Elgin fire dept. changes eligibility requirement to increase diversity

With a new round of eligibility list testing set for next month, the Elgin Fire Department has dropped its requirement that candidates have 60 college credit hours in an effort to increase diversity.

Like most suburban fire departments, Elgin's is predominantly white and male, and the last round of testing in 2016 didn't do much to change that, Fire Chief Dave Schmidt said.

Schmidt said he knows the decision - endorsed by the city council last month - can be seen as "lowering standards to make quotas." But the Elgin Fire Department began requiring 60 college credit hours only in 2000, he said.

"You can say it was easier for me to get hired (in 1989) than anyone after 2000," he said. "Not everyone has that ability, when they graduate from high school, to go to college."

The fire department has 133 firefighters, including four women and eight minorities. The last hiring eligibility list comprised 42 men and two women; 35 were white and three were minorities, with eight who didn't specify their race, Elgin senior human resources adviser Tim Bennett said.

The decision to lower the educational requirement came after conversations with Elgin's diversity consultant, Denise Barreto, and community groups including Second Baptist Church of Elgin and the Elgin Hispanic Network, Schmidt said.

"One of the points that continued to come back was the point of education," he said.

Elgin created a Fire Explorer program for youths ages 14 to 20 about four years ago to increase diversity. One-third of Explorers are minorities, but so far, the only two who plan to take the test are white males, Schmidt said. The department also is reaching out to middle school students and college female athletes, he said.

The Aurora Fire Department, which also requires a high school degree or equivalency to apply, has had a Fire Explorer program for about a decade, but the department remains largely white and male, Fire Marshal Javan Cross said.

That's why Aurora established the state's first Fire Cadet program last year, open to people ages 17 to 20 with a high school diploma or equivalency, Cross said. Cadets experience day-to-day fire operations and are eligible for paramedic school if they successfully complete all other requirements, Cross said. "We are hopeful that it will have a tremendous effect," he said.

So why has it been difficult to increase diversity in firefighting?

Schmidt, a second-generation firefighter, said a big factor is having a friend or family member in the fire service.

Also, firefighting isn't always seen as a prestigious job within the Latino community, he said - and Jaime Garcia, executive director of Centro de Informacion in Elgin, agreed. Firefighters have little training or education in many parts of Latin America, he says, "but for those second- and third-generation (immigrants), it is a job - and it is an important job - and it's looked upon totally different."

Eligibility list testing applications are being accepted through July 13 at Applicants must be 21 and 35 years old and have an EMT basic certification. They get preference if they have 60 college credit hours or degrees, military service, city residency and more.

"The idea is, let's look at the demographics of applications and people who make the final list," Schmidt said, "and we'll be able to say, 'Yes, we did see a difference' or 'No, we did not see a difference.'"

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