New Haven firefighters, aldermen and community leaders alleged at a press conference Thursday that the New Haven Fire Department has deliberately prevented minority firefighters from receiving promotions.

The firefighters claim the department has eliminated a number of management positions that minorities once held and have changed the captain’s and lieutenant’s exams to stop minority promotion. The press conference was held at the headquarters for the greater New Haven chapter of the NAACP at 192 Dixwell Ave.

“We’ve been having problems with this department for many years,” Lt. Gary Tinney, an organizer of the press conference, said. “We’ve made progress in the last 10 years. We’re now moving backwards.”

Tinney blamed New Haven Fire Chief Michael Grant, who was appointed chief of the department last year, for the souring of race relations. Grant did not return several phone calls to his office Thursday.

The firefighters’ major complaint concerns changes in the captain’s and lieutenant’s exams. In 1999, when the tests were last administered, a number of black firefighters did well and were promoted, New Haven firefighter Octavius Dawson said. But for 2003, the department changed the tests and the books required to study for them.

All of the top 12 scorers on the 2003 lieutenant’s exam were white, Dawson said. Tinney said no black firefighter scored in the top 15 on the captain’s exam, and Hispanic firefighters scored no higher than 7th.

“None of them will be promoted,” Tinney said.

The group that took the 2003 lieutenant’s exam included 47 white, 20 black, and 9 Hispanic firefighters, Dawson said.

Tinney said the new tests included questions that were not relevant to New Haven and were geared to New York City firefighters. He said some questions included terms such as “uptown” and “midtown” which are not typically used to identify areas of New Haven.

Scot X. Esdaile, the president of the local NAACP chapter, claimed white firefighters were told in advance which information to study in order to do well on the test.

“They had a head start of the test,” Esdaile said.

The NAACP has started an investigation into the testing, he said. Minority firefighters are planning on suing the department for the names of those who created, administered, and chose the new test, Tinney said.

A number of New Haven aldermen attended the rally, including Rev. Drew King of Ward 22, Charles Blango of Ward 20, and Ward 12 Alderwoman Shirley Ellis-West. Ellis-West said the aldermanic board’s public safety committee will hold a hearing about the controversy March 3.

“At this point there doesn’t appear to be an equal playing field around the test,” she said. “I think this is an issue that could seriously divide our community and our fire services.”

Tinney said the department has eliminated five minority-held management positions in the past year. Those firefighters have now returned to work at local firehouses for lower pay, Tinney said.

The fire department currently employs 103 black and 208 white personnel, Tinney said.

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