A clique of five up-and-coming California firefighters shared a goal when they gathered in a study group three years ago: They wanted to reach the highest ranks of Cal Fire and had to pass a tough exam before ascending the career ladder.
Their hard work paid off. Four of them passed, setting themselves up for years of promotions into Cal Fire’s executive ranks.
But as the officers moved up into senior management, a portion of their test preparation trickled down into the hands of another select group of firefighters, according to documents obtained by The Sacramento Bee.
The original group, created by Cal Fire’s No. 3 commander, lived on in an online trove he administered, potentially giving 10 junior-ranking fire officers a shortcut in their own studies for promotion exams.
The effort, however, appears to have run afoul of rigid state rules governing state worker study groups. It wasn’t open to all, and it included testing insight from some of the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s most successful executives.
One of the group’s original members said the result was an unethical advantage for favored fire officers.
“It’s been vetted. It’s been through exams and shown to work. It’s giving you all those answers. All you have to do is memorize,” said Mike Ramirez, an ousted Cal Fire assistant chief who was part of the original study group.
Documents from that invite-only stash managed by Cal Fire Northern Region Chief Scott Upton included suggested answers to possible test questions the group brainstormed.
It also included primers on some of the wide range of legal, administrative and tactical skills that a Cal Fire chief would be expected to master.
Ramirez’s disclosure of the study materials comes as Cal Fire embarks on a $4 million program to improve its professional standards. The department received the extra money to clean up its personnel policies in the wake of an investigation that uncovered cheating, inappropriate sexual activity and drinking-on-the-job at Cal Fire’s academy in Ione.
It also added an additional hiring review unit earlier this year, giving the department one more check on the firefighters it advances around the state.
Ramirez was the highest-ranking of 15 firefighters who were dismissed or demoted because of misconduct at the academy. The state Personnel Board in October declined to reinstate him, finding that he allowed cadets to drink on duty at a graduation dinner, did not respond to a case of alleged sexual harassment and misused a state vehicle. He is suing Cal Fire in San Francisco Superior Court, seeking to overturn his firing.
He disclosed records from Upton’s study group to illustrate that the test preparation techniques that led to punishment for junior firefighters in Ione, where at least two job candidates were given test questions before an exam, were common to some degree throughout Cal Fire.
In Ione, where he was assistant chief, promotion candidates reportedly passed copies of tests to one another and benefited from instructors who sometimes disregarded incorrect answers, according to investigative records obtained by The Bee.
State allows study groups, but not closed ones
Cal Fire’s administration reviewed one of the sets of study questions from the Upton study group and concluded that it did not come directly from an exam, Cal Fire spokesman Dan Berlant said. He noted that Cal Fire publishes job requirements for its leadership positions, and many of the questions reflected topics that are publicly advertised in job announcements.
Upton did not respond to a request for comment and Berlant did not make him available.
Unlike in Ione, Berlant said, “there is no evidence the candidates received or had knowledge of the specific questions on exams in which they participated.”
Berlant further said that Cal Fire regularly refreshes its exams so future test-takers should not benefit from information about past exams.
“The exam questions are different each year so there is no way for applicants who may have had access to prior study materials to gain an unfair advantage,” he said
Public safety employees often create study groups to help them prepare for make-or-break exams and nothing in state law appears to prohibit Upton’s original purpose in collaborating with his peers.
But several state personnel and Cal Fire policies apply:
▪ A state code governing professional exams notes that “no test material from prior examinations should be used” in study groups. Ramirez said the “study questions” and answers in the Upton study group reflect actual exam questions, although Cal Fire’s administration reached a different conclusion.
▪ That same state code says members of study groups must notify their human resources departments of planned sessions. It says “competitors should be given the opportunity to attend.” Berlant said the 2013 study group did not notify Cal Fire’s personnel department that it was meeting.
▪ Before taking exams, applicants are handed instructions warning them that state law forbids them from giving special information to others that would improve or injure another person’s chances of passing a test.
▪ Cal Fire employees also sign confidentiality agreements when they take exams forbidding them from discussing test questions.
The members of the original study group hold some of the highest positions in Cal Fire.
Upton, the Northern Region chief, is two rungs below Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott. He’s married to Cal Fire Deputy Director of Communications Janet Upton, who also is two levels below Pimlott.
The others in the original group are Ramirez, Northern Region Assistant Chief Greg McFadden, Nevada-Yuba-Placer Unit Chief George Morris III and Assistant Chief George Gonzalez.
Upton received his promotion in December 2015. Three months later, State Personnel Board Vice President Lauri Shanahan urged Pimlott at a public meeting to bring in new leadership.
“There needs to be, in my opinion, a real tone at the top change,” she said.
Around California, other fire departments also are facing calls to ensure they create fair application processes that do not favor candidates with connections to leadership.
In 2014, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti canceled a fire academy for new recruits when reports surfaced that 30 percent of its 70 candidates were relatives of Los Angeles firefighters.
A further study from the Rand Corp. showed the minority and female candidates were less likely to take and pass an easy written test in the selection process than white males, excluding themselves from slots in the academy. The Rand report encouraged the city to rethink its selection criteria and its outreach to different communities.
“In many cases, people got selected based on just homegrown intuition. They tell you, ‘We select the best,” said University of Pennsylvania social scientist Nelson Lim, one of the authors of the Rand study. “My reaction all along is that the best is not born. The best is made.”
He said the private study group sounded like an example of people naturally trying to help their friends succeed. But leaders of organizations have to take precautions to prevent the appearance of favored treatment, he said.
“If they want to talk seriously about professionalism and meritocracy, there are best practices they should follow,” Lim said. “They should not be outraged or upset when the rest of the civil society looks down at them knowing this is the way they promote.”
Documents reviewed by The Bee show members of the Upton study group shared documents with each other in 2013 and in 2014. Some of the documents appear to have been handled in 2015, too.
Study group swells to 18 online
The Bee gained access to the online preparation material this month, when it had 18 members. It had been stored on the website Dropbox.com. Several of the participants accessed the group with Cal Fire email accounts. Aside from the original members, the group included six officers who earned promotions in 2014 or 2015.
Promotion exams at the highest ranks pepper candidates with complex, multiple-part questions on legal, environmental, political and tactical questions. Often, a candidate will be expected to give several 10- to 15-minute answers in an oral exam that lasts about an hour.
For instance, one of the study questions in the documents Ramirez released asks how a unit chief should address an increase in labor grievances from employees who operate communications gear. What follows is a 13-part answer that covers specific forms employees must file for their claims, recommended meetings with other administrators and suggestions for how to extend a deadline.
Other questions involve how to communicate with city council members, how to improve training in lagging units and who to call if a firefighter is injured.
The files include hundreds of documents. The most conspicuous ones are text files that give detailed answers to potential exam questions and a set of photographs taken at one of the original study group’s in-person sessions. The images show a white board with possible test questions and recommended answers.
Ramirez said the time he spent in the study group made him a better candidate when he took his last promotion exam.
“I know I would have passed. I don’t think I would have done as well without it,” he said.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 1 p.m. on Sept. 29, 2016 to correct the date of a state Personnel Board hearing on management at Cal Fire. The hearing took place in February 2016.