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Fire test big hurdle for minority candidates

After years of complaints that blacks are underrepresented in Evanston’s Fire Department, recent hiring has come closer to matching the proportion of African-Americans in the city.

But despite stepped-up recruitment efforts, poor performance of many minority candidates on a required civil service exam raises questions about the city’s ability to maintain that improvement.

Fire Chief Alan Berkowsky says that since 2003 the city has hired five African-American firefighter-paramedics — 16 percent of the total of 31 new firefighters hired during that time.

That has raised the total of black firefighters in the city to 12 percent of the total sworn staff of 109.

In the 2000 U.S. Census 22 percent of Evanston residents identified themselves as black. A 2006 Census Bureau survey, the latest data available, reported 17 percent of Evanstonians said they were black. But the survey’s margin of error means the actual total could range from 12 percent to 21 percent.

Chief Berkowsky, in a memo distributed to aldermen, says that starting in August 2006 the department dramatically stepped up outreach efforts to encourage more candidates to apply for firefighter tests conducted last February.

The efforts resulted in a 71 percent increase in total applicants and more than doubled the number of black applicants from the last exams conducted in 2005.

But many of the additional candidates scored too poorly on the exam to become top hiring prospects. Overall the number of candidates scoring an "A" grade on the test grew just 33 percent and the number of African-American candidates scoring an "A" grade did not increase at all.

So, just 2 percent of the candidates who scored high enough on the most recent test to get first consideration for new jobs are African-American.

The test, the chief says, is administered by the Indianapolis-based Institute for Public Safety Personnel and is used by many departments in the Chicago area.

The test results were somewhat more encouraging for Hispanics. Six percent of current firefighters are Hispanic, the same as the percentage of Evanstonians who identified themselves as Hispanic in the 2000 census.

The 2006 census survey estimated that 8 percent of Evanstonians are Hispanic. The survey’s margin of error means the actual number could range from 5 percent to 12 percent.

The percentage of Hispanics who applied for the 2007 tests more than doubled to 9 percent of the total pool and the number of Hispanics who got high grades on the exam nearly doubled, rising to 8 percent of total.

Although a small slice of the total pool of applicants, women did even better. The number of female applicants more than tripled from 2005 to 2007 and those getting top grades on the exam went from two to six. The department now has four female firefighters.

Berkowsky says he anticipates the department will have to fill ten positions over the next two years as a result of retirements.

He says the department has already hired four people from the 2007 test list — a woman, a Hispanic man and two white men.

He adds that the department is nearing the end of the pool of candidates who scored an "A" grade on the exam, and soon will have to start considering those who received "B" grades, a group that includes significantly more African-Americans.

The department will also renew its recruitment efforts later this year for the next qualifying exam, to be held in February 2009.

Berkowsky says he’s encouraged by a new vocational course offered at Evanston Township High School that introduces students to public safety careers and offers them credit at both the high school and Oakton Community College.

He said the department also offers candidates the opportunity to take a pre-test to prepare for the real exam. Candidates who take the pre-test tend to do much better on the exam, he said, but it can be difficult to get the candidates to show up for something they think "doesn’t count."

Berkowsky says he also anticipates that many candidates who may not have done well on last year’s test will take it again and do better in 2009 — noting that he had to take multiple tests himself before finally scoring well enough to begin his firefighting career 27 years ago.

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