CHICAGO — A century ago, it was nearly unheard of for a firefighter to be Black. Even today, there are disproportionately few in the ranks. But one veteran firefighter is trying to change that.
By training young Black men and women to become first responders, he hopes children will see themselves reflected in the profession and choose to serve.
“At 12 years old, I seen the first black firefighter get off the fire truck. And at that point, I decided, ‘Wow, that's what I wanted to be.’ So, I geared my whole life towards being a firefighter,” said Lt. Quention Curtis, a 34-year veteran of the Chicago Fire Department.
Known as “Lt. Q” he was one of the few Black firefighters in the city.
“Serving over 30 something years inside the city of Chicago, I want to see at some point my community start to look a bit more like me,” said Curtis.
So, four years ago he did something about it. He founded the Black Fire Brigade. The aim was to help diversity the ranks of first responders in the city.
“You know, we need to get administrations across this country to start looking at their demographics in their cities and start making their communities look like that,” said Curtis.
It’s an issue nationwide. According to the most recent report from the National Fire Protection Association, 96% of U.S. firefighters are men, 80% are white and only 6% are Black.
For 26-year-old Ahmad Boyland, a Black Fire Brigade trainee, becoming a firefighter has been a childhood dream.
“Once my mom got me a firefighter outfit when I was younger to wear around the house,” he said. “Ever since then, I just felt that’s what I needed to be doing.”
The nonprofit training program not only turns out firefighters but helps trainees land jobs as emergency medical technicians or police officers.
Alyssa Jones‘s ultimate goal is to become an EMT and paramedic. The young trainee says she hopes other young Black girls will see her as a role model and aspire to get into the field as well.
“I could help them understand what it is and what it's like to show somebody where I started and where I'm working my way up to and doing something good for the community,” said Jones.
That is what Lt. Q hopes to accomplish. He says since starting the nonprofit, more than 400 have gone through the training, including 123 single moms and 13 trainees who were homeless.
The three-month training course is free of cost and takes place at Engine Company 21 on the city’s south side.
“These are the first guys, this crew right here,” said Curtis pointing to an old black and white group photo on the wall.
Now a museum, it was once a working firehouse and home base for the first Black firefighters in the city more than a century ago.
“Much love and respect to Engine Company 21. That's why when we came back. We named our engine Engine 21 so that that legacy will always live on,” he said.
Lt. Q is set to retire at the end of the year, but he says he hopes his enduring legacy will be to take the firefighting foundation of the past into the future.
“It was my lifelong dream and the opportunity to give these kids an opportunity to reduce the crime, to open up their minds and let them know that they can do it,” said Curtis. “If they see me, they can believe me. And they know it's real.”