Baltimore City

Fire academy inquiry finds no 'systemic' cheating

An investigation into alleged cheating at Baltimore's fire academy did not uncover a "systemic" problem, the fire chief announced Tuesday, but six supervisors and instructors are facing administrative discipline as a result of the probe.

As the department announced plans to address the issues raised by the cheating allegations and other management problems, some worried that the decision to close the emergency services portion of the academy could create logistical problems for firefighters.

"I'm concerned that members of my union are going to have to go down to Ocean City to get recertified," said Stephan G. Fugate, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers Association.

The investigation sought to determine how 20 recruits received advance, confidential copies of an exam as part of the certification process for emergency medical technicians. Fire Chief James S. Clack said Tuesday that none of the recruits knew the documents they received on June 14 might have contained material specific to the test.

But the chief said investigators believe the instructors knew that the scenario described in the documents was one of several that could have been on the exam, and was considered confidential by the independent agency administering the test.

"No recruit, no student, engaged in any type of cheating," Clack said at a news conference. "They were given material they shouldn't have been given by instructional staff. … They had no idea that what they got was something they shouldn't have got."

None of the three supervisors or three instructors recommended for disciplinary charges has been named. Each will have an opportunity to appear before a hearing board to address any charges.

The investigation, Clack said, did not identify the instructors' motives for handing out the test materials. But he expects that to be established in disciplinary hearings.

All 20 of the applicants have been retested and certified, and Clack repeatedly stressed to reporters that no paramedic or emergency medical technician is treating patients without proper training or licensing.

Clack also tried to assure residents that they are safe, and that services are not being diminished or threatened. He outlined a series of steps the department is taking to fix problems at the academy, including voluntarily ending its medical training program and delaying attempts to get reaccredited.

At the news conference, Clack outlined some new problems that were uncovered during the investigation into the exams.

In one instance, he said, a recruit already certified in another state did not retake the Maryland test as required, but an instructor marked him as having completed the exam anyway. In another instance, Clack said, he did not know that the state had placed the city's emergency medical training program on "provisional status," mostly due to poor paperwork procedures that still need to be fixed.

"We need to be beyond reproach," Clack said, admitting "we stumbled" in being accountable to the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems, which accredits training programs and oversees certification tests.

Clack acknowledged a breakdown in internal communications regarding the deficiencies in meeting state standards. He said staff at the academy knew of the issue last year, but he wasn't notified until recently.

In blunt language, Clack said "there was lack of communication up and down the chain of command."

However, Joseph Brocato, who directed the fire academy from February 2007 until September 2010, said that he made Clack aware of the provisional status within weeks of receiving the probationary letter.

"As for Chief Clack's claim that he was not aware of the provisional status until June of 2011 or that he was not made aware of the contents of the letter," Brocato said in a written statement, "I will say that I personally briefed him on two separate occasions regarding the provisional status and our plan to correct the issues … Both briefings occurred in the summer of 2010, shortly after the letter was received."

Brocato retired from the Fire Department in the fall.

Clack said he doesn't remember being briefed by Brocato on the academy's provisional status and that he's certain he never saw the May 2010 letter until a few weeks ago.

Now that the academy has halted EMS training, the challenge, Clack said, is to find a place to train new emergency medical technicians and paramedics, and recertify those already in the field. The department has 1,100 emergency medical technicians — who require 24 hours of training every three years — and 650 paramedics, trained in advanced life support — who require 72 hours of training every two years.

Clack said he is reaching out to universities and fire training programs to help out. Those arrangements could become permanent, he said, if they prove cost-effective and provide adequate training.

"It will, out of necessity, create a logistical problem for training recruits," said Fugate. "Maybe 'nightmare' is an overstatement, but it'll be a logistical problem."

Fugate added that he supported Clack's decision to end the city's EMS training program because cooperating with MIEMSS may make recertification simpler down the road. Fugate said recruits caught up in the investigation were "victims" who were misled.

Fugate's union does not represent the instructors who were charged by the department.

Rick Hoffman, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 734, which represents firefighters who are not officers, learned Monday evening about the department's move to end EMS training. He refrained from commenting because he had not spoken with Clack about the decision.

The decision to end EMS training creates another hurdle during a recruiting ramp-up period for the Fire Department. The class that was under investigation was only the second at the fire academy in more than a year. The department stopped hiring until last fall because of the city's shrinking budget.