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Fire Department Chief Vows Diversity Push Timed With First New Recruitment Test In 7 Years

The Chicago Fire Department is dominated by white men — but the department’s first-ever Black woman leader vows to change that.

Chicago Fire Department Comm. Annette Nance-Holt answered questions during a more than three-hour budget hearing on Wednesday.
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CHICAGO — The Chicago Fire Department is dominated by white men — but the department’s first-ever Black woman leader vowed on Wednesday to change that, thanks in part to a long-awaited new opportunity to bring on fresh recruits. 

Fire department Comm. Annette Nance-Holt kicked off her more than three-hour budget hearing on Wednesday by ticking through the “main goals” she has charted since being confirmed to her job in May, including advancing “diversity, equity and inclusion” in the department. She pointed to the gaggle of top department officials surrounding her at the City Council dais, saying aldermen “can see how I have assembled a leadership team that mirrors the communities we serve.” 

The approximately 5,000 firefighters, medical responders and support staffers who make up the fire department are together about 64 percent white and 90 percent male, Nance-Holt said. The racial disparity has long been a source of agitation among aldermen, and the department has repeatedly had to fight off accusations of sexual harassment and misogyny — including in court. 

Related: Fire Department budget hearing erupts with allegations of racial insensitivity 

The department was required in 2018 to retrofit its station bathrooms to accommodate nursing mothers as part of a settlement brought by a female paramedic. And earlier this year, the City Council approved a more than $1.8 million payout to settle a lawsuit brought by multiple women who alleged the department worked to protect serial sexual abusers while rebuffing their victims. 

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Nance-Holt pointed on Wednesday to a new program called the “Honor Our House” initiative, which she said “promotes inclusivity and strives to eliminate discrimination, harassment and retaliation within the fire department.” 

She also pointed to a new firefighter entrance exam set for early next year — the department’s first since 2014 — as an opportunity to imbue recruitment with “an even greater commitment toward outreach and inclusion.” The topic of the exam consumed last year’s fire department budget hearing, when previous Comm. Richard Ford II warned the years-long delay would hobble the department’s efforts to diversify. 

Related: Pass an ordinance on recruitment exams to help diversify fire department, commissioner tells aldermen 

The department has been pulling recruits every year from the same “rather old list” of approximately 20,000 people who passed the 7-year-old test, Nance-Holt said Wednesday. But the new exam opens a new opportunity to guide women and people of color to the doorway, she said. Nance-Holt pointed next to her to Mary Sheridan, whom she elevated to the role of deputy commissioner this year. 

“You see two women leading the second-largest department in the U.S. — so girls can do this,” Nance-Holt said, calling on aldermen to “help spread the message within their wards so that we can reach as many people as possible.” 

“I need diversity greatly in my entry ranks and up through,” she said. “Because the only way to get people to this position [is for them] to walk in the door. If we can’t get them in the door, we can’t make them engineers, lieutenants, captains…on up the ranks.” 

She added that she intends to work with the city’s Department of Human Resources to “have testing more frequently,” including for internal promotions, to keep the pipeline fresh. 

The department as of Wednesday had about 260 vacancies across its 5,124 full-time equivalent positions, officials said. All remaining paramedic vacancies are on the verge of being filled with a graduating class, and the department expects to recruit 200 new firefigthers next year. 

And unlike the Chicago Police Department, which is hurting for new recruits as it looks to plug nearly 1,000 vacancies, the fire department has “no problem” attracting new blood, Nance-Holt said. 

“We have so many people waiting to get this job,” Nance-Holt said — including “quite a few” police who are “changing careers.” 

Office of Public Safety Administration  

One of the city’s newest offices, tasked with finding efficiencies among the fire department and other public safety agencies, has saved the city less than $1 million, leaders told aldermen on Wednesday.  

The Office of Public Safety Administration was created 19 months ago and is helmed by Executive Director Annastasia Walker, who told aldermen during a later budget hearing on Wednesday that her department has “a lot of room for growth and innovation” but that she is “very pleased with what we’ve accomplished in this very short period of time.” 

Walker defended her office’s anticipated $37 million hike in funding, set to bring its proposed 2022 spending to $172.9 million. The proposed budget also grows the office’s full-time equivalent employee count by four, to 354 positions.   

Since its inception, the public safety administration office has saved the city $720,000 by canceling “redundant contractual costs,” Walker said. The office has also “eliminated 500 unused mobile lines” representing $60,000 in monthly savings and “cancelled over 400 Beta circuits” for $40,000 in monthly savings, she added. 

Additionally, the office has returned 67 police officers who were working in administration positions back to duty and plans to return an additional 83 by the end of the year, Walker told aldermen. 

Responding to a question from Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th) about the savings, Walker said there has been “a lot of cross-training in finance” among the public safety departments. And having all public safety contracts in one location gives the city “leverage in buying power.” 

Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) asked about the city’s controversial contract with gunshot detection technology company ShotSpotter, which has come under scrutiny in recent months for its effectiveness. 

The city in December extended its up to $33 million contract with ShotSpotter, Block Club reported in August. The agreement was extended through August 2023.  

Additionally, a report published in August by the Office of Inspector General’s Public Safety section found that the ShotSpotter technology is not “effective” in “developing evidence of gun-related crime.”  

RelatedShotSpotter ‘seldom’ detects gun-related crimes for investigation, watchdog report shows  

Walker told Vasquez Wednesday that the line item for the ShotSpotter contract in the 2022 budget totals $8.9 million. 

“What is the department’s justification for spending $8.9 million on a tool with [an] over 90 percent failure rate?” Vasquez said.  

Walker told aldermen that ShotSpotter is meeting its contractual requirements, which include pinpointing the location of gunshots within 25 meters, sending an alert within 60 seconds of an incident and that the system needs to be up 99.9 percent of the time. 

Vasquez further asked why the contractual metrics are not related to whether ShotSpotter “actually detects gunshots or not” or measures “actual crime fighting effectiveness.” 

A spokesperson for ShotSpotter wrote in a statement to The Daily Line Thursday that the technology is “highly accurate” and “has earned trust and high renewal rates from many police departments” in the 120-plus cities where it is used “because the system is effective in helping to save lives, reduce gun violence, and make communities safer.”

“Our service-level agreement guarantees that 90% of unsuppressed, outdoor gunfire incidents, using standard, commercially available rounds greater than .25 caliber, inside the coverage area, will be detected and located within 85 feet of the actual gunshot,” the statement continued. “We know from our customers that the ShotSpotter system exceeds our guarantee of at least 90% detection accuracy because customers report false positives or negatives directly to the company. This enables us to track and honor our service-level guarantee – and continuously improve the system.”

Officials from the public safety administration office said Vasquez’s questions on the technology’s effectiveness should be directed to the Chicago Police Department. Police Supt. David Brown was also grilled on ShotSpotter during his department’s budget hearing on Monday. 

Related: ShotSpotter contract, officer shortages come under microscope during 9-hour CPD budget hearing 

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), who chairs the budget committee, told Vasquez he could pose his questions about ShotSpotter’s “effectiveness” during a hearing on the technology scheduled for next Wednesday in the City Council Committee on Public Safety.