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Former fire chief charged in Mass. EMT training scandal

By Steve Landwehr
The Gloucester Daily Times

HAMILTON, Mass. — As the web of deception involving EMT training unravels, one of the more disturbing threads is how close it all came to remaining secret.

Were it not for one Hamilton police officer — disgruntled over a completely unrelated matter — the public might never have learned the depth of the problem.

An investigation begun last summer by the state agency that oversees licensing for emergency medical technicians and ambulances will culminate Thursday morning with the arraignment of three former police officers, including the Hamilton chief, and an EMT trainer on criminal charges.

The agency began investigating training records in the Hamilton Police Department after Officer Michael Marchand, who is involved is a dispute with the town, blew the whistle on the rogue program. After he told selectmen and nothing appeared to be happening, he turned to the state.

Since then, the events of the past 12 months have shed light on a system that relies almost entirely on trust.

And when that trust was first violated, there was no one in a position to stop it.

Consider the allegations:

Nearly an entire police department, and a portion of another, fabricated attendance records for EMT training, possibly for years, and almost got away with it.

A respected former fire chief who turned to training in his retirement is accused of conniving with a police chief and a former Ipswich selectman (who was also a former Wenham police officer) to make up course attendance sheets, and they nearly got away with it.

An EMT training officer in the Hamilton Police Department is accused of falsifying not only fellow officers’ records but his own, which were then used to obtain his certification as a paramedic.

How could it all happen?

“Overall, this system revolves around the idea that people are going to have personal integrity,” said John Jacob, a spokesman for the state Office of Emergency Medical Services, which oversees EMT training.

If they lack that integrity, there are not a lot of checks in place to catch them.

Leadership is key
Most state agencies that license professionals rely on honesty, said Judith Oleson, associate professor of social work at Gordon College.

“The integrity of the individual professional is absolute,” she said.

In an organization, that integrity has to be exemplified at the leadership level, she said, and it’s imperative to establish a culture in which people aren’t afraid to speak up when they see something going on.

“Integrity has to be reinforced,” Oleson said. “If anyone starts to divert from that, the organization has to listen to individuals who speak up.”

The penalties are stiff for the five Hamilton and four Danvers police officers who obtained their EMT certifications by means of falsified training records. They will keep their jobs, but each will have to pay about $25,000 apiece in fines and penalties.

With a system that relies so much on self-policing, that may be meant to send a message far beyond the North Shore — cheat and get caught, and you’ll pay dearly.

Oleson believes such punishment is effective.

“Anytime there’s accountability, it’s a helpful reminder and a check,” she said, and reinforces the message that things like certification need to be taken seriously.

Some residents think an even stronger message should have been sent, and the officers should have lost their jobs.

But officials in both towns have noted the officers all had clean records before this, and their misdeeds will be a stain on those records the rest of their working lives.

“For one bad decision do you lose your job and your career?” asked David Carey, chairman of the Hamilton Board of Selectmen.

State officials hope that along with the indictments of former Hamilton police Chief Walter Cullen, former Ipswich and Middleton fire Chief Henry Michalski, former Ipswich selectman and Wenham police officer James W. Foley, and former Hamilton EMT training officer David Mastrianni, the threat of serious punishment will be the stick that accomplishes what a carrot cannot.

“The indictments indicate it’s not worth it,” Jacob, of OEMS, said of scamming the system. “It’s a very powerful deterrent.”

How others do it
But if relying on honesty doesn’t always work, is there a better way?

Neighboring Rhode Island also depends on the honesty and integrity of EMTs, their trainers and the institutions that sponsor them. A spokeswoman in the public safety department said they are understaffed, underbudgeted and, like Massachusetts, rely heavily on spot checks to monitor class conduct and attendance.

To the north, New Hampshire has somewhat tighter control over training programs. Beyond spot checks, the Department of Safety routinely audits courses throughout the state.

“We pick so many courses per region, and we go,” said Sue Prentiss, a former Peabody resident who heads up the Bureau of Emergency Medical Services. “If a course is scheduled for 5 o’clock Friday night, we’ll go, even on a Friday night.”

Beyond that, EMTs are required to take hands-on tests after completing many courses, and not at the same place they trained. In contrast to Massachusetts, written tests are administered by someone other than the course instructor.

Prentiss said she doesn’t think New Hampshire’s system is better than the Bay State’s, but it is easier to manage because it is much smaller.

“Is it perfect? No. But we haven’t come up with anything better,” she said.

As some people have called for an end to hands-on testing in New Hampshire, Prentiss has been pointing to the Hamilton case as an example of what could happen with diminished oversight..

“I think Hamilton was a good wake-up call for everybody,” she said.

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