After third round of tests, Conn. fire dept. promotion list finally stands
After more than three years of testing, re-testing and appeals, several lieutenants’ positions at the East Hartford fire department will finally be filled
By Jesse Leavenworth
The Hartford Courant
HARTFORD, Conn. — After more than three years of testing, re-testing and appeals, several lieutenants’ positions at the East Hartford fire department will finally be filled.
In a letter dated Dec. 28, Fire Chief John H. Oates congratulated the top ten of 18 firefighters on an eligibility list that followed promotional tests. Promotions are to be made after the firefighters attend an officer training program, Oates wrote.
It is likely, he said in an interview this week , that all 10 candidates will fill permanent or acting lieutenants' positions before the year ends.
But one of the successful candidates said he remains skeptical about his chances for promotion, saying he does not trust Oates or the testing process.
Firefighter Marcus Rice said “there is still room for shenanigans, and I’m not a conspiracy theorist.”
“If everything goes favorably, I should, or shall I say, ‘could,’ get promoted,” the 20-year department veteran said, “but there are no sure things, unfortunately, due to how this administration (and others previous, to be fair) choose to operate.”
The controversy dates to 2015, when Oates sought funding for additional lieutenants to ensure supervision, particularly on ladder trucks and the rescue squad. The town council approved the funds and five jobs were posted later that year.
Of 20 applicants who took written and oral exams in the fall of 2015, 10 failed the oral portion and five appealed to the personnel board of appeals. Among other issues, appellants complained that rules for scoring were inconsistent and confusing; that the examining board was supposed to have three members, but actually had four; and that a 50 percent failure rate was unusual and suspect.
At its Oct. 24, 2016, meeting, the personnel appeals board voted 2-1 to invalidate the oral exam and ordered that another test be given. Those who passed the test objected, saying their long hours of study had been wasted.
"I protest having to retake an exam that is based on a merit system, and one that I have already done my due diligence in preparing for, " 20-year veteran firefighter Matthew Braunshweiger wrote to the board.
Town firefighter Jared Weiner wrote that he had been preparing for the lieutenant's test for 2 ½ years, giving up time with his young daughter.
“I ask then, is it fair to take all that and throw away what we have worked so hard to achieve?” Weiner wrote.
The town hired a consultant to give the second exam in early 2017, a process that included videotaped critiques by the examining board of each applicant’s performance in the oral portion. Of the 19 applicants who took that test, seven failed the oral portion and four appealed.
Rice said he scored an overall 88 on the 2015 test, the second highest score. When the board invalidated those results, he took the second test and failed the oral portion. He was one of the four test takers who appealed. Rice said there were problems with the second test, including flaws in the grading process.
In January 2018, the personnel appeals board granted the appeals. Options to resolve the issue included giving the test a third time, which was done in November.
Eighteen of the 20 applicants who took the first test in 2015 took the most recent exams, Oates said. Braunshweiger and Weiner were ranked first and second on the eligibility list after the most recent testing.
Rice, who was ranked seventh, had asked town leaders to postpone the third round of testing to investigate his complaints of favoritism and racism in the fire department. The department’s only African-American firefighter, Rice contended in a long letter to town leaders that Oates presided over a hierarchy of “heroes and zeroes." Oates said that as far as he was concerned, all of Rice’s complaints and concerns have been investigated and addressed.
“I certainly disagree with Mr. Rice’s characterization of my leadership and the execution of the goals of the department," Oates said.
“To be clear," he said, "there is no place in our town or fire department for racism or any other form of discrimination or bias... The members of the East Hartford Fire Department serve a diverse community with professionalism, pride, empathy, and dedication. That is our mission, and we will continue, each day, to meet the expectations of our community.”
Human Resources Director Santiago Malave told Rice in a letter dated Nov. 14 that the testing process would go forward. Malave wrote that Rice’s complaints would be forwarded to the town ethics board, along with an opinion from the town attorney, but that the allegations are not covered in the town’s code of ethics.
Copyright 2019 The Hartford Courant