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Officials hold off on nullifying fire test

Union's complaints spur new inquiry on cheating

Email|Print| Text size + By Donovan Slack
Globe Staff / March 6, 2008

Patrick administration officials, facing complaints from firefighter unions, have delayed taking action on their decision to nullify the results of a promotion exam for 186 Boston firefighters who had been the target of a cheating investigation.

The state Human Resources Division, which administers civil service tests, had decided last week to scrap results of the November exam and to notify firefighters that they would have to take a new exam.

The decision followed an investigation of whether firefighters took bathroom breaks to send answers to each other via cellphone text message. While the division said it found no proof that individual firefighters had cheated, it concluded that another test was required because numerous test participants talked during the test, brought cellphones into the testing room, and took frequent trips to the men's room.

But after the Globe reported the decision to throw out the results Friday, the president of Boston Firefighters Local 718 and the head of the state association of firefighter unions complained to Patrick administration officials. They contended that the investigation had not been thorough enough to warrant requiring another test.

Paul Dietl, head of the Human Resources Division, said he agreed to delay throwing out the test scores until investigators can do more probing. He declined to say what issues the unions raised, what additional steps would be taken, or how long they would take.

"Since our goal is to ensure a level playing field for all those firefighters who took the test, we have agreed as a matter of fairness to make further inquiries based on these issues before informing the test-takers of any final action," Dietl said in a statement yesterday.

The investigation was prompted by an anonymous complaint made about a month after the Nov. 17 lieutenant exam. Human Resources Division investigators interviewed 171 of the 186 firefighters who took the test at a Quincy Middle School and determined that test-takers had acted inappropriately and may have cheated.

The agency does not have the power to subpoena phone records, and no one volunteered to submit them for review. As a result, investigators said they could not prove whether specific individuals were guilty of cheating.

Edward Kelly, president of the Local 718, said yesterday that without such proof, the state has insufficient grounds to require another test. He said the Human Resources Division should do whatever is necessary, including involving law enforcement agencies with subpoena power, to recover tangible evidence.

"That test should not be thrown out based on innuendo and unsubstantiated allegations," Kelly said. "They should produce some factual evidence of someone cheating or they should certify the [results]."

The president of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts, which represents Local 718 and about 8,000 firefighters in other unions across the state, said he asked state officials to dig deeper before throwing out results, a decision he said would turn dozens of innocent firefighters' lives upside down because of the large amount of studying required to prepare.

"I do not believe the exam was compromised," said Robert McCarthy, president of the Professional Firefighters. "If it ever gets thrown out, the consequences are so injurious the wounds will never heal."

A group of test-takers has retained Boston lawyer Harold Lichten to challenge the Human Resources Division if it decides to throw out their scores without more evidence.

Lichten, who declined to identify his clients, said he would file an appeal with the state's Civil Service Commission, which has the power to overrule the decisions of Human Resources officials. He said his clients each studied for an average of 800 hours spread over 11 months - or 72 hours a month, the equivalent of two, 35-hour work weeks - to learn the material covered by the lieutenant test. Lichten said they do not have a problem submitting phone records to investigators.

"The idea of taking another 11 months out of their lives is just intolerable," he said.

The lieutenant test is given once every two years and is highly competitive, with more than 100 firefighters typically vying for about two-dozen openings each year for lieutenants in the Boston Fire Department.

The test last year covered material from seven text books, 50 sections of the Massachusetts General Laws, and four Fire Department handbooks. Subject areas include chemistry, physics, hydraulics, ladder and pump operations, building design, and major emergency response tactics.

Lieutenants are responsible for evaluating fire scenes and determining tactics and strategy, considering factors such as structure type, wind conditions, temperature, and water availability.

Boston Fire Commissioner Roderick Fraser Jr., who said last week that he was disappointed with the state's initial decision to scrap the test results, said he was happy the state is taking a second look. "The firefighters who studied hard and did the right thing shouldn't be penalized for the mistakes of a few," he said.

It is unclear who would pay for a replacement test if state officials decide to require one. Firefighters paid $125 each to take the Nov. 17 test, a total of $23,250 in Boston.

The cheating investigation spurred Human Resources Division officials to review test procedures for all civil service examinations.

Officials are considering instituting the use of metal detectors, sign-in and sign-out sheets for bathroom breaks, and increasing the number of proctors at testing sites. They are also planning to ban cellphones and other communication devices.

Previously, test-takers were advised not to bring phones into exam sites, but if they ignored that warning they were instructed to place the devices under their desks for the duration of the tests.

The division handles civil service testing for police and fire departments across the state, including entrance exams and promotional tests designed to qualify police officers and firefighters as chiefs, captains, and lieutenants. The division also administers tests for guards at state prisons.

Donovan Slack can be reached at dslack@globe.com.

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