The Federal Emergency Management Agency will pay the salaries of city employees, buy equipment, provide temporary housing and offer sage advice.
All FEMA asks is that the city’s workforce become fluent in how the agency operates — its so-called “incident command system.”
FEMA requires public employees to take a series of online training courses, which are followed by multiple-choice exams.
For one of this region’s cities, the process has been abbreviated.
North Port’s public works employees cheat on the FEMA exams, en masse, according to more than a dozen city workers who spoke to the Herald-Tribune on condition of anonymity.
They said they are given all the answers to the test questions.
They are ushered into a room, handed an answer sheet, logged onto the FEMA website and, once the test is completed, hurried back to work.
“I don’t even know what FEMA really does,” one worker said.
North Port City Manager Jonathan Lewis said he had not ordered an investigation because no one from public works had made a formal complaint to him.
“I need more than just a reporter’s say so. Anyone who feels strongly enough about it to go to a reporter should come to me,” Lewis told the Herald-Tribune in an interview. “Certainly there have been times when public works employees have approached me with things they’re worried about. They’ve never been too shy.”
Lewis said he was unaware of the cheating allegations until contacted by the newspaper.
Since then, Lewis said, he has not broached the topic with Public Works Director Branford Amaduah.
Lewis said he is more concerned about the lack of training than the cheating.
“I want them to understand the concepts,” he said. “That would be more of an issue to me than how they navigated the actual quiz.”
Officials in the region who deal with FEMA officials on a fairly routine basis noted that complying with the training requirement is basically done via the honor system.
“If that happened, that’s a shame,” said Edward J. McCrane, Sarasota County’s Emergency Management Chief. “It’s one of those things — a matter of integrity.”
‘We got a cheat sheet’
All of the North Port public works employees who spoke to the Herald-Tribune said they would be fired if their names were used for this report.
They, and some former public works employees, say the FEMA exams, which were given in June, are merely the “tip of the iceberg.” They have been told to cheat on nearly every exam, the employees said.
“We couldn’t even take a CPR course without them giving us the answers to the test questions,” said Patrick Murphy, who spent 10 years in North Port public works before taking a job in Georgia last year.
“For almost every certification testing we had to take, we got a cheat sheet,” Murphy said. “The FEMA testing was done in smaller groups. They’d hand us an answer sheet and tell us to ‘keep it handy’ with a wink. Any other certification testing was handled the same way.”
Murphy and the others said several answer sheets were used because FEMA jumbles the test questions to prevent cheating.
“I think North Port is a great city,” he said. “But if the city benefited financially, they should be in trouble, because they just handed everyone the answers and there was no training.”
Murphy was referring to potential savings on insurance costs for the city.
His former colleagues confirmed his account, calling the cheating a “common practice” not just limited to FEMA.
A very small number of employees took the exams without using the answer sheets. At least two of those workers failed the tests.
One said that if senior city officials do not believe the allegations, they should polygraph the department.
“I’d pass,” he said.
Added another: “It’s all a sham. If the city doesn’t believe it, all they have to do is put us all in a room without the answers and do a retest. I doubt even 20 percent would pass.”
Question of the next step
Lewis, the city manager, said he is not sure what his course of action will be.
“This is not an allegation by a resident, where someone is accusing someone of say, false arrest. This is an internal procedure,” he said. “I think my recommendation would demonstrate that. I have one hard and fast rule: Don’t lie to me.
“Is this fireable? Obviously the specifics would matter,” Lewis said.
The city manager said if a public works supervisor provided answers to his workers and then claimed he didn’t, “obviously that’s a fireable offense.”
Other city officials declined to comment.
Richard Berman, North Port’s emergency management coordinator, whom no one has accused of any improprieties, declined to discuss the allegations.
Berman said he was “under orders” not to discuss the testing, and was told to direct all inquiries to the city clerk, who gathered data for a public records request from the Herald-Tribune but said she knew nothing of the accusations.
Amaduah, the public works director, did not respond to calls or emails seeking comment for this story.
Public works operations manager Bill Vest, who reports to Amaduah, said: “I don’t have any comment at this time. I’m not familiar with the situation. I could look into it for you.”
Vest did not respond to additional calls and emails seeking comment.
Section administrator Ryan Biagioli, who reports to Vest, said he could not comment because of “an ongoing human resources investigation” into the cheating allegations.
After he was told that there was no HR investigation, Biagioli said, “I’m sorry about that. I misspoke. I assumed there was one. I am unaware of any improprieties with the FEMA testing.”
After the Herald-Tribune began asking questions about the cheating, one worker said he was approached by his direct supervisor and asked how he felt, personally, about being given a copy of the answers.
“He was clearly fishing,” the employee said.
National FEMA spokesman Michael Runestad said in a statement that FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute is the emergency management community’s “flagship training institution, and it trains more than 2 million students annually through a variety of formats, including online and in-person courses.”
“All EMI students, regardless of course format, are expected to conduct themselves in a manner that reflects a respect for personal honor,” Runestad said.
If allegations of cheating were to be upheld, Runestad said, the penalties could include “expulsion from all future courses, exclusion from future classes for a specified period of time, and revoking certificates for previously completed coursework.”
Institute managers acknowledge on their organization’s site that it “receives reports of organizations providing exam answers.” The institute encourages local agencies to ensure their staff are not cheating and doing their own work.
“Individuals within an organization who feel that test answers are being improperly provided should follow that organization’s procedures for reporting unethical conduct,” the website states.
The FEMA site does not address what individuals should do if virtually their entire organization cheats on an exam.
Charlotte County’s Wayne Sallade, the longest-tenured emergency manager in the state, said he has heard of cheating on FEMA exams, but “never anything quite that widespread.”
“If it happened in my jurisdiction, that would be a supreme disappointment to me,” Sallade said. “Public works is one of the critical players in the overall emergency management program.”
Like his counterparts, Sallade noted that the FEMA courses are designed to ensure everyone understands their roles, and that of other agencies, during a disaster.
“They’re not that difficult,” he said. “These are online courses. It’s not like we’re talking about rocket science here.”
McCrane, the Sarasota County emergency manager, said he intended to contact his counterpart in North Port to ask whether they need help providing the training.
“If they’re doing an independent-study course, they should take it seriously and take the exam,” McCrane said. “The purpose of the exam is to apply what they’ve learned.”
A spokesman for the Florida Division of Emergency Management — the state agency that coordinates disaster relief with FEMA — was rendered nearly speechless by the cheating allegations.
“It’s such a basic course. If someone cheated, I’m not even sure what to say,” communications director Aaron Gallagher said. “It goes back to their local officials.”
But given the independent-study nature of the exam, Gallagher said cheating is very possible.
“If one were intent on bending the rules, or finding a way around, it’s possible, very possible actually,” he said. “Officially, it’s unfortunate that anyone would cheat on a test, especially one that gives all of us a basic language to work with.
“Everyone in emergency management should make an effort to learn the basic language. We all have various levels of responsibility,” Gallagher said. “It’s unfortunate that it could have happened.
“At the same time, the local officials are the ones that have the responsibility.”