D.C. Fire Chief Adrian H. Thompson has suspended the current class of a firefighter-training program for disadvantaged youth while he investigates whether its applicants lied about their residency.
In addition, the fire department has returned more than $200,000 in federal funds because it could not find enough participants for the Fire Cadet Program.
What's more, the fire department and its partner in the venture -- the D.C. Department of Employment Services (DOES) -- have inflated the number of program graduates in recent reports to the U.S. Department of Labor.
"Right now, the program is off-track," said D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary. "When it was adopted by the council in the 1980s, it was intended to target high school residents. Somehow, it has been limited to a select group of disadvantaged adults."
The Fire Cadet Program, begun in 1988, aims to train young D.C. residents as firefighters and guarantee them jobs.
The program was halted in 1995, when the fire department ran out of city funds for it, and was revived in 2001, when Fire Chief Ronnie Few procured federal funds for it through DOES.
During a Committee on the Judiciary hearing last week, Chief Thompson said his investigation has delayed the start of the program's latest class, which was scheduled to begin Jan. 30.
"We have reviewed quite a few [applicants'] folders ... and we have found discrepancies, and we are in the process of notifying DOES that there are problems with certain applicants," the chief said.
Mr. Mendelson, at-large Democrat, voiced concerns that the program is operating in violation of D.C. law.
He noted that the program is supposed to be open to all high school students, but its federal funding sources -- the Department of Labor's Workforce Investment Act and the Youth Opportunity grants -- limit the applicant pool to disadvantaged or at-risk youth.
"The plain language of the [cadet program] statute is 'open to District residents,' not to exclude them," Mr. Mendelson said during the hearing. "And using the federal grant funds that the DOES has been using just excludes ... individuals."
Meanwhile, the fire department and DOES have reported a 100 percent cadet-graduation rate under the Workforce Investment Act.
But in a Jan. 23 letter to Mr. Mendelson, Chief Thompson said that of the 94 cadet slots that have been funded in the past four years, 10 went unfilled and 17 cadets failed or abandoned the program.
The program actually has a 71 percent graduation rate, and of its 67 graduates in the past four years, 58 remain on the job today.
Alan Etter, a spokesman for the fire department, said the federal funds for the positions that have been vacant -- about $211,890 -- have been returned. That amount does not include money returned for cadets who did not complete the program.
Under an agreement, the fire department and DOES are required to recruit a class to full capacity.
Class capacity has ranged from 20 to 30 cadets, depending upon the funding amount. Funding is based on a per-cadet formula that figures the cost of books, training materials and firefighting equipment and a stipend of about $15,000 for each cadet.
Mr. Etter said the classes were not filled to capacity because some applicants did not complete the department's hiring process, which includes a criminal background check and a review of employment history, educational records, driving records and residency information.