Chicago firefighters protest after promotional exam canceled due to technical issues

The firefighters called for an end to oral exams after the "debacle" that left 120 unable to take their test


Peter Nickeas
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — About 70 Chicago firefighters protested the city’s handling of a recent promotional exam that had to be canceled because of technical issues.

The group gathered at 35th and State streets, about a block from the city’s public safety headquarters. They carried signs and stopped outside the headquarters to sing union solidarity songs and called for an end to oral exams.

Chicago firefighters picket in front of the city's public safety headquarters in protest of problems during a recent promotional exam. (Photo/Zbigniew Bzdak, Chicago Tribune)
Chicago firefighters picket in front of the city's public safety headquarters in protest of problems during a recent promotional exam. (Photo/Zbigniew Bzdak, Chicago Tribune)

About 1,600 Chicago Fire Department members took the oral exam last week for promotion to the rank of lieutenant. About another 120 were due to test for battalion chief, but that exam was canceled because of the glitches.

Many of those who did take the exam also encountered problems. It was the first one given for the rank of lieutenant since 2009, and the situation irked some members who may only get one chance at promotion during a 20-year career.

“Men and women studied for two years,” Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2 President Jim Tracy said. “We just want them to get a fair shake.”

For the lieutenant’s test, firefighters were divided into four groups of 400 and given a start time of either 8 a.m. or 2 p.m. on Monday or Tuesday, according to Mark Egan, a business agent in the union and a firefighter who took the exam. Firefighters waited until they were put in a room with computers, where they were to watch a video and record their answers.

But in what firefighters called a “debacle,” as the day went on, delays grew longer. Some members didn’t get out until after midnight on the first day and, because they weren’t allowed to have a phone, couldn’t communicate with their families.

“Lori Lightfoot came to our executive board promising accountability and professionalism, now we have our administrators pointing figures at some company in California,” Egan said.

Firefighters were offered bottled water and a deck of cards while they waited, he said.

“We equally share the disappointment expressed by our firefighters and paramedics for the technical difficulties that occurred during last week’s testing process,” said Larry Langford, a Fire Department spokesman, in a written statement.

“We expect nothing less than a seamless administration of its examinations, which is why we require vendors to ensure their equipment is vigorously tested to prevent technological issues and any undue burden caused to firefighters devoting their time to participate, and those who cover their shifts,” the Fire Department statement continued. "We understand and appreciate the amount of time and effort that our firefighters spent studying for this exam and we are working diligently with the City and vendor to reschedule the remaining exam component to the extent necessary as quickly as possible.”

Langford declined to comment on the demand for an end to oral exams. The city has for more than 10 years used the same company, CPS HR Consulting, which issued an apology for last week’s problems.

In the past, Tracy said, firefighters who knew the chiefs administering the oral exams would fare better than others. Hiring an outside company to administer the exams was a way to guard against that.

Egan said he would prefer a system where a written exam is graded by scanning the test, letting members find out their score soon after they’re finished.

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©2020 the Chicago Tribune

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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