SC FD clashes with EMS training center after FFs accused of cheating, expelled

An internal investigation by the Beaufort-Port Royal Fire Department cleared the expelled firefighters of misconduct and raised criticism of the training center's policies

Lucas Smolcic Larson
The Island Packet (Hilton Head Island, S.C.)

BEAUFORT, S.C. — In 2019, an emergency medicine instructor at a state-approved training center received an anonymous letter from a student.

A group of Beaufort-Port Royal firefighters, the letter said, were potentially cheating on exams during an advanced EMT certification course, which taught life-saving care of trauma victims.

The expulsion of four Beaufort-Port Royal firefighters from an advanced EMT course at the Lowcountry EMS Regional EMS Council training center has led to disagreement between the department and center over who was at fault.
The expulsion of four Beaufort-Port Royal firefighters from an advanced EMT course at the Lowcountry EMS Regional EMS Council training center has led to disagreement between the department and center over who was at fault. (Photo/National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians)

The firefighters were taking quizzes and exams as a group and possibly sharing answers, including while on shift, the accusation, detailed in an internal training center report, went.

The note sparked an inquiry by the center, the Lowcountry Regional EMS Council, that resulted in the course's cancellation and, eventually, four students who admitted to group testing permanently expelled. The investigation — conducted without the involvement or knowledge of the Beaufort-Port Royal Fire Department — also kicked off a clash with the training center over exactly what happened and who was to blame.

"I have some very grave concerns about the way our people were treated in this situation," said Reece Bertholf, the department's fire chief, who faulted the EMS Council for failing to provide due process to his employees and stonewalling attempts to understand the situation.

In the aftermath of the cheating accusations, fire officials, lacking specifics from the training center, initiated an independent investigation, conducted by a City of Beaufort employee outside the department.

In interviews with the investigator, several firefighters in the course again admitted to taking tests together, as well as using textbooks and internet resources during exams. But they also blamed the instructor for failing to clearly explain policies. Only one considered the behavior cheating.

Four months later, fire officials reviewed the findings and ultimately cleared four firefighters accused of academic dishonesty of any misconduct in November 2019.

Still, questions remain unanswered.

While the fire department provided its roughly 120-page investigatory report and made top officials available for an interview, the Walterboro-based training center elected to remain silent.

In November, Austin Mandeville, director of education at the Lowcountry Regional EMS Council, declined an interview, citing student privacy laws and referring The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette to the center's student handbook. Mandeville didn't respond to recent follow-up requests sent by email and phone.

In September 2019, the nonprofit organization's vice-chairperson wrote to City of Beaufort officials, saying, "Please understand, Lowcountry Regional EMS Council will not tolerate academic dishonesty and we have responsibilities to our [REDACTED] to maintain a standard of excellence," according to an email included in the fire department's report.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, the regulatory agency for EMS in South Carolina, reviewed the incident and found it to be a "fair investigation and conclusion," the email said.

A DHEC spokesperson said in a statement that the agency found the allegations "did not involve potentially regulatory violations DHEC could address," adding that would not have prevented the training program from acting, if appropriate.

The fire department severed ties with EMS Council's training program after the course. More than a year later, a dispute over payment for the training continues.

"There is no clear-cut evidence of cheating on any kind of exam, test or anything," Bertholf said. "They made accusations ... but nobody could lay it out for us."

Anonymous tip leads to cheating investigation

The dueling investigations into the emergency medical course twice put a dozen Beaufort-Port Royal firefighters under the microscope.

The 248-hour course, meant for certified EMTs, teaches "more aggressive care to victims of trauma and airway compromise," including nasal intubation and IV therapy, according to the center's website.

The Beaufort-Port Royal Fire Department aims to certify all employees as EMTs, officials said, and the further training, offered on a volunteer basis, was meant to enable firefighters to better serve the public.

The spring 2019 course was the first time the department had sent firefighters to the EMS Council for a full-scale class, officials said. The class mixed in-person instruction with distance learning, and students had regular quizzes and exams that they took online.

The student whistleblower's letter claimed that some firefighters were taking these exams together, "potentially sharing answers via group text, Facetime or writing answers and leaving them at the station," an instructor wrote in the training center's report.

After receiving the allegations, the instructor reviewed students' grades on quizzes and module exams, finding "quite a few students had the exact same grades" on multiple assessments, the report shows.

But the document presents just a handful of those cases. On two occasions in May, two students took assessments at the same time, getting the same questions right and wrong, it says. The inquiry also identifies two other dates when students took assessments simultaneously, but it is unclear whether all their answers were identical.

The names of students are redacted on the all documents obtained by the newspapers.

On July 11, training center staff assembled the class, isolated each student and then confronted them about cheating, the report shows.

Many of the firefighters denied working together. "Integrity is everything to me," one told the instructor.

"The other students do not seem to be taking accountability for what is happening and ... they blame the instructors and the course itself," another student, paraphrased by the instructor, said.

"Some of the students are now attempting to figure out who 'snitched,'" reported another, according to the instructor's report.

Ultimately, four of those interviewed confessed to working together on course exams, though some said they didn't consider this cheating, according to the training center report.

Beaufort-Port Royal fire officials — who referred to the interviews as "interrogations" — said the students had no idea why they were being questioned ahead of time. In later interviews with Beaufort's own investigator, several students said EMS Council staff mentioned possible EMT licensing repercussions, which they took as a threat.

"There's no doubt in my mind that their investigation on that day was not an investigation, and it did violate the due process of our students," said Bertholf, who learned of the incident from his firefighters.

In the aftermath, Beaufort-Port Royal fire officials met with leadership at the Lowcountry EMS Council. Deputy Chief Tim Ogden said they left with more questions than answers. Among them: Which students had been accused of cheating, and what evidence had the training center gathered?

Days later, students suddenly found themselves locked out of course materials.

The center's executive director wrote in a July 22 email that the physician overseeing the course decided to withdraw supervision from the class, effectively canceling it.

"Cheating cannot be tolerated in our programs," the physician wrote. "While I hate to take such action, the issues are clearly pervasive enough that I do not see another recourse to maintain our current standards."

Beaufort review finds unclear course expectations

Days after the termination of the course, Beaufort-Port Royal Fire officials initiated their own review of what had happened, following procedure surrounding allegations of misconduct against employees.

"We take accusations of any kind against our employees extremely seriously, to the point of we will remove them from employment if we have to," said Bertholf, who took over as fire chief in 2016.

The investigator, a Beaufort employee outside the department with decades of law enforcement experience, dug into the cheating allegations, the training centers' policies and how the firefighters had been treated.

The Lowcountry Regional EMS Council declined to let the investigator interview its staff, or provide documentation beyond its four-page report, according to the Beaufort investigator's write-up. Four students had admitted to testing together, although evidence existed only to support two of those cases, an EMS Council board member said in an email.

Eleven firefighters who had been in the course — four of whom stood accused of academic dishonesty — sat for a combined eight hours of individual interviews with the Beaufort investigator.

Nine of the firefighters remembered reviewing the training center's academic honesty policy, which prohibits "cheating on exams or quizzes," among other offenses, in class. Several of them described it as a "breeze through" during orientation — a "'sign as I talk' program" amid a "mountain of paperwork," one recalled — but another said it was read word for word.

"There is a consensus among the class that the Academic Honesty policy was not covered in any detail," the investigator concluded, adding "There was no common thread among [the interviews] that indicated specific things were prohibited."

Whether collaborating on tests was specifically allowed or prohibited by the instructor is unclear from the interviews, as some firefighters aren't asked explicitly about it. In the report, more ink is spilled on the topic of using the textbook on exams.

Six firefighters initially say this was prohibited. But most qualify their response.

One firefighter reported the instructor "told them they could not use their books for testing, but then went on to state something to the effect of, 'You're all adults and we are using online testing, so I know you're going to use your books,'" according to the report. The exams were drawn from seven different sources, the firefighter recalled the instructor saying, so the textbook wouldn't "completely help them."

When asked, all but one of the firefighters said they didn't believe they had violated the academic honesty policy.

In total, the interviews show four of the students said they had worked together on class assessments. Five said they had used their textbooks during testing, and four reported accessing internet resources for help during exams.

Few had kind words for the course. The instructor was "super lax," one firefighter said. The course was "disorganized and crappy," another reported. Still another "didn't feel this was the 'A-team' of instructors," according to the investigator's report.

One firefighter felt the instructor was responsive to inquiries, but others disagreed. It is unclear if the students sought clarification on course policies as the class progressed.

Without turning to outside help, "I would have failed miserably," one student said.

Allegations 'unsupported by the facts gathered'

After several months of digging, the Beaufort investigator concluded the cheating allegations came down to a lack of evidence and an issue of perspective.

"It appears the perspective of Lowcountry EMS is that using your book during testing and working together is cheating," the investigator wrote. "It would appear the consensus of the [REDACTED] was that using your book and working together was not cheating and that this was helpful to further their learning."

"Perspective seems to be the issue at conflict without further information to sway us one way or the other," the report continued, noting the training center's "refusal to cooperate" hindered the inquiry.

At the end of November 2019, all four Beaufort-Port Royal firefighters accused of academic dishonesty were cleared by the department. The cheating allegations "were unsupported by the facts gathered," read memos to the employees.

"Anything that we do that negatively affects the employment status of our personnel has to be lock solid," said Bertholf about the decision. "It cannot be questionable. It cannot be subjective."

Asked whether his firefighters' admissions to behavior that the training center considered cheating raised concerns, Bertholf quickly defended his department's actions.

"I'm very confident and sleep very good at night with the decisions that we made in regard to this situation," he said, adding that the department takes accusations of misconduct very seriously.

Fire officials say they have continued to engage the EMS Council in conversation. A dispute over settling payment for the course is ongoing and has involved the department's lawyers, Bertholf said, declining to elaborate further.

In September, the department was awarded a $200,000 federal grant to send 24 firefighters to advanced EMT training. The department has engaged another training center, Bertholf said. He wouldn't say if students in the 2019 class were part of the new course, citing student confidentiality.

The grant was a "silver lining," he said.


(c)2021 The Island Packet (Hilton Head, S.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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