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Where There's Smoke 

Yet more allegations of racism and mismanagement reveal smoldering tensions within the Fire Department

Wednesday, May 2 2007
At the Bayview office of the Black Firefighter's Association, history hangs on the walls. There are news clippings about significant legal victories and portraits of proud African-American officers, reminders of the decades the group spent battling to give minorities their rightful place within the San Francisco Fire Department.

Kevin Smith, the association's president, sits surrounded by this legacy as he describes a new struggle. He tells of allegations of racism and ineptitude surrounding a promotional exam given to lieutenants who want to move up the ranks to captain. Even the department administration and the firefighters union agree that the test, originally given last fall, had serious problems.

The difficulty comes in separating concerns over bureaucratic fumbling from charges of racism. That troubling question may be determined in an upcoming Civil Service Commission hearing, or possibly in a return to court.

Smith, a sturdy and confident man with a Bluetooth earpiece permanently attached, manages Station 19 near the Stonestown Galleria mall. He has voiced the loudest concerns about the promotional test; in February he lodged a formal complaint with the Civil Service Commission calling the exam process "compromised and dysfunctional."

He's also personally invested in the outcome. Smith became a lieutenant in 1996, and has been waiting ever since for a chance to move up to captain — in all that time, there were no captain's exams given. But when he finally took the test this fall, he was infuriated. He lists a dozen ways in which he thinks the exam was substandard and biased, and says he wouldn't be proud even if he aced it. "The bottom line is that we deserve to have a true and valid examination," he says. "If I come out No. 1 on this list, it doesn't change the fact that it's a bad test."

This is familiar ground for the Black Firefighters Association. The group has forced the San Francisco Fire Department to air its dirty laundry over the last 37 years, supporting lawsuits that hammered the department with charges of discrimination. In 1970, when the first suit was filed, only three of approximately 1,900 uniformed firefighters were African-American. Women weren't allowed to apply until 1976, and then it took another decade before the first female applicant was accepted. To halt this discrimination by race and gender, a federal judge put the department under a consent decree in 1988, and for a decade the court ruled over its hiring and promotional practices.

Through the bad years, minorities were kept from rising through the ranks with rigged promotional exams, according to the early lawsuits. Some exams were culturally biased, asking questions about irrelevant subjects like the rules of the card game Bridge. Other tests re-used questions from previous exams that had been circulated to only the white candidates. Given this history, minority firefighters feel justified in keeping a wary eye on the testing process.

Chief Joanne Hayes-White, the Fire Department's first female chief, says she's not surprised that controversy has erupted once again. She also told the Fire Commission in November that she was "a little disappointed" in the exam's first section, which had just been administered. But overall, she defends the test as "fair and valid," and stresses that she's committed to increasing diversity within the department. "I'm very much aware that it's very helpful to have a work force that's reflective of the community we're serving," she says.

The current uproar started when more than 100 lieutenants took the exam's first section in early November. The test-takers were supposed to listen to audio tapes describing fire scenarios and respond verbally to them, but many of the tapes were nearly inaudible, and some of the recording devices they spoke into didn't work. In the days immediately after the first section, 23 disgruntled test-takers filed protest letters with the Fire Department. An announcement soon followed: All candidates would be required to retake the exam. But at a tense town hall meeting on Jan. 10, Chief Joanne Hayes-White announced another reason besides the faulty audio equipment: There had been a security breach, she said, during the development of the exam's scoring key.

Assistant Chief Aaron Stevenson, the most senior African-American in the department, has been charged with the deed, and is facing a possible 30-day suspension. People with knowledge of the case say he's outraged by the allegations, and believes he was scapegoated to reflect attention away from the sloppy testing process and to give the department an excuse for a do-over.

As Smith explains it, the disputed segment of the test was given during a November weekend. On the following Monday, Stevenson was to meet with the rest of the committee that was putting together the scoring key. But first he called another firefighter to check the department's policy on high-rise fires. When he got to the meeting, he told the committee what he'd done, and told them they had the wrong answer to a question about high-rise fires. "Everyone had already taken the test," Smith says, "so nobody could have benefited!"

Chief Hayes-White says Stevenson still violated the confidentiality agreement he signed, and that when the department investigated, "[it] did not prove, without a shadow of a doubt, that there wasn't a breach or a leak when the exam was being administered." The matter will get hashed out in a disciplinary hearing before the Fire Commission in late May or early June.

To complicate matters further, Smith believes there was another major problem with the test: He says it was engineered to give an advantage to some lieutenants favored by the chief. Parts of the test asked candidates about functions performed by battalion chiefs, the next rank up above captain. Smith says that Hayes-White has appointed some lieutenants to serve as "acting battalion chiefs" to temporarily fill vacancies, and that those candidates had an advantage when answering test questions because of their experience. "A lot of her appointments were white males," adds Smith.

Hayes-White denies that she wanted to give an edge to anyone or any group of lieutenants. She says that the test primarily reflects the job duties performed by captains, but she agrees that some questions referred to the duties of battalion chiefs. "There are a number of occasions in our business where the captain assumes the role of incident commander," says Hayes-White, citing emergency situations like the Loma Prieta earthquake. "We want to be sure we train up to the next highest position."

Concerns about the captain's test aren't confined to the Black Firefighters Association; in the firefighter union's latest newsletter, union president John Hanley raised questions about the handling of the test, and the competence of the administration. But in conversation, he's much more politic. Although there were mistakes made, Hanley says, the department should move on by publishing the test results and hiring from the list.

The squabble has been going on for five months now, and shows no signs of abating. The Civil Service Commission has asked the Black Firefighters Association to bring in documents that support their allegations, and will hold a hearing May 7. The Association's formal complaint asks for a full investigation of the exam's "irregularities," and then a new test. If the Commission doesn't decide in the Association's favor, Smith says a lawsuit is a distinct possibility.

The Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights, which represented the Black Firefighters Association in some of its earlier battles with the department, is watching the latest scuffle closely, and has written several letters to the Civil Service Commission requesting a full investigation of how the test was developed and administered. Diana Tate, an attorney with the Lawyer's Committee, says the group is not yet representing the Black Firefighters in this matter: "We've just sort of requested, can we please take this seriously?"

The legal battles of the past decades were long, expensive, and divisive, but Smith says many in the Black Firefighters Association are willing to take their fight back to court. The alternative, he says, is letting the department revert to the institutionalized racism that governed before the court forced change with the 1988 consent decree. "They're slowly turning back the wheel," he says.

About The Author

Eliza Strickland


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