Evidence of cheating on city fire exams

Analysis supports allegations

Dixon asks `strong action'

December 01, 2007|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,Sun reporter

The top performers on two recent Baltimore Fire Department promotion exams likely cheated amid lapses in testing security, including a dozing monitor, according to the findings of a city investigation released yesterday.

The report, by the city's inspector general, recommends that the implicated firefighters be disciplined and that the June 2 test be given again.

Though the firefighters did not admit to cheating, the investigation found that at least five had a 2001 exam that they studied from, which is against test protocol. The test included numerous questions identical to those on the 2001 test.

When questioned, the firefighters' "responses were deceptive and indirect and some bordered on being unprofessional," the report said.

The five firefighters were not identified in the report, except by race. All were African-American. The racially charged controversy erupted in June when union officials questioned the scores of the African-American firefighters, leading a black firefighters group to call the suspicions "racially motivated."

Mayor Sheila Dixon said she was disappointed that the firefighters likely cheated and expects the Fire Department to take "strong action" with regard to disciplinary measures.

"The report clearly shows that the test was compromised," Dixon said yesterday. "Both the Fire Department and the Department of Human Resources have some work to do to ensure that this kind of thing doesn't happen again."

Dixon said she has requested that both departments have recommendations for retesting to her within seven days:

"What it does is everyone who passed the test is now in the situation where they'll end up having to possibly retake the test."

The report comes at the end of a year of turmoil in the city's Fire Department, which began with a fatal training accident that was found to have violated dozens of national safety standards. The department was also the subject of an internal investigation for an off-the-books account that was used to purchase fire equipment, circumventing the city's purchasing requirements.

Last month, Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. - acknowledging the distraction of the controversy surrounding the death of the fire cadet - announced that he will resign at the end of the year.

Yesterday, Fire Department officials said they would review the investigative report before deciding whether everyone should retake the test and what disciplinary actions should be taken against those who are believed to have cheated.

Chief Kevin Cartwright, a Fire Department spokesman, said disciplinary action, which could include suspension or termination, will be up to the fire chief.

"If the investigation proves that there was very credible evidence that there was some unethical behavior by our members, some type of disciplinary action will taken, absolutely," said Cartwright. "No one will just get off with a verbal reprimand."

The report included a probability study comparing the test-takers' answer sheets with their previous scores and each others'.

The report said a test monitor slept on duty during the exam, enabling more than one firefighter to go to the men's bathroom and use his cell phone, a violation of security procedures. The report also found that a test monitor admitted that numerous personnel might have had access to the tests before the examination was given.

More than 300 firefighters took one of two promotional exams June 2 - one for those seeking promotion to lieutenant, another for lieutenants seeking promotion to captain.

The exams are given once every two years. They are the sole deciding factor by which firefighters rise through the ranks. The results are especially critical because the captain and lieutenant positions, which come with higher salaries and pension, only rarely become available.

Though the allegations of cheating had raised questions of racism, the investigation found evidence that problems with the test extended beyond the initial five African-American firefighters and included at least eight firefighters of different races.

According to a statistical and probability review of the captain's test conducted by Dr. John D. Bruno, an independent expert, there were two pairs of firefighters who appeared to have cheated on the test, based on similar answers.

One pair had unusually high scores, especially compared with previous tests they had taken, leading Bruno to conclude that at least one had advance knowledge of the test answers. The other pair had relatively low scores, likely the result of one test-taker copying from the other.

Additionally, another exam-taker had suspicious scores, but information beyond test data would be needed to prove cheating, the report concluded.

Similarly, on the lieutenant's exam, Bruno found two pairs of firefighters he concluded cheated.

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