DC department probes alleged EMT test cheating

Dave Statter

WASHINGTON — This week hasn't been a good news kind of week for the DC Fire & EMS Department. Over the last two days Chief Dennis Rubin has issued two separate press releases discussing issues surrounding the testing and evaluation of its EMS providers. Both press releases were in response to news stories that were about to come out questioning the testing process in one case, and testing results in the other. The articles have now been published and each leaves a lot of questions that have yet to be answered by Chief Rubin and other city officials.

One of the articles (and a press release that came out on Thursday) focuses on allegations of cheating on the exam offered by the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians. The Washington Post's Clarence Williams writes about the possibility of "outside materials" being brought into the testing site at the Pearson VUE training center in La Plata. Chief Rubin has ordered the department to stop using that site until an internal affairs investigation is completed.

While the possibility of a cheating scandal has serious implications for the department, it is the second article that has the potential to be a major setback for the reform of EMS long promised by the administration of Mayor Adrian Fenty. This article is in the Washington Times and it is by Matthew Cella, a veteran reporter who has covered the DC Fire & EMS Department for years.

Cella received test information and videos of practical assessments for many of the city's ALS providers. The testing was done of 175 of the District's approximately 250 paramedics at the Maryland Fire & Rescue Institute (MFRI) in College Park, Maryland.

It is the first time any real public light has been shed on this review of paramedic skill levels. There have been a lot of rumors and few detailed answers since the test occurred between March and June of last year. In its statement the city called the testing an " historic effort to improve the level of clinically competent, professional and compassionate patient care through enhanced training, education, performance evaluation and quality assurance". While that may be the case, a DC Fire & EMS Department official told STATter911.com on Thursday evening that the department still doesn't know the results of the written part of the testing.

According to reporter Cella, the fact that he was able to get the testing information did not sit well with those in charge:

City officials originally threatened an investigation or legal action to stop The Times from publishing the materials, saying exposing the scores would hurt the city's efforts at improving its oft-criticized paramedic service. But after a further review, D.C. Attorney General Peter J. Nickles said too many people had access to the information to pursue any leak probe or legal action.

Matt Cella had Paul Werfel, director of New York's Stony Brook University's paramedic program, look at the testing material, including Werfel's own critique of the assessment videos. Werfel does not paint a pretty picture of what he saw, telling Cella, "To be perfectly honest, I think there's a real threat here. The safety of the people of the District of Columbia is at risk. It's a clear and present danger to them."

As for the city's response to this, Cella was left only with previous interviews he had done on the subject and the press release. Here's what he writes:

The statement issued Wednesday warned that examining the tests "without a thorough understanding of the testing environment and process could lead to misinterpretation of the results" and suggested that the "attacks" by unnamed people were an attempt to thwart the agency's reforms.

"Transformational change of this nature is very threatening to special interest groups and individuals that want to maintain the status quo," the release said. "These persons will continue their attempts to destroy public trust in an effort to undermine the District's EMS improvements."

Read the Washington Times coverage of the MFRI testing and watch the videos

Read press release issued about the MFRI testing

Read Washington Post article on the investigation into possible cheating

Read press release discussing the internal affairs investigation

See two recent articles written about the future of EMS in Washington, DC

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