739 more Iowa firefighters notified their certifications are invalid

IOWA CITY — More than 10 percent of Iowa firefighters were granted national certifications over a four-year period despite failing exams at a state academy, authorities said this week, as hundreds more were notified of the testing errors.

The Iowa Department of Public Safety informed 739 firefighters in 94 departments this week that they should not have been granted certifications by its Fire Services Training Bureau, the agency said.

It’s unclear if any additional southwest Iowa departments were affected.

The department announced in January that 1,706 firefighters and emergency personnel were issued nearly 2,300 improper certifications between 2012 and 2016.

A review of tests launched last year found that they did not have the scores they needed to pass written exams and earn certifications in areas such as basic firefighting knowledge, hazardous materials handling and operation of firetrucks.

In southwest Iowa, letters were sent to the volunteer departments in Carter Lake, Treynor, Underwood, Neola, Lewis Township, Glenwood, Avoca, Shelby, Missouri Valley, Logan, Woodbine, Persia, Pisgah, Minden, McClelland, Crescent, Hancock, Oakland and Atlantic. Council Bluffs was not affected.

Attempts to reach the Iowa Department of Public Safety Thursday to clarify if there are any additional southwest Iowa fire departments affected were unsuccessful.

On Wednesday, the department said the 739 additional firefighters should have been notified at that time because their tests had already been identified as failing as part of the review.

But the department recently discovered that the manner in which it used a database to send letters “did not capture the entire group” that was affected, said special agent in charge Steve DeJoode of the State Fire Marshal Division.

The discovery means that 2,445 firefighters have been affected, or more than 10 percent of Iowa’s mostly volunteer force. The department has said that additional tests could not be re-scored because they were no longer available.

Firefighters had been given until June 30 to retake the tests or be faced with starting the certification process over from scratch. But following the new discovery, the bureau “will be extending retesting through much of 2017,” DeJoode said.

Some leaders in the profession worry that firefighters will quit rather than go through with retesting, which the department is offering for free at several locations across the state. The department said Wednesday that 350 firefighters have undergone retesting since it began last month.

“It makes us look bad, in a way,” Carter Lake Fire Coordinator Phil Newton said after word of the improper certifications first broke. “Not us as individuals. But it makes the process look bad, knowing how it was done and what was affected by it.”

The certifications are not mandated by Iowa law, but some departments require them to be hired or promoted.

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.

John McPhee, the former certification and accreditation coordinator for the Fire Services Training Bureau, is accused of failing to properly grade tests for years and simply assigning them random scores.

McPhee has pleaded not guilty to misconduct in public office and tampering with records, and is awaiting trial. His attorney hasn’t returned messages seeking comment.

The department has also alleged that McPhee failed to schedule a site visit with the national board, costing the bureau its accreditation.

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