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Arbitration ruling hovers over second round of Fire Department interviews

Tuesday, July 19, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

Nearly two months to the day after city officials announced that they would be re-testing more than 2,500 candidates for cadet positions in the Austin Fire Department, the city’s Human Resources Department began the new round of structured oral interviews Monday at Crockett High School in South Austin. They did this despite the city being about one month away from an arbitrator’s decision that could render the results of those interviews unusable.


On May 19, Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr announced that she had received a copy of the official interview questions for the first process from an anonymous source. Fearing the integrity of the test had been compromised, Kerr and other officials ordered a retest.


Following that announcement, the Human Resources Department took over the interview process from the Fire Department. Forgoing previous efforts to use volunteers and temporary interviewers hired through Goodwill Staffing Services, Human Resources chose instead to interview and hire 162 assessors culled primarily from the city’s educational community. All of the assessors have at least bachelor’s degrees, and approximately 95 percent of them are educators. Those assessors will be paid $15 per hour.


In addition, the city hired 95 proctors, or “quality assurance consultants,” to ensure the security and validity of the process, said Human Resources Department Director Mark Washington.


“The proctors are there to observe and provide guidance to maintain the integrity of the process,” Washington told In Fact Daily. “The goal is to make sure there are no security breaches or compromises, that we have eyes on the material and the candidates at all times, and we have done that.”


The oral interviews are scheduled to take one week, which is one week less than last time around, a change Washington believes will help assure the integrity of the testing process. “The longer the exposure, the more risk there is of compromise, and by adding resources we were able to cut the time in half and cut our risk in half by not having the process linger for more than one week,” he said.


According to the Fire Department, this new round of testing will cost the city approximately $160,000. That number includes about $6,500 for a new test from third-party vendor I/O Solutions, $126,360 for assessor training and interviews, $24,000 for quality assurance consultants, and $7,061 for the use of Crockett. Depending on how many of the approximately 2,600 candidates show up, the price per interviewee should be about $60.


Unfortunately, that money could prove to be wasted if an arbitrator decides next month that the hiring process AFD and I/O Solutions came up with isn’t a fair one. Last December the Austin Firefighters Association filed a grievance against the city claiming the hiring process was a violation of the union’s collective bargaining agreement. Legal briefs in that grievance are due this week, and the arbitrator could make a decision as early as Aug. 12.


Association President Bob Nicks believes the city should wait until the arbitrator has made a determination before spending $160,000 on another round of testing, the results of which it may not be able to use.


“It’s a little premature to restart the process now because the arbitrator’s ruling is in a month,” Nicks said. “He could rule to stop the whole thing. I just think it would be prudent to wait 25 days and see what that ruling is before you start the process.”

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