It’s 5 p.m. on a recent Tuesday at Engine Company 21 in the Washington Park neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.
Fifteen recruits of the Black Fire Brigade – men and women – line up in three rows of five to begin calisthenics inside the red brick building where Black firefighters were based more than a century ago.
“WHO ARE WE?” the lead trainer shouts to the recruits dressed in black T-shirts.
“BFB! BFB!,” the recruits shout back before doing jumping jacks, situps, pushups and other cardio exercises.
The number of Black first responders serving in the Chicago Fire Department is only about 15%. That’s fewer than Latinos and far fewer than the number of whites.
Boosting the number of Black firefighters is the mission of the Black Fire Brigade, established four years ago. The nonprofit group’s training can also help recruits land jobs as emergency medical technicians or police officers.
“When I came on to the fire department, there were close to a thousand Blacks on the Chicago Fire Department. I think now we’re close to 300,” said Lt. Quention Curtis who joined the department in the late 1980s.
Engine Company 21 is stationed near Garfield Boulevard and Wabash Avenue, but it’s not a working firehouse. It serves as a museum on the history of Black firefighters in Chicago and a training center for the Black Fire Brigade, which Curtis founded and serves as director of.
Later this year, he plans to retire after 34 years with the fire department. But before he goes on his last call, Curtis – who grew up in the Cabrini-Green public housing complex – wants his legacy to include getting more firefighters who look like him trained and hired.
So far, more than 400 recruits ages 18 to 30 have completed the certified training.
“I’m a Chicago firefighter today for one reason: At 12 years old I saw my first Black fireman, and at that point I decided that’s what I want to be,” Curtis said.
Of the 4,900 personnel in the Chicago Fire Department – including firefighters and paramedics – 64% are white, 15% are Black and 17% are Latino, according to the CFD. The longtime scarcity of Black personnel has led to charges of racism for decades, and lawsuits to force the department to change its hiring.
For Curtis, or “Q” as they call him, having more Black first responders isn’t just for representation sake. It’s to get more well-paid professionals and their economic power into the community. He wants to see new recruits filling the vacancies left by Black first responders when they leave the department.
“We’ve lost, in attrition, over 800 [fire department] jobs in the Black community,” he said.
Considering the fact those jobs can pay $100,000 a year or more, Curtis said, “That equates to $80 million a year in the Black community that we lost in jobs.”
The Black Fire Brigade training is three to four months, depending on the job specialty. It includes physical and fire training in the field, but also studying anatomy and other medical subjects.
Ahmad Boyland is four weeks into the program, and he admits the training is tough.
“My first couple of weeks were definitely challenging, as far as prioritizing study time and going to work my nine-to-five job … but you get used to it,” the 26-year-old Boyland said.
Another recruit, 23-year-old Robert Hamilton, said he developed a desire to help people when he was a child and his mother suffered a seizure due to her diabetic condition. Responding firefighters and EMTs helped his mother that day and it left a lasting impression, inspiring him to become a first responder.
“I’m not saying that all jobs are not valuable, but I know firefighters, police officers and those that are first responders – you’re able to see the result of your actions immediately, and know that you are affecting change right then and there,” Hamilton said.
Recruits get paid $24,000 for the first year if they complete their training. But that pay can take a big jump if they get hired by the city’s fire department.
For Justin Carter, serving as a role model to his son is in part why he’s going through the training.
“This is a respectable career,” said Carter. “You can get paid … and make money [that is] respectable and honest.”
After graduating from college in 2018 with degrees in psychology and criminal justice, Sarah Webster wanted more. She went through the Black Fire Brigade program last year, and said having more Black firefighters opens the career for others to explore.
“If we don’t know we can do these things, if we don’t see other people doing them, it’s kind of out of reach for us,” Webster said.
Recruit Brian Blackmon, 30, said even though responding to a fire or car accident can be dangerous, he thinks there’s no feeling like putting your safety aside in service to others.
“Selflessness. Putting someone else’s life before mine,” he said. “I’ve always kind of thought I was a superhero. I like to feel like I can help someone in some way, and whether it’s a drowning victim or you simply can’t breathe, we can help you in that situation.”
Blackmon’s own father, Eugene Blackmon, was a Chicago firefighter who died in the line of duty in 1998 at the age of 38.
Not all the recruits will pursue a career in the Chicago Fire Department. Some will get jobs with departments in the suburbs or around the country. The program relies on word of mouth since the Black Fire Brigade does not advertise, said director Curtis.
“I have a tough time getting funding. I have a waiting list of 500 kids,” he said. “Remember, this is not a job. This is a career. We will always have work.”
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the first professional Black firefighters working in Chicago. For Curtis, that milestone is a stark reminder of the work that still needs to be done to make the fire department a true reflection of Chicago’s diverse population.
“This is 150 years of Blacks in the first service. And it’s like we’ve made no progress,” he said.
Michael Puente covers Northwest Indiana for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.