NORWALK, Conn. — No one associated with Norwalk will evaluate the oral examinations for the next round of candidates for the Norwalk Fire Department, Mayor Harry Rilling said.
Rilling detailed his concerns about the consortium testing and addressed other issues this week, in the wake of a cheating scandal. The Common Council Health and Public Safety Committee will seek monthly updates from the fire, police and health departments, Chairman Nick Sacchinelli (D-At Large) said.
Assistant Fire Chief Chris King recently resigned, and his son Patrick King resigned from his job in the Norwalk Building Department, after both were confronted with accusations that Chris King had provided his son with confidential grading materials to help him do well on the oral exam.
The test was administered through the State of Connecticut Firefighter Testing Consortium, at no cost to the City, for the first time. Chris King had asked to sit on meeting where the questions were discussed, according to the City’s investigative report.
The City has discarded the results from the consortium, although it was the consortium that alerted the City to the suspected cheating.
The City will seek a new testing company through an RFP (request for proposals) process, Rilling said Monday. The RFP hasn’t gone out yet because he wants the Fire Commission to be part of the process.
Rilling had many reservations about entering the consortium at Fire Commission meetings, asking many questions and expressing concern about getting enough minority participants and not having first crack at the best candidates
The feeling was, “let’s give it a try, see how it comes out,” he said Monday. Then after the process began, the Commission found out things they didn’t like.
The biggest issue was was that the written exam was pass-fail, he said. That wasn’t clear to the Fire Commission when it agreed to be part of the consortium. So if a candidate scores a 71, he or she is looked at the same way as the person who scored a 96.
The rest of the results are based on eight oral questions. “I thought that was poor,” Rilling said.
Oral questions are circulated among the fire chiefs to verify that they are job related, Rilling explained. It’s his opinion that fire executives from other states can do this just as well as local fire chiefs. The City will hire a firm that will bring in people from the outside, and firefighters from other areas will evaluate the oral exams, he said.
Candidates can do well on the test because they have taken the exam before and know what to expect, he said. Ranking fire department officers have side jobs, preparing people to take the exam.
Some NancyOnNorwalk readers have reacted to the cheating scandal by complaining that Rilling took away bonus points for residents.
Rilling said he objects to residency points because they’re not related to the job.
“A lot of firefighters live out of town, why would you give 10 points to give lesser qualified candidates an advantage over someone from another town?” he asked. Growing up in Norwalk “does not necessarily make you a better candidate.”
Rilling, former Norwalk Police Chief, said that when he was earning a Masters Degree in Public Administration with a concentration on human resources, “we talked about this all the time,” and, “It’s not legal.”
The cheating scandal came on the heels of the suspension of a fire department lieutenant for anti-Semitic comments.
“His comments were ignorant and hurtful and unacceptable. I was disgusted by them,” Rilling said in late July.
Lt. Pat St. Onge was suspended for a week and transferred to another station.
“I want to make sure that the entire NFD be put on notice that we will not tolerate racial, sexual, religious biases,” Fire Commissioner Oscar Destruge wrote in early August. “’Locker-room talk’ will not be accepted as an excuse. As a retired clergy member, I’m extremely upset over this!”
NancyOnNorwalk asked Sacchinelli about the developments. He wrote in an email:
“Although the circumstance had been disappointing, I stand behind the leadership of Chief Gatto. The committee instead is taking the opportunity to take a holistic approach with all of the city’s emergency service departments. We have requested a cadence of representation of each Fire, Health, and Police to attend the monthly Health and Public Safety Meeting and to be able to provide public updates to the council moving forward. I feel we have an opportunity to standardize a forum and drive transparency through regular public discussion, both to question and review these topical items as they arise, but also to shine a light on the good work our emergency service professionals are carrying out.”
NancyOnNorwalk reporter Harold F. Cobin contributed to this story.