Almost 300 state firefighters whose promotions were suspended after Cal Fire discovered suspected cheating on a November 2016 exam can move up the ranks as long their individual results are vetted one more time, according to a Thursday decision from the State Personnel Board.
The board voted to allow Cal Fire to promote from an exam that it dismissed last month when it reported that it found “irregularities” on a test that captains must pass before advancing to battalion chief. Cal Fire’s decision meant 289 captains who passed the test would have to retake it this summer before moving up the ranks.
Their union, Cal Fire Local 2881, on Thursday asked the personnel board to uphold the promotion list, arguing that only one promotion candidate allegedly cheated on the test.
That captain, as well as the battalion chief who allegedly helped him cheat, deny wrongdoing and are contesting the discipline they face from their department, according to a union attorney.
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Union leaders tried to convey a sense of urgency in promoting candidates. They said the department would be shorthanded in leadership positions as the summer fire season accelerates.
“We’re talking about testing people in the middle of fire season where they’re going to be coming up after spending 24 hours on fire lines,” union attorney Gary Messing said.
Members of the board initially sounded reluctant to side with the union and overturn Cal Fire’s proposal requiring candidates to retake the test.
“This is a very difficult decision because there are lots of people who spent personal time and resources” to prepare, board member Richard Costigan said.
But, he said, “I don’t think you can look at us today and tell us the list is pure.”
The board at first voted to allow seven battalion chiefs who were promoted prior to the discovery of the alleged cheating to keep their positions. Board members were reassured because Cal Fire had reviewed those exams and concluded the new battalion chiefs did not cheat.
The board wanted a similar process for the rest of the promotion candidates. Its vote to allow promotions from the November exam asks Cal Fire to review a candidate’s test once more. If the department discovers cheating from even one more candidate, the personnel board intends to abolish the list.
Cal Fire has a new office that is working to raise professional standards across a department that has been embarrassed by firefighter misconduct, including a cheating scandal at its fire academy in Ione that was discovered after a former battalion chief was convicted of second-degree murder in the death of his girlfriend.
The Bee in September reported that some of the department’s highest-ranking leaders shared their promotion study materials with lower-ranking candidates, potentially running afoul of state regulations that aim to create a fair promotion process. The department in 2010 also lost its authority to conduct promotion exams, ceding that responsibility temporarily to the state Human Resources Department.
“The changes are working,” Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said. “As a result we did recently identify irregularities in the battalion chief examination.”
Members of the personnel board praised Cal Fire for noticing flaws in its November battalion chief exam, and for acting on its findings.
“The fact that you identified your problem and fixed it is a significant improvement over where you’ve been,” board member Patricia Clarey said.
“We really have seen a difference,” Costigan added.