Scandal and opportunity

The Baltimore City Fire Department investigation into possible cheating by students in its emergency medical technician training program has found no evidence of intentional wrongdoing by recruits, but Fire Chief James S. Clack's decision Monday to suspend the department's EMS training was still the right call, given the management and record-keeping problems uncovered during the probe. Until officials get those under control, the department may be better off relying on emergency personnel trained in other jurisdictions or at local colleges rather than risk further loss of public confidence.

Questions about the integrity of an EMS exam given in June were first raised last month by the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services System, the state body responsible for certifying EMS training. Its inquiry determined that more than 20 students had been allowed to see a portion of an exam that had been left out in the open on the day the test was administered. When the incident came to light, the fire department made all the students take a different version of the test and reassigned the academy's 11 full-time EMS instructors to other duties.


In its report Tuesday, the department said it had concluded no training recruit had "intentionally cheated" on the exam, and that there was no evidence any recruit or instructor knew which version of the test would be given that day. But it faulted the procedures for securing the integrity of the exam results and conceded that none of the students should have been able to see testing materials in advance. The report also recommended internal charges against three instructors and two supervisors in the program.

Chief Clack says the alleged cheating was only partly responsible for his decision to shut down the city's EMS training. The academy had been experiencing management and record-keeping problems dating back to at least June of last year, when the state board put the department's EMS program on probationary status for problems related to poor record-keeping. At that time, the board criticized the department for its handling of instructor files and evaluations and for problems with the certified medics who accompany recruits during training sessions. But because of a communications breakdown between the department and the state board, Mr. Clack says he wasn't aware of the earlier allegations until the cheating scandal broke.


Painful as the department's most recent problems have been, they've also provided the city with an opportunity to try a different model that might work better over the long run. Most big-city fire departments train their own emergency medical people, but it's not a rule set in stone, and in the current economic environment anything the city can do to shave costs is worth trying.

The city presently spends some $800,000 a year on salaries for the 11 people assigned to the fire academy's EMS training. By collaborating with programs like the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, a division of the University of Maryland College Park, Mr. Clack thinks the city might be able to substantially cut the costs of training recruits without sacrificing quality. "If the outcomes are comparable or better and we save funds, that's good," he said yesterday. "If it costs more, we'll ask to be recertified, but I'm not convinced that will be the final outcome."

Whatever happens, the department must move quickly to fix the problems uncovered by this incident and restore public confidence in the institution. Clearly, the department's own internal communications aren't as good as they need to be if nobody bothered to tell the chief about the state board's complaints. That only highlights the larger communications problem between the board and the department. If the problems at the department weren't being attended to properly, why didn't anyone at the board contact the department to find out why?

There were apparently a lot of missed signals on both sides. The challenge now will be finding a way to restore that dialogue so that both the state board and the department can move on.