By Ryan J. Foley
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Fire departments in nearly every pocket of Iowa have members who were awarded nationally-recognized certifications by the state fire academy despite failing their tests, according to documents released Wednesday.
The Fire Service Training Bureau has sent letters to 560 departments, a majority of those in the state, to notify them that "one or more firefighters on your department may have been" erroneously granted certificates in recent years and will be expected to undergo retesting. The letters show the far-reaching impact of a scandal that has undermined confidence in firefighter training and threatens to add to a shortage in the mostly volunteer force that responds to fires and emergency calls.
The Iowa Department of Public Safety announced last week that the bureau granted 1,706 firefighters and emergency responders a total of 2,278 improper certifications between 2012 and 2016, or nearly a quarter of those issued. The certifications covered areas such as basic firefighting knowledge, hazardous materials and operating and driving firetrucks.
The announcement came the same day that the bureau's former accreditation manager, John McPhee, was arrested and charged with misconduct in public office and tampering with records. A complaint accuses McPhee of failing to grade tests and simply assigning random scores. He pleaded not guilty last week.
The department rejected an open records request by The Associated Press seeking the names of the firefighters impacted, citing an exemption for law enforcement qualification tests administered "by or on behalf of a government body." Instead, it released copies of the notification letters sent to fire chiefs and training officers across the state, from Albert City to Yarmouth. They were advised to call or email the bureau if they needed to know which of their personnel were affected.
Those individuals will be required to retake the tests before June 30 or be faced with starting the certification process over from scratch. The bureau is offering free refresher courses and retests at several locations across the state starting Feb. 11. The courses will last 12 hours over two days, with retesting occurring on the second day of class.
Those affected passed hands-on skill tests but didn't score at least 70 percent on their written exams as required to achieve certification. Bureau officials identified the improper certifications after rescoring tests for which the exams and answer keys were still available. An undetermined number of other tests could not be rescored.
The certificates are not mandated by Iowa law but many departments require them to be hired or promoted. Fire departments worry that some volunteers will choose not to go through the testing again and quit.
Carrying the seals of the International Fire Service Accreditation Congress and the National Board on Fire Service Professional Qualifications, the credentials are also recognized by departments in other states and used as prerequisites for more advanced training.
The bureau has lost accreditation from the national qualifications group, which is known as the ProBoard, after McPhee allegedly failed to schedule a site visit by the end of 2015. The bureau hopes to achieve reaccreditation after the group conducts a site visit later this month.
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