Baltimore City

City voluntarily ends emergency training at fire academy

The Baltimore Fire Department has voluntarily ended its emergency medical services training in the wake of an investigation into cheating at the fire academy in June, according to the state agency that oversees such training.

The disclosure came a day before the state was set to review the findings of the cheating investigation. The Fire Department preemptively sent a letter to the head of the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems board indicating that the department would give up the fire academy's designation as a state-certified EMS educational program, Fire Chief James S. Clack said Monday. However, Clack said that the cheating investigation was not the only reason he chose to forfeit the academy's credentials.

"It's about paperwork, policies and procedures," he said, adding that management issues at the academy date to 2010.

The decision to shutter a portion of the academy will not limit the city's ability to train fire recruits in other aspects of firefighting. However, recruits will need to get EMS training at local colleges or in other jurisdictions, though the department can re-apply for accreditation in the future.

Maryland law requires that all EMS training programs be approved by the state board, which is made up of 11 members appointed by the governor.

The board was scheduled to meet Tuesday morning in Baltimore to review the findings of the cheating probe, said MIEMSS spokesman Jim Brown, but that meeting was canceled in light of the voluntary shutdown. The state board, offering an explanation for the cancellation, made the department's decision public, though Clack sent his letter on Aug. 1.

A spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the mayor was aware of the decision by the Fire Department.

"Mayor Rawlings-Blake supported Chief Clack's decision to voluntarily suspend the EMS training program and to initiate an internal investigation," the spokesman, Ryan O'Doherty, said in an email Monday. He said that the mayor would not comment further until results of the cheating investigation are released.

The findings are expected to be made public this week.

Clack would not comment about specific findings of the investigation into improprieties during a June 14 exam at the school. The investigation centered on an incident in which more than 20 students were in a class where an exam was left out in the open, he said.

He did confirm, however, that the department will be pursuing internal disciplinary action against at least one employee. All 20 students have been cleared of wrongdoing and were re-tested with a different exam, he said.

"There was nothing found that any recruit or student did anything wrong," Clack said. "They were re-tested with entirely new protocols."

The city moved all EMS instructors into other positions — at headquarters, at the academy and in the field — shortly after the cheating issue was raised by the state, Clack said. Instructors had been put on several days' administrative leave, as required by their union contracts, because they were being shifted from working only during the day to working daytime and nighttime shifts.

In May 2010, the State EMS Board gave the city's academy a warning and placed the program on a year-long probationary period. This "provisional status" was the result of poor record-keeping relating to instructor files and evaluations and problems with expectations for "preceptors," certified medics who ride-along with trainees, Clack said.

The warning letter, he said, was only sent to the training directors of the academy who did not share it with him.

At the time the letter was received, the fire academy was under the direction of Chief Joseph Brocato, who retired from the department last year. Chief Lloyd Carter, who took over for Brocato in October, was recently appointed to a new position, to head the department's recruiting efforts, after the cheating scandal was revealed.

In mid-July of this year, MIEMSS told the Fire Department that it had determined students cheated on the practical segment of a test administered about a month before. Clack said that he did not learn of the academy's provisional status until after the June cheating incident came to light, when a copy of the May 2010 letter was appended to correspondence from the state agency.

The city fire academy will reapply for accreditation, Clack said, if the alternative training options — EMS training by colleges or other jurisdictions — do not prove to be a better solution.

Clack said that refresher EMS courses, for current firefighters, will continue to be offered on city grounds with city equipment but will be taught by instructors from the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, a division of the University of Maryland, College Park.

New recruits will be able to take EMS classes at nearby colleges, including Baltimore City Community College. The department, Clack said, will try to "strike a deal" for reduced tuition. Now, he said, BCCC offers some classes to department employees for about $12 per credit.

"Maybe, in the end, we'll come up with a better way," Clack said.

The EMS training portion of the city's fire academy employed 11 full-time instructors — who are now working in the field — at a cost of about $800,000 per year, he said. If the city decides to do without its own EMS program, he said, the department will try to trim the cost.