EMT scandal spurs changes
Town seeks to step up oversight of training
After a state investigation into falsified emergency medical training records rocked Lexington’s Fire Department last year, town officials are seeking changes to improve oversight and ensure the same problems don’t arise again.
Lexington Fire Chief William Middlemiss is renewing his request that the town hire an additional assistant fire chief with a salary of about $90,000 to oversee the department’s rapidly growing emergency medical services and 54 emergency medical workers.
The request comes after seven Lexington firefighters were entangled in a state investigation last summer by the Department of Public Health that identified more than 200 emergency medics, from basic level to advanced paramedics, who allegedly received credit for recertification training but never attended a class.
Since then, one veteran Lexington firefighter at the center of the controversy retired amidst disciplinary proceedings with the town, another is back on the job after serving a suspension, and another five have filed a federal lawsuit against the Department of Public Health in an effort to clear their names.
Outside Lexington, five people have been indicted on charges related to faked recertifications, and state Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office said this month that the investigation is ongoing.
Before the scandal broke last year, Middlemiss had requested that the town hire an additional assistant chief to oversee emergency medical services, which brings in more than $1 million per year in revenue, primarily through ambulance services. The town did not create the position last year because of financial constraints, according to Town Manager Carl Valente, and Middlemiss said he doesn’t know whether an assistant chief could have prevented Lexington from becoming entangled in the statewide scandal.
“Hindsight is 20-20,’’ Middlemiss said. “It’s very difficult to suggest in either direction.’’
The department’s in-house training coordinator at the time, 24-year veteran Mark Culleton, was one of two instructors that state investigators said falsified training records for emergency medical workers.
Culleton was also president of a state-accredited EMT training company, Life Saving Maneuvers in Billerica, and investigators said he faked recertification records for more than 30 people. The state pulled his paramedic certification and revoked his license as an EMT. Valente said Culleton then retired while the town was in the middle of disciplinary proceedings against him.
Culleton is receiving a pension because the accusations have not resulted in any criminal charges, Valente said, but the town is deciding if it will continue pursuing disciplinary action against him.
Culleton and his attorney, Richard Kendall, could not be reached for comment.
Valente said Aaron Paskalis, one of six other Lexington firefighters whose emergency care certifications were temporarily suspended by the state, also served an unpaid suspension from the Fire Department and is now back on the job. Valente would not disclose how long the suspension was.
Five other Lexington firefighters, Joseph Foley, George-Arthur Robinson, Kenneth Tremblay, John Ritchie, and Mark Schofield, filed a lawsuit in federal court in October alleging they were wrongly accused of falsifying their records and were never given the opportunity by the state to be heard. All five said they were not at work when Culleton said their cardiopulmonary resuscitation recertification training course was held, and that Culleton submitted their names for recertification without their knowledge.
Since the suit was filed, Tim Belcher, the attorney representing the firefighters, said, the state has sent Tremblay a letter stating the allegations against him were unwarranted. But Belcher said Tremblay wants a hearing where it can come out in public the accusations against him were false.
According to a motion to dismiss the suit filed by Coakley’s office last month, Tremblay has been cleared of wrongdoing and a hearing for the four other firefighters has been scheduled for Feb. 25 before the state’s Division of Administrative Law Appeals.
Belcher said the four firefighters are not sure if the state hearing will allow them the opportunity to clear their names, and they, along with Tremblay, are continuing their federal lawsuit.
“These men want to be able to establish that the public accusation of fraud was false,’’ Belcher said.
Valente said the town agreed that Tremblay should never have been accused of falsifying training records. He said the town has not sought disciplinary action against the other four firefighters, who remain on the job, and is waiting to see the outcome of their state hearing.
In response to the scandal, the Department of Health has developed an ethics course for all of the emergency medical technicians who were affected, and spokeswoman Julia Hurley said the department is exploring whether to require ethics training be included in refresher training programs statewide.
The department is also consulting with other states about their requirements for continued emergency medical education, and is discussing ways to monitor courses and address problems with education fraud with emergency medical service stakeholders and regional agencies, Hurley said in an e-mail.
“We are developing recommendations for specific actions that the department can take to minimize the instances of fraud with respect to EMS continuing education,’’ she said.
In Lexington, Middlemiss said his department has already made several changes to increase oversight of emergency medical training. He said a captain now has to check that anyone who was on the roster for a training session was at work that day, and the department is making sure that only administrators are submitting invoices to the state Office of Emergency Medical Services.
But Middlemiss said the training coordinator for the department is still a firefighter who works long shifts and then might be off for a number of days. He said an assistant chief would be at the department five days a week to oversee training recertification and ensure the department is complying with federal and state regulations, and be in charge of other financial duties, such as recovering payments for ambulance services. The position has been included in the town’s proposed budget for fiscal 2012, which is before the Board of Selectmen and must be approved by Town Meeting before going into effect July 1.
Valente said he supports adding an assistant chief.
“I share the chief’s concerns that we still need to have a senior officer overseeing the whole program,’’ Valente said.
Brock Parker can be reached at email@example.com.