Vanguards Want To Meet With City, Discuss Charges Against Fire Department

Two Cleveland Fire trucks
The Cleveland Fire Department has faced claims of discrimination before, including two major lawsuits going back to the 1970s. [Cleveland Fire / Facebook]
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Black firefighters in Cleveland are hoping for a sit-down with city officials to address charges of racial and gender discrimination, following a recent report from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

The Vanguards of Cleveland, an association of black professional firefighters, cite a variety of practices that the EEOC report says are discriminatory against blacks, Hispanics and women.

Vanguards President Capt. Tyree Thompson says recent classes of incoming firefighters have lacked diversity, with the most recent group comprised almost entirely white men. Thompson says these problems are systemic.

“It needs to become common practice that the fire department, the EMS and police represent what the City of Cleveland residents look like,” Thompson told ideastream Thursday.

The application process works on a point scale to determine eligible applicants, prioritizing certain criteria, like residency and military service.

But Thompson says the application isn’t clear about how or where to upload documents providing that information, so people unfamiliar with the department might miss it.

“And once you did find out you weren’t given those points, you weren’t allowed to go back and bring in the information to obtain those points,” he said.

The entry exams also require internet access and transportation to Parma to take the physical exam.

“[For] a lot of the people and inner city, and citizens of Cleveland, that’s an issue. Whether it be that you don’t have a vehicle or you don’t feel comfortable going out to Parma, I mean, that is something that we have to deal with,” Thompson said.

Women were given men’s uniforms during the physical test, and instructions for applicants varied, according to Thompson. The lack of properly fitting gear meant even though some female candidates who had already passed the firefighter certification course through Cuyahoga Community College – which also includes a physical exam – still couldn’t pass the city’s tests.

“The gloves weren’t fitting most of the females, they would fall off,” Thompson says. “The helmets were sized for males, so a lot of the time when they would be going through the exams, the helmet would be falling down on their heads and things like that.”

The tests are administered by staff at the Tri-C campus and Thompson said there’s no official city or fire department representative there to oversee that process and ensure it is equitable.

The fire department has faced claims of discrimination before, including two major lawsuits: one from black and Hispanic firefighters in 1973, and another from the Vanguards of Cleveland in 1980. The Vanguards’ suit made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Those lawsuits resulted in a consent decree, which required the department to hire a certain percentage of minorities who had passed the entrance exam.

“They’ve made a few changes here and there, but this has been an ongoing thing since I’ve been on the job, and I’ve been on the job 23 years,” Thompson said.

The consent decree, which had been revised in 1983 and upheld by the Supreme Court, was closed out in 2013 after another 13-year legal battle ended with a federal district court finding the agreement had achieved its goals of addressing past racial discrimination.

Thompson said, since then, classes of incoming hires have had fewer and fewer people of color.

“You can only hire so many firefighters,” Thompson says. “So once those numbers get below a certain point, they’re going to stay there for 30 years at least.”

The department currently only has three female firefighters and two of them are about to retire.

The Vanguards want the city to take these charges seriously, and meet with them to discuss possible solutions, Thompson said.

“We can’t put a Band-Aid on this anymore. The consent decree was a Band-Aid, so when it ended, things went back to the way they’d been before the consent decree,” he says.

The city says it cannot address the claims beyond its initial statement earlier this week disagreeing with the EEOC’s charges.

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