HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Members of the Hattiesburg Fire Department are questioning the promotion policies and procedures within the department.
A lieutenant with the Hattiesburg Fire Department sent a letter to the Hattiesburg City Council asking member to review "the fairness and accuracy of the procedures currently being used for promotion testing at the City of Hattiesburg Fires Department," including "that favoritism is shown in promotions," "inconsistent scores are given by the interview board for promotions" and "that promotions are not given in order of rank."
"For an officer to feel that strongly about writing a letter - subjecting himself to whatever ridicule he could possibly get from his hierarchy or from the administration - to me, it sends a strong signal that hey, there is reason to have concern," said Kim Bradley, Ward 1 Hattiesburg City Councilman.
The lieutenant stated in the letter scoring requirements for promotions were changed after he took the test, and certain sections were miscalculated or removed completely.
Fire Chief Paul Presley said a portion of the test was removed. He said things like that have happened in the past, and the reasoning is explained.
The lieutenant said he appealed his test results to the Civil Service Commission, but since the clerk of the commission was also the person administering the test and had a family member taking the promotion test, he turned to the council.
"That's not how the civil service is supposed to work," Bradley said. "It's supposed to be clear of politics. It's supposed to be the best people in a position to accelerate and move up. Let's don't promote people because they're a family member or they because they win the popularity contest. Let's promote the people on the merits - the merits of their ability to do the job, the merits of their ability- their service, how long they've been involved with the fire department. Let's promote them for right reasons."
Bradley said the council has already made a financial investment to try to remedy problems in the department by increasing both starting salaries and pay for sworn firefighters and creating and funding temporary positions for the department to hold a training academy, but said problems with promotions could cost the city and taxpayers more.
"This is a financial concern to Hattiesburg - to the citizens, to the council - because we have already appropriated this money trying to shore it up, and now there's other things," Bradley said. "I think the big picture could clearly be fire ratings when we go through this process next year. We don't have enough fire officers to fill every slot, to meet every demand. Fire ratings will be, could potentially be changed. That's a fear that we have. Are we going to need to spend more money to correct this? Let's figure out all of the problems, and let's find a solution."
Presley said he creates the test, saying the clerk only gives them to testers, and said no favoritism is shown in department promotions. He said he's taken steps to promote testing transparency by using separate separate answer sheets rather than writing on tests and grading tests in front of others.
One way other departments promote transparency, hiring outside companies to create and administer promotion tests.
"The City of Laurel, their fire department was mandated by the court to have a third party administrator," Bradley said. "They used a company in Colorado for awhile. Now they use a company here in Mississippi. I think we need someone to come in and help to understand our standard operating procedure handbook to make sure that the way that we do things is correct, and let them administer it. Let them be the ones that set the days for the testing, how the tests are going to be scored, and that way there's no manipulation. There's no wanting to change the outcome and fix something that didn't go the way that an individual wanted it. If we're going to build something strong, the infrastructure, the mechanisms have got to be in place to allow them to know that everything is square, on an even playing field. Nobody gets favoritism. Nobody gets something because of a color or a relationship with somebody in a higher authority."
Bradley said while the council has the authority to create a policy that requires a change, he wants a discussion with the mayor and fire department administration about the best way to move forward.
"This is something the council can do on its own, but we need some buy in," Bradley said. "We need some buy in from the administration, from the fire department administration, from the police department administration to say, 'Yes. This is in the best interest of our department to make it be strong, secure and everybody feeling like they're equal and equally important to making this thing be successful.'"