In November 1993 Rich Edgeworth, captain of a firehouse on the southwest side, took the test to become a fire-battalion chief. Since then he’s risked his life battling a year’s worth of blazes, but he still doesn’t know if he’s passed the test.
Edgeworth’s test is lost in a bureaucratic maze that has delayed the scoring and posting of test scores, let alone the promotions, of hundreds of fire fighters. City officials explain that the delay stems from affirmative-action rules that require federal scrutiny of Fire Department promotions. “We’re under the terms of a consent decree that requires Justice Department review of our promotion list,” says Noel Gaffney, a spokeswoman for the city. “We have to wait a long time for Justice to get back to us.”
But Edgeworth and other fire fighters maintain that the city’s partly to blame. “They can’t just blame everything on someone else,” says Edgeworth. “It’s a whole attitude that fire fighters, who put our lives on the line, don’t matter. They’ll just let us wait and wait and wait. You shouldn’t have to wait a year to get your score–lawyers don’t wait that long to hear from the bar, high school kids don’t wait that long to get their ACT results. The longer it takes to score those tests, the more everyone thinks there’s hanky-panky going on. And the more stress we have as those promotions hang over our heads.”
Edgeworth says delays have been part of the exam process since he took his first fire-fighter exam in 1978. Back then he was a 23-year-old factory dock worker looking for a higher-paying job. “The first exam they give you is really pretty basic. There’s a section on reading comprehension. You read a paragraph and answer questions about it. To me it was fourth-grade level. Then they give you a physical test–you run up and down the stairs carrying a dummy.”
It took two years for Edgeworth to get the results of the test–and that was before the affirmative-action consent decree, which was instituted in 1980.
“They sent me to the Fire Academy for 90 days of training,” Edgeworth says. “They run you through the fire manual. They drill you on essential skills in fire fighting–how to lead out the fire hose, how to chop with an ax. They don’t re-create fire, but they have smoke rooms with artificial smoke, and you climb through there and find a body.”
His first assignment was on the west side. “It was a busy neighborhood. My first fire was a three-story frame building that was totally in flames. The alarm rang at two in the morning. I was sleeping in the bunk room. I slid down the pole and hopped on the truck. It was all happening just like they told you it would–except it’s for real, and you don’t know if you’re going to come back.
“Any kind of fire is scary. You’re going where you can’t see anything at all. You’re crawling around looking for people who are trapped. You have to knock a hole in the roof to let the toxic gases and the heat get out so you can come in and find the fire. You got to get that pressure out so the building doesn’t blow up. It’s a tough job.”
Edgeworth started at $18,000 (the starting salary today is $30,000, and the highest-paid fire fighter makes about $45,000). In 1986 he decided to try to move up to the next rank: fire engineer.
“The fire engineer drives the fire engine and hooks up the hydrant that gives water to the engine. A fire engine has 500 gallons of water in it. That’s about 4,000 pounds of water stored in a tank that’s between the wheels. You have to be a safe driver, you have to know the streets.
“You also have to know some math. The test for a fire engineer simulates the same gauges you’ll have on the fire engine. They’ll ask you to ‘perform lead outs,’ which means pulling the hose off. You have to know how much water to send through the hose and at what pressure. The longer the hose leads out, the more pressure you have to send. These are things we study. These are tests we take seriously. We’re making a commitment, which is even more reason for them to get those results back to us.”
It took the city at least nine months to inform him that he’d passed that test. “When it takes so long to get test scores out people think something’s fishy,” says Edgeworth. “They think that someone with clout is using his influence to play around with the scores to get his people in.”
It was precisely because city workers had such suspicions that an advisory committee, appointed by Mayor Daley in 1990, recommended that tests be overseen by outside consultants. The tests have been administered and scored by private consultants ever since. As a result, officials say, the city can’t be blamed for any of the delays. “The city of Chicago is out of the testing business,” says Darka Papushkewych, a lawyer for the city. “After we chose the consultants who give the test we don’t have anything to do with the scores until after they go to the Justice Department.”
It takes as long as eight weeks to score a test, says Papushkewych. “These are highly calibrated machines that pick up erasures on the exam. We also have a window of opportunity where test takers have the opportunity to challenge questions they think are misleading. If the consultant agrees, that changes how the test is scored.”
Under the consent decree the city has to immediately forward the test results to the Justice Department, which reviews them to make sure the city promotes an equitable number of blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asians. “The Justice Department has 45 days to review the scores and make objections,” says Papushkewych. “Then we have to wait another 15 days before we make promotions. The irony is that we’re paying outside consultants to alleviate an appearance of a conflict of interest, and because of the delays people still think personnel’s tinkering with the scores. We can’t win.”
Many fire fighters think that at the very least the consultants add another unnecessary layer to a bureaucracy that should be simplified. The results of the exams taken last November, for instance, weren’t sent to the Justice Department until summer.
“The main issue is how long it takes to get their tests scored and the results out,” says Edgeworth. “You like to have your score right away so you know how well you did. You want to learn from your mistakes. The point is to be the best fire fighter you can be by learning from your mistakes on the test. But we don’t learn from the test, and we have the pressures of waiting for the results.”
It took more than six months for Edgeworth to receive the results of his fire lieutenant’s test, which he took in 1987. And it took about nine months to receive the results of his fire captain’s test. But he’s waited longest for the results of the fire-battalion chief’s test, which he took last November 23.
“I’m not alone,” says Edgeworth. “The people who took the fire fighter’s and fire captain’s tests a year ago are also waiting. On November 10 the engineer applicants got word that their results would be mailed to them. But I don’t know if anyone has received the results. And the promotion lists haven’t been posted.”
Many test takers looking for information about their scores call the Fire Department and are directed to the Department of Personnel. “We don’t control the tests,” says Michael Cosgrove, a spokesman for the Fire Department. “When the Fire Department has vacancies to fill we send the request to the budget office, who relays it to personnel.”
Personnel has a phone hotline with test information, but calling it is an exercise in futility. “A voice comes on that says you have reached the city of Chicago’s examination hotline, and then it tells you which button to push for the latest information regarding a particular exam,” says Edgeworth. “When you push the button you don’t learn anything you didn’t already know–they say the results are not back from the test givers yet.”
Edgeworth would like to see tests scored on-site and the results immediately sent to Washington. “Most of these tests are multiple choice–there’s no reason we can’t just run them through the [scanning] machine and get our scores right there. I saw it happening in the elections earlier this month. When the politicians want their results they get them in a couple of hours. But we have to send ours off and wait. It’s not fair.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.