were approximately - there was close to a thousand Blacks on the Chicago Fire Department. Now I think we're close to 300.

PUENTE: Racism and discrimination have long shadowed the department, challenging its testing systems and promotion schedules. But Curtis, who everyone calls Q, feels the numbers are also suppressed because so few Black residents see firefighting as a career option.

CURTIS: I'm a Chicago firefighter today for one reason. At 12 years old, I'd seen my first Black fireman, and at that point, I decided that's what I want to be. And sadly, today I challenge the city to go into a Black neighborhood and find a Black fireman.

PUENTE: Chicago is hardly alone when it comes to the lack of diversity. In a report for the Harvard Business Review, UCLA professor Corinne Bendersky says 96% of U.S. career firefighters are men; more than 80% are white.

CORINNE BENDERSKY: It's a very proud tradition in the fire service, and some of those traditions have racist and discriminatory roots.

PUENTE: Diversifying fire departments is also an issue in cities like Los Angeles, Kansas City and New York. Some departments, like in LA, have had success recruiting more Black firefighters. To try to achieve that in Chicago, Lieutenant Curtis started the nonprofit Black Fire Brigade four years ago. In the 12-week program, men and women learn the basic skills they'll need.

CURTIS: They get their basic first aid. They get CPR. They get driver's training. They learn how to operate an ambulance. They learn everything that's on an ambulance.

PUENTE: The training also comes with a $24,000 stipend. Once hired, firefighters can earn nearly six figures with additional training. More than 450 young people have taken to training, like 23-year-old Ahmand Boyland (ph), who is undergoing it now.

AHMAND BOYLAND: Everything is strict, very strict, from dress code to how you come in everyday to your attitude to just how you hold yourself accountable for different things that goes on.

PUENTE: Four times a week, recruits begin each training session with calisthenics and then classroom work at Engine Company 21, a two-story, red-brick building on the city's South Side that used to be the only firehouse where Blacks could serve in Chicago. Trainee Sarah Webster says that visibility is key.

SARAH WEBSTER: Q's biggest thing is you can't be what you can't see. So if we don't know that we can do these things, if we don't see other people doing them, it's kind of out of reach for us.

PUENTE: Some recruits will land jobs with suburban fire departments or other major cities. With limited funding, Black Fire Brigade relies largely on word of mouth.

CURTIS: I have a tough time getting funding. I have a waiting list of 500 kids. Remember, this is not a job; this is a career. We will always have work.

PUENTE: This year also marks the 150th anniversary of the first professional Black firefighters working in Chicago. The anniversary is bittersweet for Lieutenant Quention Curtis, as he continues to try to bring more minorities into a profession he loves.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Puente in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Puente