Thursday, December 14, 2017
Public safety

Largo firefighters appealing punishments for test cheating

LARGO — Last month, city firefighter Josh Larkin took a written test to become a squad driver, a certification that could mean more pay for the two-year veteran.

After he took the test, Larkin talked to other firefighters who planned to take it, according to an internal affairs report. Larkin, who passed, told the men about questions they would see when they took the test.

Is what Larkin did cheating? Or is it just sharing information?

Larkin is one of five Largo firefighters suspended between eight and 40 hours without pay last month after an internal affairs investigation conducted by the fire department found they violated city policy by sharing information about the test.

All five firefighters agreed with their punishments last month, according to Largo fire Chief Mike Wallace, and decided not to appeal.

Then something changed.

Largo's fire union has filed grievances on behalf of all five men and wants them exonerated of the charges of cheating and paid for the work they missed while suspended.

Depending on the suspension and pay rate, the men lost between $123 and $680. Larkin lost $592 for his 40-hour suspension, according to city pay records. He drew the stiffest penalty, along with firefighter Ben Gebo, whose 40-hour suspension cost him $680. Gebo found an old version of the test, copied it, and distributed it to co-workers, according to the internal affairs report.

The men have already gotten their money back, though, according to Wallace. The union voted to reimburse them while it fights through the grievance process.

"I'm disappointed," Wallace said. "This creates a sense of undermining the department's authority over the employees … We're trying to change a culture that says that's acceptable."

Dale Rosko, president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2427, was not available for comment Tuesday. In the grievance letters filed on behalf of the five firefighters on May 17, Rosko argued that the men didn't do anything that hadn't been done by their peers in prior years.

"Firefighter Larkin was exercising a practice of sharing information that has been acceptable, allowed and even promoted by current and former fire administrations," Rosko wrote. "Larkin was never properly noticed of any change in regards to the testing procedure or that his actions were no longer allowable."

The grievance process has multiple steps, with the men appealing their suspensions to their supervisors, then to Wallace, then to Assistant City Manager Henry Schubert, and then to an arbitrator.

The test in question is part of the process to become certified to drive a squad, a heavy rescue and fire support vehicle that is used both in fighting fires and in responding to traffic accidents and other emergency situations. There isn't a set amount of extra pay a squad driver gets each year. Squad drivers are compensated at the end of each year for the number of times they actually drive the vehicles (Largo owns two).

The internal affairs investigation started after one of the firefighters got the results back from his test. The firefighter got a question wrong he swore he had right, according to Wallace, and he went to his trainer. When they started talking about the study materials the firefighter had used, it became clear that firefighters had access to previous versions of the test.

Investigators were not able to determine where the old copy of the test came from, Wallace said. Gebo told them he found it among other study information in his bunk area, and the papers had been there for at least two years.

The squad test process will be changed as a result of this investigation. Previously, firefighters could take the test individually. In the future, they will have to take it together. A new written test will be developed.

City Manager Mac Craig said Tuesday he has no problem with how Wallace handled the situation.

"This is a union issue, I think," Craig said. "I don't know what they think they're going to get out of this."

Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

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