While on the job, members of an organization of black firefighters dubbed the Stentorians spend their time battling oppressive heat and flames. But on their own time these firefighters wage battles of a different sort.
Since 1980 the group has operated a training and recruitment center in South Los Angeles for African Americans interested in fire service. Their goal is to increase the hiring and promotion of blacks, which group members say has been thwarted in large part by a history of racism--a smoldering fire whose effects can still be felt today.
"What we're trying to do is tear down past injustices," said Capt. Ollie Linson, president of the Stentorians.
But recently the organization found itself accused of injustice. In March, members of County Firefighters Union Local 1014 said the group handed out questions and answers to an upcoming firefighters' exam during one of its tutorial sessions.
Dallas Jones, president of the union, said a candidate obtained the document at a Stentorian tutorial session and gave it to union officials, who later turned the paper over to the chief.
As a result of the accusations and a subsequent preliminary investigation, County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman threw out the test results of the 5,000 job applicants who took the exam in March. He ordered an investigation and a new test was given June 28. The investigation is continuing.
Officials with the Stentorians deny any wrongdoing and denounce the allegations as an absurd and racially motivated attack on the organization.
Linson said the only document given out by the Stentorians was a practice exam that had been distributed by the county's own personnel office years ago to aid individuals who were preparing to take the county exam.
Union officials deny the racism charge.
"What we have here is a clear case of exam cheating and that's all," Jones said.
But County Battalion Chief Hershel Clady, regional director of an international association of black firefighters and a member of the Stentorians, said the accusations are indicative of a tone throughout the United States.
"Memphis, Alabama, San Francisco, Oakland--you name the city and in every case that (firefighters') local union is attacking the affirmative-action program," he said. "So what's happening here in Los Angeles relates to the overall national campaign to discredit affirmative-action programs and those minorities who benefit from those programs."
Chief Freeman declined to comment on the case until the results of the investigation are released. Freeman, who has been with the department for less than two years, said he is unfamiliar with the specific activities of the Stentorians and the group's impact on the department.
But city Fire Chief Donald O. Manning said his department has a "good line of communication" with the Stentorians and praised the group for its efforts.
"We've seen tremendous growth in the people that we've seen," Manning said, referring to the caliber of the candidates. "And in part I am certain that the Stentorians are responsible for that."
The department does not keep records on the success rate of the applicants assisted by the Stentorians, but Manning said the group's efforts were "paying off." The group has been particularly helpful in assisting individuals seeking promotions, he said.
Supporters of the organization--whose members come from both the city and county fire departments--believe the group has played a major role in increasing the number of blacks in local fire service and those being promoted.
On the city department, there are 299 black firefighters--or 10.6% of the total firefighting force, compared to 4.6% in 1980. As of April 30 of this year, there were 178 black firefighters on the county department, or 8.1%, compared to 6.3% in 1985.
A goal of the city department is for the percentage of blacks in fire service to mirror the percentage of blacks in the city's work force, 14% according to the 1980 census.
For the county department, the goal is to achieve parity with the total population of blacks in the county, which was 12.6% in 1980.
From the beginning, a goal of the local organization has been to open the doors of the fire departments to all ethnic groups.
"Fire service was historically a white organization," Linson said. "Nepotism and cronyism played a big part in who became a firefighter and who didn't."
Before 1955 there were no African Americans on the county department and the few on the city department were at only two stations. Promotions were virtually non-existent.
Former firefighters like Arnett Hartsfield remember those days well.
In 1955, Hartsfield already had put in 15 years with the city Fire Department when he was assigned to Engine Co. 45.
"The captain met me at the door and gave me a direct order never to enter into the kitchen when the white firemen were eating," recalled Hartsfield, who led the fight to integrate the city's stations. "I was already an attorney and every day I came to work I scrubbed the toilet."