Fraudulent training scheme uncovered at Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station fire department

NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. (WIVB) – Some leaders of the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station fire department submitted false training records that were improperly validated by supervisors, which resulted in more than 120 employees getting credit for training they never attended, according to federal investigative records.

An estimated 41 instructors submitted false training documents and six supervisors improperly validated them over a three-year period ending in 2019, the Office of Special Counsel stated in a Jan. 11 letter to President Joe Biden and members of Congress.

“According to the reports, the evidence showed that in 2017, 2018, and 2019 many NFARSFD employees (both students and instructors) were on leave during the reported training courses and could not have reasonable taken or taught the courses,” the Office of Special Counsel stated in its letter to the president. “The evidence also showed that students received credit for multiple training courses that overlapped. Different courses were taught by different instructors on the same date and at the same time, and students received credit for both courses even though they could not have simultaneously taken them.”

The Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station fire department’s mission is to respond to emergencies on the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station base and, if requested, in the surrounding communities.

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The investigation concluded that the training scheme put employees at the base and members of the nearby communities it serves at risk by potentially sending untrained first responders to emergencies.

“Untrained emergency personnel responding to incidents could place the responders at risk and compromise the safety of the local populace,” the Air Force investigation stated.

A whistleblower complaint to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel in 2020 triggered the investigation, which was made public Thursday, almost two years after the Air Force finished its investigative report.

The Air Force said the investigation did not turn up evidence of criminal wrongdoing but found five employees had violated various policies and their cases were referred to commanders for disciplinary actions. Their names were redacted from the reports, but their positions were not.

None of the supervisors admitted to any wrongdoing.

The Air Force determined that the conduct of the assistant chief of operations, the assistant chief of training, and the fire chief showed gross mismanagement. The investigation also determined that both the assistant chief of training and the fire chief stood to personally gain professional recognition by reporting brighter training statistics.

Other positions that were referred for discipline included the chief of fire prevention, who received credit for falsified training records and was listed as having taught a course that conflicted with her time sheet, and a lead firefighter, who submitted false training entries.

Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner said in a statement that the training is intended to instruct first responders on procedures and protocols to handle life-threatening emergencies.

“It is unconscionable that so many employees and instructors whose job is to save lives would be complicit in this type of fraud,” Kerner said. “I thank the whistleblower for disclosing these very serious allegations and appreciate the Air Force for taking comprehensive steps to ensure training certifications are verified.”

On Friday, the chief for public affairs at the 914th Air Refueling Wing, said that none of the employees were terminated, but “appropriate disciplinary actions were taken.” The spokesman did not immediately respond with specifics on the disciplinary actions taken by commanders or provide names of those who were disciplined.

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The Air Force investigation concluded that the fire department managers’ process for verifying training records was flawed, they lacked internal controls for the records, and the department didn’t have a standardized process to accurately validate training for employees.

Documents released Thursday state that the fire department took corrective actions to improve oversight, including drafting of standard operating procedures for training standards and record-keeping. In addition, leaders of the fire department now report to the commander of the 914th Air Refueling Mission Support Group “to improve oversight and provide clear, concise communication through a direct chain of command.”

The fire department also restricted access to the database of training records to the fire chief, deputy fire chief, assistant chiefs and the system administrator, who are the only ones who can verify them.

The agency “also implemented a revised training schedule to complete make-up training, as well as regular audits to verify training attendance and record keeping,” the Air Force spokesman said.

Tip leads to investigation

Problems with internal controls of training records is not a new issue for the fire department.

In fact, the Air Force stated that “there were several past investigations that indicated” a lack of internal controls for training and the need for a standard operating procedure specifically for inputting and validating training records. But neither were ever created because of the earlier investigations.

On March 6, 2020, the special counsel alerted the Department of Air Force to a whistleblower complaint by a firefighter and fire inspector for the department that alleged employees violated standards of conduct and ethics by falsifying training records.

The whistleblower had concerns that some of the trainees and firefighters did not receive mandatory training necessary to perform their jobs safely and responsibly, and that at least three firefighters had been injured because of what he deemed to be inadequate training. He also alleged that leadership was aware of the problem but failed to address it.

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The investigation referral states that the whistleblower discovered the falsified records by comparing a small sample of training attendance records with the matching year personnel shift calendar. The comparison showed numerous employees had been marked as having attended the training but appeared on the personnel shift calendar as being off-duty or on leave.

“The evidence showed many NFARSFD employees – both students and instructors – on leave during the reported training courses, which they could not have reasonably taken or taught,” the Office of Special Counsel stated in a prepared release. “Students also received credit for multiple training courses that overlapped, including courses taught by different instructors that occurred on the same date and time.”

The whistleblower alleged that the fraudulent training records scheme was active as early as 2013 and that many of the falsified training records or certifications were required to maintain credentials and to safely perform their jobs, and that those without the pre-requisite training could be impairing the department’s mission.

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The Air Force a year later submitted a report that substantiated most of the allegations.

None of the members of the administration implicated in the investigation admitted to any wrongdoing. Some said they never heard any concerns about a fraudulent training records scheme, or no one ever presented evidence of any wrongdoing.

When the assistant chief of training was asked how he was certain that the employees marked on the training records were present, he responded, “Sir, we have a great department here. Are we perfect? No, no department is, but I believe in my guys.”

The assistant chief of training said the allegations were false and accused the whistleblower of filing the complaint because he was upset that he was passed over for the fire prevention chief position.

The assistant chief of fire prevention denied that she received credit for false training entries.

The fire chief said he was never “directly informed” of potential fraudulent training entries and never saw any proof of any wrongdoing. The chief also said that “this issue has been going on for quite some time” and that this was not his first time being questioned.

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The chief said that the fire department had a second training program in place where fire captains maintained hard copy records as back up for training each month and for the entire year. But the Air Force found those records to be incomplete and did not document who was trained on each date.

As for the three firefighters that the whistleblower believed got injured because of their lack of training, the chief said each case had contributing factors.

For example, the chief said one firefighter hurt his back due to improper lifting techniques. The chief said another firefighter who injured his shoulder could have been linked to how he exited his vehicle, not due to some training deficiency.

The chief also said that if employees were able to take training courses based on fraudulent training entries showing they had already taken the pre-requisite courses, “that would be a very bad situation.”

“He stated that if the Air Force Civil Engineer Support Center found out or it was identified that there was fraudulent certifications, they would pull certifications and (the fire department’s) ability to do any type of training courses,” according to the Air Force investigation.

Yet, the investigator corroborated that there were in fact numerous inconsistencies in the training records that showed some employees and instructors getting credit for training despite being on leave at the same time.

The Air Force investigation did not turn up sufficient evidence to substantiate allegations that that fire chief failed to ensure the department was equipped with appropriate training for emergencies and that he and other supervisors were made aware of the scheme.

In a response to the investigation, the whistleblower said he provided sufficient evidence to substantiate those allegations and accused the Air Force of leaving out details in its investigative report.

The whistleblower also disagreed that the evidence showed only the fire chief and assistant chief of training abused their authority. He alleged that once managers and administrators became aware of the investigations, the workplace turned hostile with “threats, harassment, fraudulent appraisals, fraudulent reprimands and ostracizing of personnel…”

Dan Telvock is an award-winning investigative producer and reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2018. See more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.

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