Burn Baby, Burn

Racial tensions simmer in the Cleveland Fire Department as a 23-year-old affirmative action decision comes under fire.

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Batoto Yetu Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Avenue in Playhouse Square 8 p.m. Saturday, February 5

$12-$26, available through Advantix (216-241-6000/800-766-6048)

On Friday, February 4, they will perform a free noon program at the Allen Theatre. Tickets for the free show are not required (seating is on a first-come, first-served basis).

The meeting room in the basement of St. Rocco's Catholic Church is the type of place you'd expect to find blue-haired old ladies hunched over tables playing bingo. But on this Sunday night in January, there isn't a senior citizen, let alone a woman, in sight. Instead, nearly 100 men -- most of them young, most of them well-muscled, all of them white -- have gathered for an informal strategy session.

They enter the room inauspiciously and alone. Few of them know one another, but they nod cautious greetings with a sense of purpose. Many appear apprehensive about attending a meeting to which they were summoned by a mysterious missive with no return address, phone number, or contact person. The letter got right to the point, in capital letters: "ATTENTION ALL NON-MINORITY PERSONS ON THE CURRENT CLEVELAND FIREFIGHTERS LIST RANKED FROM 40-165."

It went on to warn the recipients that they and other white aspiring firefighters are in danger of getting passed over when the Cleveland Fire Department (CFD) selects its new recruits this year. Key phrases in bold -- "earned," "minority quota and set-aside," "you still lose!" -- gave the letter a life-and-death feel, as if it were a call to arms in the fight to preserve truth, justice, and the American way.

Or, depending on your perspective, a Klan rally.

In reality, it was neither. Many of the 70 or so men shuffling in to take seats at the long tables were not yet born in 1973, when another young man filed suit in federal court because he felt his skin color was unfairly precluding him from becoming a Cleveland firefighter. That man's name was Lamont Headen, and he was black.

To the guys in the basement of St. Rocco's, the word "Headen" does not signify a person. Headen is a thing, an adjective, as in the Headen decision or Headen consent decree. It's a buzzword for the reason the City of Cleveland, staring straight down the barrel of a lawsuit filed by a handful of black men, agreed in 1973 that a certain percentage of firefighter jobs would henceforth be reserved for blacks and Hispanics.

For a young black man in 1973, getting hired by the CFD was like hitting the jackpot. And 27 years later, it's no different -- white or black. With a starting salary of $36,600, benefits, a retirement plan, little chance of getting laid off, and a schedule that allows two days off for every one worked, many guys in this drop-ceilinged room equate becoming a firefighter with winning the lottery. Or at least getting to call out "Bingo!"

Soon all eyes focus on the short, lean man with close-cropped red hair at the front of the room. He tells the assembled throng that his name is Frank Szabo, and he's a lieutenant in the CFD. He also heads an ad hoc group, the presumptuously named Cleveland Firefighters for Fair Hiring Practices. With a boyish face, battered leather briefcase, blue Dockers, and a tie pulled up close to his unbuttoned collar, Szabo looks like the captain of some Catholic high school debate team.

Szabo's message is simple: You guys took the test and did well. Many of you aced it. And now some guys who didn't score nearly as well are going to get the jobs -- jobs that are rightfully yours -- while you're getting stiffed.

Why are they getting the jobs? Because of Headen.

Read: Because they're minorities.

Szabo doesn't delve into issues of race and never criticizes the minority applicants. Instead, he focuses his scorn on the Headen consent decree. He says it's outlived its usefulness, noting that the firefighters first hired because of it are now retirees collecting a pension. It will no longer stand up in court, he declares, adding that several attorneys are chomping at the bit for the chance to prove it.

Like the Pied Piper leading his men into federal court, Szabo asks for and receives pledges of at least $350 from almost all the aspiring firefighters. The three dozen Cleveland firefighters who ring the room "for moral support" assure the recruits that the bulk of the department supports their effort and will contribute thousands of dollars to subsidize the proposed lawsuit.

"The bottom line is that this decision has got to go," gushes one firefighter, sounding like a cheerleader at a pep rally. "And it's going to be the class of 2000 to turn it around!"

Szabo cautions that the lawsuit could take years, and legal bills add up quickly. He says that candidates who put their name on the suit, claiming that the city has been negligent in its hiring practices, causing financial damages based on skin color, can expect a brutal fight from both the city administration and the Vanguards, the group that represents black and Hispanic firefighters.

What he doesn't say is that this challenge reflects a much larger trend. Since the early 1990s, municipalities across the country have been revisiting consent decrees like Headen, which, at the time, was considered a landmark case. The white men in St. Rocco's basement may be concerned only with their specific plight, but they are foot soldiers in the larger battle to roll back affirmative action. And Cleveland is about to become the latest flash point in the never-ending debate over race-based hiring programs.

The city administration is hoping to prevent that. Last week, just days after the city pushed back the start of a new firefighter training class, city lawyers filed a motion to suspend the use of the Headen decree. The move smacked of desperation, given that, just days earlier, city officials said they had no qualms about hiring under the dictates of the decree. With the sudden about-face, and no alternative plan in hand, the motion seemed a weak attempt to defuse the situation, likely to add just another wrinkle to an already complicated legal fight.

Both sides -- both sincere, both informed, both seemingly well-intentioned -- remain poised for a pitched battle that could drag on for months, if not years. Attorneys, city officials, and firemen themselves can rattle off hours of sterile-sounding numbers and statistics about promotions, integration, hiring rates, and the complicated formula used to determine the hiring floor for minorities.

But at the end of the day, it's still a discussion about race. And when race is the topic in this town, emotions are never far from the surface.

One firefighter in the back of the room, with pink skin and a Harley-Davidson T-shirt, seems exasperated by all the polite legalese. You should file suit now, he insists. The alternative? "You can wait, and they'll hire 40 more minorities ahead of you who will have more seniority than you. And don't think they won't rub your nose in it every chance they get."

Szabo shifts back to the proposed lawsuit. He is confident it's a challenge they will win. The only reason the quota system has been around so long, he says, is that nobody had the money, determination, and guts to challenge the ruling.

Until now.

A History of Racism

Szabo and his band of would-be plaintiffs use innocuous phrases like "level playing field" and speak passionately about wanting to prove they can do the job. But to Bill Little and Lloyd Noles, those arguments sound more like thinly disguised equivalents of "No Blacks Need Apply."

Little worked for 23 years as a Cleveland firefighter, retiring in 1996 as a captain. He now lives in Twinsburg and talks of lowering his golf score. Noles retired from the department as a captain in 1994 and is now chief of the Highland Hills Fire Department. They grew up together near East 67th Street and Woodland Avenue. Little was among the original plaintiffs when Lamont C. Headen et al. v. City of Cleveland was filed.

Sitting in the Highland Hills civic complex and munching on hot corned beef sandwiches and potato salad, Little and Noles vehemently defend Cleveland's current hiring system. They are joined by Vanguards President Kevin Echols and 76-year-old Eugene Guyton, who was president of the Vanguards when the Headen lawsuit was filed.

"We always hear the same thing -- that the top score should get the job. But we're not dealing with "Can we qualify?' We're dealing with the fact that, once we qualify, we're systematically rejected," Noles says. "There's no other way of making sure people get a fair shot."

In Noles's view, the consent decree is the only thing that keeps the CFD from being dominated by West Siders with last names like O'Malley and McConnell. Without affirmative action, Noles says, "They'll come down the list and pick up every white guy on it. When they come to a minority, they'll knock off every one without somebody looking out for them. They'll be dismissed for some reason or another.

"That's not to say we can't qualify," Noles continues, as the others nod their heads in agreement. "The problem is that the system has always eliminated us. And now they're trying to go back to the same."

Some would dismiss Noles as paranoid. But then, they haven't walked the road he has. Noles says he knew as a child that he wanted to be a fireman, and many of his earliest memories are of visiting Station Number 9, a few blocks from his house. By his early teens, before liability concerns ended such practices, Noles was the station's mascot.

"I ate with the firemen and rode with them, sort of a junior fireman," Noles says, his saucerlike eyes widening. "People started saying to me it was useless to try to become a fireman, because, as a black person, I wouldn't get the job. But that thought never really hit me."

In 1965, Noles was serving in the Air Force. He was about to be discharged, so he flew back to Cleveland from South Dakota, where he was stationed, and took the qualifying exam at the Convention Center. He did well on the test, but says he was passed over after being told his background didn't check out.

"That surprised me, because I was a Boy Scout, an altar boy, I went to Catholic school, and was in the service," he recalls. "So I was kind of disappointed about that."

Noles retook the test in 1966. And again in 1967, when he placed 14th. And a second time in 1967. At the time, only 48 of the 1,290 men on the CFD were black, less than 4 percent.

Noles eventually took a preliminary physical at St. Vincent Charity Hospital, where he was told he had a bad heart. His boyhood friend Bill Little had a similar experience, being bumped because he had a hernia.

So in 1972, Noles filed a lawsuit against the city alleging racial discrimination. He was working as a lineman at Ohio Bell, but still dreamed of becoming a firefighter. Showing an aversion to the courtroom that would become increasingly familiar, the city settled the suit and agreed to hire Noles. He became a firefighter in 1973 -- six years after he aced the test.

Under the CFD's formula for determining promotions, those six years would have counted for additional seniority points. "Everything else being equal, there's a real good chance Lloyd could have been chief," Echols argues.

But little about the department in 1973 was equal, prompting a group of black and Hispanic men to file a class-action suit claiming the CFD's hiring practices were racist. Because Lamont Headen's name was the first one listed, the case came to be known simply as the Headen suit.

Rather than fight the lawsuit, the city entered into a consent decree, a mutually agreeable solution that avoids a lengthy trial and expensive litigation. Under the terms of the decree, the city agreed to aggressively recruit minorities, including offering pretest tutoring and training, and give extra points on the eligibility test to Cleveland residents, which was viewed as being beneficial to minorities.

The test has two components -- written and physical -- and applicants are ranked based on their combined scores, with bonus points for military service. Prior to the decree, the CFD selected recruits for the training academy based on straight test-score rankings. Under the new agreement, the city agreed to hire black and Hispanic firefighters in a direct proportion to the number of minority applicants who receive a passing grade on the exam.

For example, on the test given in 1996, roughly 20 percent of all the applicants who received the minimum passing score were minorities. So when the fire department recruited three separate classes of cadets for the training academy, 20 percent of those slots were reserved for blacks and Hispanics. The city eventually hired 144 firefighters from that test group, 33 of whom were minorities.

In essence, the decree created a two-tiered system. Whites compete against whites for the majority of jobs. And blacks and Hispanics compete against blacks and Hispanics for the rest.

Bill Little notes that the consent decree didn't include any damages for minorities who had been passed over by the fire department or back pay to men like Noles. It simply cleared the way for them to earn a living at a job where their lives are at risk every third day.

"If we were lying [about the racist hiring practices], we couldn't have convinced a court of white folks to give us diddly," Little says with a laugh. "It's not like they gave us some great overwhelming restitution."

There's no humor in Little's demeanor, though, when he's asked how he felt once it became clear that black men were going to prevail in their lawsuit.

"It was . . ." Little stumbles for words. He slowly shakes his head and looks away. Little's voice fails him. He excuses himself and walks over to a corner. Soon, this 6-foot-3 man, with a chest still solid from years of dragging hoses, is wiping tears from his eyes.

He says later: "This is some serious shit you're stirring up."

Affirmative Reaction

For all the fuss over the language in the Headen agreement, with its de facto set-asides, legal experts say what is not spelled out in the decree is what might ultimately be its undoing. Specifically, it lacks a "sunset provision" -- a guidepost, be it a target date or numerical goal, for the city to determine when its minority hiring efforts have been successful.

Kenneth Kowalski, a law professor at Cleveland State's Marshall College of Law, heads the school's employment law clinic. During the 1980s, he represented eight women in an unsuccessful class-action lawsuit alleging that the CFD hiring test was biased against women. Kowalski says that recent court cases suggest the consent decree's proponents face a serious challenge.

"If [a city] is going to put in place a program, it has to be a program with goals. It can't be a program that runs forever," he says. The Headen decree has been in place more than a generation, he notes, "which is a pretty long time.

"I've seen a number of courts going back to such long-standing decrees and looking at them very carefully. In the 1970s, there were a lot of cases brought, and there were a lot of consent decrees and orders by the courts. Now we're 25 years down the road, and a lot of courts have been looking at those very carefully."

Indeed. Last November, the City of Pittsburgh settled a seven-year-old lawsuit filed by nine white men who alleged they were unfairly passed over for jobs as police officers. From 1975 to 1991, the Pittsburgh PD was required by court order to hire equal numbers of white males, white females, black males, and black females. The men claimed they scored higher on the written exam than minority and female applicants who were offered jobs. As part of the settlement, the nine white men were offered jobs and awarded $900,000 in back pay.

Last March, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 7-2 to let stand a ruling that blocked the Dallas Fire Department from reviving a program to promote more blacks, Hispanics, and women. The program was originally struck down as being discriminatory against white men.

In Ohio, the tide has also been turning against affirmative action. With the notable exception of a 1993 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that let stand Cincinnati's two-tiered system for hiring firefighters, affirmative action programs have fared badly in recent years. Both Cuyahoga County and the State of Ohio have abandoned minority set-aside programs for construction and purchasing contracts, the state acting after a 1998 court ruling declared its program unconstitutional.

Closer to home, a consent decree governing hiring by the Cleveland Police Department, which was cited as a precedent in the Headen decree, was dissolved in 1995. U.S. District Judge William Thomas ruled that, since the number of black and Hispanic officers exceeded 33 percent -- the agreed-upon target resulting from Shield Club v. City of Cleveland, exactly the kind of target Headen is missing -- the city was in compliance with the decree and could begin hiring directly from the ranking on civil service exams.

In fact, the CFD itself has already removed an affirmative action program, which applied strictly to promotions. In 1983, the city entered into a separate consent decree with the Vanguards, in which the city agreed to promote more minorities into officer positions. The decree was challenged by Cleveland Fire Fighters Union Local 93, but ultimately upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987.

That decree was last in effect during a round of promotions in 1993, after which it was allowed to expire. When Szabo was promoted to lieutenant in 1996, it was from a list that did not take into account the applicants' race.

Kowalski believes those precedents do not bode well for the Vanguards. "If it appears the municipality is putting in place a quota system," he says, "then that is going to get struck down."

But Richard Stege, the Vanguards' longtime lawyer, who filed the original Headen lawsuit, is confident the current system will survive any legal challenge.

"If I were advising [the white prospective firefighters], I would suggest that maybe their time and energies would be better spent on other things," Stege says. "I expect this decree to be around for a number of years. It's on solid legal ground."

Stege says abolishing Headen would be a huge setback for those trying to get the CFD -- whose 900 members now include nearly 26 percent minorities -- to have a more diverse workforce.

"A lot of progress has been made, and people recognize we're on the right course," Stege says. "We've got a very, very gentle approach that's worked from virtually everybody's perspective and is continuing to chip away at years and years of difficulty. It's just not there yet. Why go backwards?"

The Madding Crowd

It's a few hours after quitting time, and a handful of guys from the Laborer's Union are sipping Budweisers at Mad Anthony's Tavern on Detroit Road in Lakewood. With Bruce Springsteen on the jukebox and a framed Plain Dealer from 1994 announcing the Browns' release of Bernie Kosar, Mad Anthony's could be one of any of the hundreds of shot-and-beer bars across the area. It's usually full of white guys in their twenties and thirties coming to see their pals and get away from their girlfriends.

Down at the end of the bar are John Conway and Pat Perkins. Conway is a 30-year-old who refinishes hardwood floors and tends bar at Mad Anthony's for a living. Perkins, 29, is a graduate of Ohio State University who works as a house painter. They grew up together, both graduating from Lakewood High School.

Like Little and Coles 25 years ago, Conway and Perkins -- along with four other friends at the bar who took the written test in June 1998 -- say all they want is to be judged on their test scores. Conway is ranked 119; Perkins is number 57. Tom English, a 25-year-old friend working on a master's degree in human resources at Cleveland State, is ranked number 66.

Conway, Perkins, English, and many of their friends paid $375 for a course held on six consecutive Saturdays that prepared them for both the written and physical tests. As part of the Headen decree, the City of Cleveland operates a similar pretest course that is free and open to anyone who plans to take the eligibility exam. That course was offered at two locations, East 131st Street and West 44th Street, and staffed entirely by minority firefighters. One of the men at the bar -- who did not want his name used -- said he went once, but felt awkward as the only white person there.

For the real test, applicants take a civil service exam and, a few months later, run a rigorous obstacle course that includes dragging hoses and a dummy. The time it takes to complete the course becomes part of their combined test scores.

After all the tests are graded, applicants are assigned a ranking, from the highest (number one) to the lowest score of everyone who passes both parts of the exam. Those results are valid for two years. The city's civil service commission then determines how many firefighters it needs to hire and invites applicants to the training academy in successive groups, or classes, until it reaches that number. During each of the past two hiring cycles, the city has gone through three classes of candidates.

According to figures provided by Local 93, about 35 percent of the applicants who passed the most recent test were minorities. The Vanguards, meanwhile, place the rate of passing minorities at 39 percent. Either way, that figure, per the Headen decree, was rounded up to 40 percent. Which means that, of the 80 cadets expected to enter the Fire Training Academy next month, 32 must be black or Hispanic. (The city sent out 98 "letters of conditional employment" for the first class -- some candidates always drop out -- 40 of which went to minorities.)

That's a bad break for English, who, despite being ranked among the top 80 scorers, was not invited to undergo a routine physical and psychological exam, the first step to entering the academy. He's confident he'll make the second class, but the delay will cost him seniority points and lost wages. Perkins has been invited with the first group of applicants, but thinks it's unfair he'll be grouped with men who scored well below him and his friends. Conway believes his ranking would get him hired in a straight system, but because of the set-aside, his future is in question.

Fairness issues aside, the disparity in the numbers is striking. According to Local 93, the lowest-scoring minority who received a letter of conditional employment is ranked at 363, while the lowest ranking non-minority is number 65. Minorities ranked 343, 350, and 353 are tentatively scheduled to be part of the class, while Tom English, at number 66, is not.

If a second hiring class is added, the qualified minorities will include men ranked in the 500s.

What's more, when the cadets complete the training academy, they are assigned a seniority ranking, which factors into everything from who gets promoted to who cleans the toilets. As part of the Headen decree, minorities are guaranteed a certain number of higher seniority slots -- which means that, when the cadets become firefighters, minorities with lower test scores will be placed ahead of higher-scoring whites.

And that doesn't sit well with the crowd at Mad Anthony's.

"The Headen decision needs to be reformed," says Conway, who attended the meeting at St. Rocco's and pledged $350 to the lawsuit. "There's no reason that somebody who didn't earn it should be rewarded. It seems to have served its purpose by getting rid of the good old boys network. But now it could cost me a job to somebody hundreds of places down from me on the list."

Conway bristles at the suggestion that those looking to overturn the consent decree are motivated by racism, noting that his mother was a social worker and his father's hero was civil rights attorney Morris Dees, who co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Center. "I just want my fair shot," he says.

Kevin Echols believes this focus on the eligibility-list rankings is misguided. He says the test was designed not as a gauge of who will make the best firefighter, but to identify candidates who are reasonably fit and smart enough to complete the academy.

"They could change the name on it and call it the SAT. It doesn't say whether or not the person could be a good firefighter," says Echols, a towering, articulate man, whose organization represents more than 200 black and Hispanic firefighters. "It says whether or not this person can read, do basic computations, can follow directions. A lot of the things that go into being a good fireman can't be measured.

"The term is "eligibility list,' and that's just what it means -- if you're on the list, you're eligible to get this job."

Echols understands why people are willing to fight so hard to get the job. He graduated from West Virginia University, where he played basketball, and took a job at Ameritrust, which promptly closed. "When Ameritrust folded, I needed a job that I knew was going to be there every day."

For the past 11 years, he has worked as a firefighter. Echols has also instructed cadets in two classes at the training academy, where he says everyone starts out equal. "I've seen the number-one candidate on the list, and he's no different [from the other candidates]. If everyone enters the fire academy without a fire background, you all know nothing."

If not for the Headen decision, Echols believes the city would still be hiring minorities for the fire department at a rate of just 4 or 5 percent -- and the numbers seem to back him up. If the first class at this year's fire academy was drawn straight from the test ranking, just two of the 80 cadets would be minorities -- 2.5 percent. "In the last 23 years, if you remove Headen, the city's hiring practices haven't changed," he insists. "What's really changed?"

If there's one recurring theme in this debate, it's how two groups who actually have much in common can view the same situation and come away with totally different conclusions. When told that the top 80 slots include just two minorities, many of the guys at Mad Anthony's groan and shake their head.

"The Civil Service Commission set this [test] up to be as unbiased and fair as possible. We all took the test and, for whatever reason -- I don't know the reason -- less minorities scored well on the test," English says, his blue eyes sparkling. "We grow up believing you pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Then you work so hard for something, only to find out the rules are stacked against you."

But ask the retired black firefighters about the same test results, and they cite them as further proof that the test is biased against minorities.

"The process hasn't changed since the 1950s -- it's still screwed up," Guyton says. "If you get rid of Headen, you have to replace it. Replace it with what?"

City Hall Snafu

That's a question many people have been grappling with. And so far, no one has an answer. Echols has been meeting with leaders of Local 93, who are publicly opposed to the current hiring system, searching unsuccessfully for a compromise.

"Our position on the Headen decision is not a mystery -- something needs to be adjusted," says Kevin Gunn, president of Local 93, which represents both white and black Cleveland firefighters. "Our membership has said for us to look for ways to abolish the Headen decree, because it has done what it was meant to do."

Sitting in his wood-paneled office on Lake Avenue, Gunn says the union is considering filing its own lawsuit against the city to get answers about a different set of questions, such as why it took so long for the last round of tests to be graded; why the city did not follow the system it had in the past, which required candidates to have a certain score on the written test in order to move on to the physical; and whether the 40 percent passing figure for minorities is inflated.

"We believe the calculations that set the ratio of minorities was faulty -- it's too high," Gunn says. "We believe the city rounded up more than they should have."

The eligibility list was finalized last September, and the first class was slated to begin February 7. But once it became clear that a lawsuit challenging Headen was not only possible but likely, the city went on the defensive. At first, city officials refused to comment on whether they thought the hiring system was fair. "We are following the law on hiring for the fire department," Civil Service Commissioner Gregory Wilson said in mid-January. "That's the law, and we just follow it."

But one week later, Wilson sent out a letter informing applicants that the starting date for the first class had been pushed back to March 6. The tersely worded letter informed the candidates that, during the delay, "The Civil Service Commission will comprehensively review all issues pertaining to the entrance examination." He dismissed speculation that the review was spurred by talk of imminent lawsuits and the union's questions about the test results.

Then, less than a week after Wilson's letter was sent, the city filed its motion to suspend the Headen decree. Szabo points to such tactics as proof the administration didn't take Headen's detractors seriously until the lawsuit loomed too large to ignore.

"The motion is to modify the consent decree, which the city had the ability to do all along," Szabo says. "They've only done so at this time because of the perceived threat of litigation from us."

While the administration scrambles to avoid a messy legal battle, black groups and white groups continue to maneuver, fighting hard for a few scraps at the city's job trough. Despite their entrenched differences, the opposing sides share a remarkable amount of common ground.

Gunn, for example, says the comparatively poor performance of blacks on the eligibility test cannot be discussed without first addressing the failure of Cleveland public schools. "The discrimination doesn't lie within the city of Cleveland or the Division of Fire," Gunn says. "Maybe it occurs due to somebody being able to go to a private high school compared to somebody who went to [Cleveland public schools]. Why don't we address the shortcomings of the educational system?"

Echols sounds a similar note: "This is the worst school system in the state," he says. "There's nothing that's been equal up to this point."

They also sound alike when talking about solutions. Echols proposes creating a public safety magnet school, whereas Gunn would like to see a free year-round training program for the eligibility test. "Let the person go for the next 104 weekends. I think that would overcome any socioeconomic discrimination anyone would face," he says.

Echols is open to reworking the consent decree, but only if it included a hiring floor that minority representation never fell below. "A lot of the civil rights legislation was done in a quick-fix manner, and as time changes, I do believe [the decree] needs to be modified and modernized," he says. But Echols does not believe the entire decree should be scrapped. "I don't think enough has changed -- not just in the city, but in the country -- that merits it."

Both sides also acknowledge that a lengthy legal battle over affirmative action could sour race relations in a department that already has fire stations known for being "white houses" or "black houses," where those assigned to the station are predominantly from the same race.

"As you get seniority, you can move around -- you go where you want to go," Echols acknowledges. "Is it a big conspiracy? Nah. You just want to be where your friends are."

Chief Kevin Gerrity says flatly he has no concerns about a legal battle causing tension within the ranks and dismisses claims by some of the passed-over candidates that Cleveland residents are not getting the best-qualified firefighters. "In measuring how effective a fire department is, the only statistic that really matters is the number of fire fatalities in a community," he says. "In the 1980s it was in the upper 30s [annually]. In 1999, there were 11."

Sometimes the debate sounds surreal, with the two sides not only sharing points of agreement, but making mirror arguments with the same phrases.

Echols says one of the reasons he defends Headen is the debt he feels to men like Noles, Little, and Guyton, who made it easier for blacks to crack the ranks of the CFD. Szabo, anxious to challenge Headen, says he is doing so because he feels indebted to predecessors who worked to remove affirmative action from the department's promotion system three years ago. Adding to the irony is the fact that Szabo spends much of his work life at Station 9, where Noles hung out as a kid.

Szabo's group is using the same legal technique the Vanguards used 27 years ago: finding qualified applicants, rather than firefighters, to file suit, even though members of the department are playing an active behind-the-scenes role in the suit, just as they did in 1973.

"There's a perception we're trying to keep these jobs," Szabo says over coffee. "All we want is a level playing field."

That sounds nearly identical to Little, who says: "Our fight has never been to give us something we don't deserve. It's been, "Let's level out the playing field.'" When asked about these eerie similarities, Little says: "It might be the same story. But one is coming from Jack, and the other is coming from the Giant."

In a twisted way, could this role reversal be seen as a form of progress? Not likely, say all sides.

"They're starting to do the same stuff over again, and if we're not careful, Local 93 and its followers will come back another time with another rock," Little says. "We've got to fight them every time. They don't seem to ever go away. When will this bullshit ever end?"

Szabo doesn't expect black firefighters to agree with him. He's confident his vindication will come through the courts.

"Inherently, white firefighters and black firefighters don't see this issue the same way -- that just mirrors society," Szabo says. "I don't expect them to see it from my side. But they can't expect us to see it from their side. I just can't do it."

So regardless of the outcome of the lawsuits, it seems likely Cleveland will continue the way it always has.

One city, one fire department.

Two worlds.

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