Office of Special Counsel: “The evidence showed many [Niagara Falls] employees — both students and instructors — on leave during the reported training courses”

By Matt Glynn
The Buffalo News

BUFFALO, N.Y. — A federal investigation found officials with the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station’s fire department filed falsified firefighting and safety training records, crediting employees for training they never received over a three-year period.

The investigation was prompted nearly three years ago by an unidentified former member of the fire department who became a whistleblower, according to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.

“These trainings are intended to instruct first responders on procedures and protocols to handle life-threatening emergency situations,” said Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner. “It is unconscionable that so many employees and instructors whose job is to save lives would be complicit in this type of fraud.”

The investigation found that from 2017 to 2019, over 120 fire department employees received credit for trainings they did not attend, 41 instructors submitted false training documents for validation, and six fire department employees improperly verified false training documents.

“The evidence showed many ( Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station Fire Department) 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 said. “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 fire department provides fire protection and emergency services to the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, responding to medical emergencies, motor vehicle accidents, rescue calls and incidents involving hazardous materials.

The Office of Special Counsel released its findings this month. The investigation was launched in March 2020 and completed in 2021. The Office of Special Counsel said the Air Force’s report largely substantiated the claims. The Air Force’s report said the investigation “did not reveal a criminal violation.” Employees’ names in that report were redacted.

The Air Force’s report said the conduct of three fire department officials, who were not named, constituted “gross mismanagement,” because untrained emergency personnel had responded to incidents that could have put first responders at risk and compromised public safety.

“These officials failed to ensure proper internal controls to monitor and verify training compliance,” the Office of Special Counsel said. “The agency indicated it would consider disciplinary action for these individuals.”

A spokesman for the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station did not respond to a request to comment on Saturday.

Under a change made in 2021, the fire department now reports directly to the 914th Air Reserve Wing mission support commander, “to improve oversight and provide clear, concise communication through a direct chain of command,” the Office of Special Counsel said.

The Air Reserve Wing also put into place a revised training schedule to complete makeup training and has implemented audits to verify training attendance and record keeping.