St. Louis Fire Department faces new allegations

Thursday, July 29, 2004

ST. LOUIS -- St. Louis froze unfilled positions in its fire department as a group representing the majority of the city's black firefighters challenges examinations they called unfair or corrupt.

The Firefighters Institute for Racial Equality is challenging the exams in federal court. It is the third time in four years that allegations of unfairness have been levied against the city's fire department.

The latest complaints stem from a round of exams given in January and February to fill openings for two battalion chiefs and six captains.

The Firefighters' Institute, which represents the majority of St. Louis' 302 firefighters, complained about unfairness prior to the release of this winter's exam results.

The group's chairman, Capt. Addington Stewart, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in Wednesday's edition that he was displeased that the testing company, EB Jacobs of State College, Pa., had more white than black staffers evaluating the oral part of the exams. The group also said that some test-takers used inappropriate notes during the oral exam that might have given them an unfair advantage.

EB Jacobs said the exams carefully measured firefighting and leadership ability and that it took precautions intended to alleviate any possible racial bias. The company acknowledged that some rules were violated during the testing, but said they were unintentional and would not have affected the results of the test.

St. Louis Personnel Director Richard Frank said Tuesday that his investigation did not find intentional cheating or evidence that the notes would have boosted any top candidate.

The top scorer on the recent exams for battalion chief -- the higher rank -- was black. Two of the top five scorers were black, as were seven of the top 20.

But on the captain's exam, no black test-takers placed in the top ten scorers, although blacks represented 45 percent of the total test-takers. Sixteen blacks placed in the top 68.

The Firefighters' Institute's attorney, Althea Johns, told a U.S. district court judge she was appalled by the city's "intent to discriminate" and "lack of care for African-American employees."

The group has asked Judge Rodney W. Sippel to block the city from promoting contenders for the positions while it pursues legal action aimed at forcing St. Louis to discard the January and February exam results and administer a new test.

Lawyers for the city of St. Louis and for the International Association of Firefighters Local 73, which represents most of the city's 396 white firefighters, argued that leaving the positions unfilled was a risk to public safety.

Sippel had not ruled on the case as of Wednesday morning.

It's not the first time test results and methods have stirred controversy.

Last fall, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that exams given in 2000, by a different firm, were unfair to minority candidates. The city rejected a commission offer to settle by promoting or awarding damages to black firefighters. The city has been under a Justice Department consent decree since 1976 over charges of racial discrimination when hiring firefighters.

In 2002, one black and three white firefighters were fired after an internal investigation into allegations of cheating on the promotion exam.

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