- The Washington Times - Monday, July 15, 2002

A special D.C. fire department cadet-training program is allowing unqualified candidates to graduate and become full-time firefighters, despite doubts by fire officials whether many of the graduates are fit for the job.
Among the students who will receive their diplomas this morning are those who failed several portions of the yearlong firefighting course paid for and sponsored by the federal government as a form of affirmative-action program.
Also scheduled to graduate is a cadet whom police charged with shooting and wounding another cadet in January.
Only 12 of a starting class of 20 cadets completed the program, which was paid for with a federal grant aimed at assisting at-risk youth. The program was allowed to lapse in the mid-1990s but was revived last year. Classes began in April 2001 and ended June 30.
D.C. firefighters, who must work alongside these cadets, say they have serious questions about the cadets' level of maturity and the quality of instruction they received.
Among other things, they point to the case of the man facing charges of assault with intent to kill stemming from the January shooting of another cadet.
According to court records, in the early morning hours of Jan. 1, Cadet Michael McKnight, 21, was driving with a passenger on Minnesota Avenue NE when he recognized a car belonging to another cadet, Michael Holmone, 21, going in the opposite direction.
According to the records, Mr. McKnight turned his car around and followed Mr. Holmone's car to a traffic light.
"A moment later, gunfire erupted from the defendant's car," court papers say. Bullets struck Mr. Holmone in the face and neck. Mr. McKnight then drove off.
"Amazingly the victim was not killed," the papers say. Mr. Holmone crawled out of the passenger's side of the car and escaped. Mr. McKnight's trial is scheduled to begin Friday.
Both cadets remained in the program.
D.C. Firefighters Association President Ray Sneed said all the cadets especially Mr. McKnight have been given considerations not extended to full-time firefighters. "If that same incident happened to a firefighter right now, he would be suspended," Mr. Sneed said.
Mr. McKnight was also arrested in 1999 for aiming a gun at police officers chasing a drug suspect. Mr. McKnight dropped the gun after he was shot in the back by the police. He was found not guilty of assault and weapons charges in the case.
"The fact that he was involved in a criminal act should have been enough for the D.C. government to give him a second look," Lt. Sneed said. "Not only do you have to be trained to [be a firefighter], you have to have the integrity to go in and out of people's homes."
A source close to the federal program said there were also questions about the kind of training the cadets received.
The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said about a third of the cadets scheduled to graduate were motivated and worked hard, but the rest lacked discipline, showed up late and sometimes not at all. Because the cadets, unlike other firefighter recruits, were not sworn in before entering the academy, they could not be disciplined by the fire department.
Several cadets, including four scheduled to graduate, failed a required component of the program emergency medical techniques.
The source said instructors were going to fail the four cadets, barring them from becoming firefighters this year. But Fire Chief Ronnie Few stepped in, directing the instructors to work overtime with the cadets to bring them up to speed.
The four ultimately passed and were then given more tutoring to make up for the class time they missed.
One of the hardest working cadets was declared ineligible to graduate two days before the program ended because he had not attained U.S. citizenship, which is necessary before completion.
Lt. Sneed said that he believes a cadet program can work, but that officials in fire administration made too many concessions to discipline and quality of training to receive the $365,000 in federal funds.
"The cadet program as originally designed was perfect. We have good kids that came out of that program," Lt. Sneed said. "They took a program that was in place and toned it down to meet their needs instead of the needs of the agency."
D.C. Fire Department spokeswoman Lisa Bass did not return calls seeking comment.
Another federally funded cadet class is scheduled to begin today.


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