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Leaked AFD Exam Adds Fuel to Fire

Allegations of cheating exacerbate Fire Department's diversity woes

By Josh Rosenblatt, Fri., May 27, 2011

Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr
Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr
Photo by Jana Birchum

Impromptu press conferences are rarely good things. They conjure up thoughts of political sex scandals, financial malfeasance, steroid use, or worse. So when Austin Fire Department Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr hastily took the podium at City Hall last Thursday, we had to figure things were bad.

And they were. Turns out that two days earlier, Kerr had received an anonymous letter alleging that the questions and grid scoring sheets for the structured oral interview portion of the long-running AFD testing process had been distributed to select candidates, obviously affording any such candidates an unfair advantage and compromising the entire effort.

"How can the Local 975 Union moles be allowed to take the test and the interview and pass the answers from both tests to selected individuals?" the anonymous letter sender asked. "As you can see I have enclosed proof." That proof, unfortunately for AFD, was an official copy of the questions and scoring grid used by interviewers during the two-week process conducted earlier this month – although the actual source of the leaked material remains unknown.

Still, Kerr told reporters, the department didn't actually have proof that individual test-takers had seen the questions beforehand. "The only thing we were able to do was to ascertain that it was actually the correct document," Kerr said at the press conference. "We have not been able to ascertain or corroborate that indeed the process was compromised or that somebody had those documents or had an unfair advantage. But in the interest of being fair and in the interest of being sure that everybody has an equal opportunity and equal access and has the opportunity for fair treatment, we are going to discard the structured oral interview scores that we have currently got in our process, and we will start over again."

So those 2,400 or so applicants who took the structured oral interview will have to take it again at some point. When that will be is currently anybody's guess. AFD spokespeople, finding themselves suddenly in the middle of a police investigation, aren't talking, but department officials have said the process couldn't possibly take place before the end of June, about the time they were hoping to bring in their newest cadet class.

The thing is, a breach like this isn't necessarily surprising. Here you've got 58 evaluators and staff members along with 48 volunteers conducting 15-minute interviews with 2,400 applicants in rapid succession over 10 days like they're capping ketchup bottles on a conveyor belt: Add it up, and the possibilities for a leak are endless.

Just ask Chad Legel, president of I/O Solutions, the consulting firm the city hired to help design the test. As part of the arbitration process to settle the ongoing grievance against AFD filed by the Austin Firefighters Association over hiring practices and diversity, Legel admitted last month that a compromise is always a risk when conducting oral interviews over several days. "I always tell people that when you protract a process beyond a day, when you have multiple days, there's always a chance that Jimmy can tell somebody else, his friend, what the questions on the oral interview were," Legel said, "and that's a legitimate concern."

So the question at this point becomes: Who had access to those test questions and scoring grids, and how well were those people trained? Kerr said last Thursday that 58 people, including evaluators and department staff, had access to the test. And regular readers of the Chronicle will recall that AFD recruited 48 volunteers from the community to help conduct the interviews. They might also recall that those volunteers were paid in lunch for 10 full days of work (see "AFD's Volunteer Hire Department," May 6).

In the end, it's just more bad news for AFD at a time when bad news seems to be everywhere. At press time, AFD and Austin Firefighters Association officials were at department headquarters, deep into the second part of the arbitration process, which is meant to determine if the test that just got compromised was even worth the paper it was printed on. Actually, if there's any good news to this whole sordid affair at all, it's that, upon hearing the news, I/O Solutions agreed to create and conduct another oral interview process at cost, $10,000. That may not seem like such great news considering taxpayers have already paid $180,000 to the Chicago-based firm, but considering the alternatives – either an understaffed fire department or a fire department staffed by firefighters who may or may not have cheated on their entrance exams – $10,000 may turn out to be the cheapest peace of mind we ever bought.

Posted here is the anonymous letter to the Austin Fire Department that revealed the leaking of the standardized questions for the oral interviews for firefighter candidates. The letter cites Josh Rosenblatt's May 13 story, "The Color of Fire," and questions the legitimacy of the process for reviewing new firefighter candidates.

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