City Council approves fund to reimburse low-income firefighter applicants


Daily file photo by David Lee

Firefighters fight a blaze in the 2800 block of Sheridan Place. City Council on Monday approved the expansion of a fund that will help the Evanston Fire Department diversify its force.

Samantha Handler, Assistant City Editor

Aldermen at Monday’s City Council meeting approved an expansion of the city’s employment opportunities fund, allowing low-income firefighter applicants to be reimbursed for application and testing fees.

Ald. Robin Rue Simmons (5th) told The Daily that reimbursements will come from a reserve account of deposits collected from construction companies that violate the city’s Local Employment Program — which requires that at least 25 percent of the company’s labor force consist of women, minorities or area residents.

Evanston Fire Chief Brian Scott said the change will help the Evanston Fire Department diversify its force by eliminating a potential cost barrier: Application fees are roughly $25 and the physical agility test costs between $165 and $175. Applicants may receive up to $200 from the fund, according to city documents.

“We don’t want those things to be a barrier for someone who is trying to join the ranks of the fire department,” Scott said. “We want as many qualified candidates in as diverse applicant pool as possible, so I think that will help with that particular goal.”

Ald. Cicely Fleming (9th) told The Daily that she supported the proposal as a way to overcome cost barriers in diversifying the force, as applicants are required to take the tests before they can be added to EFD’s recruitment lists.

Rue Simmons added that in the past, the pool was only available for union construction workers looking to be reimbursed for certificate training programs. While trying to figure out ways to increase minority participation in EFD, she said she found that it is an expensive career path to explore. The deposits currently total around $80,000.

She added that she was excited Council approved the change on Monday, since EFD will begin recruitment within the next month. EFD has made a particular effort to reach out to residents in the 5th Ward, Rue Simmons said, by hosting recruitment sessions and becoming more engaged in the community.

“It’s something I’ve been working on really since day one in office because the fire department is an amazing organization,” Rue Simmons said. “I wanted to make sure that we were helping remove any barriers that were before them that would prevent them from getting a staff that they recruit.”

However, Rue Simmons said she eventually wants to change how the fund works so that it can become a direct payment to the institution, instead of a reimbursement. This would prevent residents from having to come up with the funds while waiting for reimbursement.

She said the improvement is currently being discussed by the Minority, Women & Evanston Business Enterprise Development Committee.

“This process where you wait for reimbursement has to go through committee and council, and who knows when it’s going to fall on the right agenda,” Rue Simmons said. “Then you have an applicant who already falls under low income struggling to wait.”

Keerti Gopal contributed reporting.

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Twitter: @sn_handler