Excerpts from the ChicagoTribune.com:

It took only the whiff of smoke and the sudden blaring of a smoke detector to send nine children into escape mode at the Chicago Fire Department’s training academy on the Near West Side.

Saturday’s fire drill, which began with nontoxic smoke filling a dark make-believe bedroom, may have just been a practice run for the African-American kids, but it was a crucial one, according to a national black firefighters organization.

The death rate of black children in house fires across the United States is more than double that of white children, even though African-American children make up a smaller portion of the population, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.

Firefighting officials say the deaths are largely preventable.

“Just the lack of education is what causes the deaths,” said Gregory Boggs, a Chicago Fire Department lieutenant and president of the African-American Firefighters & Paramedics League. “They don’t know how to get out of the house, they don’t know the technique of how to open the door,” he said.

Before Saturday’s drill started, veteran Chicago firefighter and fire safety officer Preston Roberson warned his young pupils that they would have to act quickly if a real fire broke out inside their homes; a couple of the kids goofing around inside the tiny faux bedroom were jolted back into the moment by his booming voice.

At Roberson’s prompting, the grade-schoolers sprang into action, using the back of their hands to test the door for heat and quickly crawling out of the fake home just as he had instructed them.

The drill was part of a full morning of activities for about 70 children and their parents at the fifth annual “firefighter for a day” event hosted by the league.

Veteran firefighters and paramedics, many of them African-American, sought to teach basic skills that could save a life during a house fire. Instructors like Roberson taught the children about how to make a fire escape plan and what to say when they call 911.

The day of events that had children suiting up as firefighters, learning how firefighting equipment is used and running through simulations at the fire academy on DeKoven Street also introduced the children of color to firefighting as a career.

Boggs’ group has ramped up recruitment efforts in recent months, hoping to increase the number of blacks in the Chicago Fire Department. Of the city’s approximately 5,000 firefighters, according to Boggs, only about 842 — just over 16 percent — are African-American, “which is pitiful,” he said.

“It’s a very small number and we’re working to increase those numbers and get more African-Americans on the job,” Boggs said.

thanks Dan