Fire, police seek to implement standardized testing

By HASKEL BURNS,

Officials from the Hattiesburg police and fire departments are hoping to implement standardized testing they say would help vet applicants, assist in promotions and streamline certain processes, although one Hattiesburg City Council member isn’t on board with the idea. 

The matter was discussed at last week’s council meeting, when Chief Administrator Ann Jones said the departments would like to contract with management consulting firm Morris & McDaniel – which has offices in Jackson, New Orleans, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. – to implement the testing at a cost of about $35,00 annually for both departments.

“The way this would work is they would conduct three phases of testing for our police and our fire,” Jones said. “There would be a written test component, there would be an interview process and for our police department, there would be scenario-based testing.

“With our fire department, there would be a more practical application in how they’re able to interact and operate the apparatuses. So we’re trying to standardize that experience as a public servant here with the police and fire, but we’re also trying to recognize the individuality of both of those departments as well.”

As part of the process, Morris & McDaniel would review existing job descriptions, job content questionnaires and any previous testing materials, along with any potential sources outside the departments. The firm would then conduct discussions with managers in the departments regarding its recommended promotional processes and exercises.

Morris & McDaniel would provide candidate test instructions, scoring procedures, and other materials related to a written multiple-choice test and various assessment exercises. Examples of performance-based exercises include:

• An In-Basket exercise including items a supervisor might deal with, such as memos, telephone messages, background information or calendar;

• A Subordinate Problem Exercise where a candidate must assume a role and provide background information necessary to answer questions asked by a supervising officer; and

• A Situational exercise consisting of hypothetical situations or questions of general inquiry.

“We’ve been trying to get this in place for a while, and I’m 100 percent behind this process,” Police Chief Anthony Parker said. “As you know, any type of management team is dependent upon the type of candidates you have, and this firm will provide us with quality candidates.”

Despite Parker’s backing – and that of Fire Chief Sherrocko Stewart – Ward 2 Councilwoman Deborah Delgado said she was concerned that the city would be passing on the responsibilities and part of the job descriptions of the departments’ chiefs and supervisors when it comes to evaluation of staff.

“The question then becomes, why then would we even need chiefs and why would we need directors?,” she said. “If we’re doing this with police and fire, it feels to me like an effort to circumvent the human input into the leadership evaluation, and making a responsible and informed assessment of the performance of officers. 

“Are we next going to usher in a process where our planning staff is tested and evaluated based upon some kind of national standard? I’m concerned about the whole notion of circumventing what we say we relied upon when a police chief and a fire chief were chosen by the mayor and then confirmed by the council.”

Parker said the testing was just one part of the process, as Morris & McDaniel would recommend to him the top candidates, and it would be his final decision as to what candidate would be best suited to any certain position.

“This company is diverse, and it would give me the best qualified people for a position, and that’s what I’m looking for,” he said. “Yes, we can do the process, but this process is time-tested and true.”

Delgado, who participated in the meeting via teleconference, also took exception to the cost of the process, saying those funds would be better served to compensate underpaid city employees.

“If we’re going to spend $35,000 a year for the services of a company that has been established to provide these kinds of services, especially when we do not pay our own employees a living wage for the most part, then we need to be questioning what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” she said. “That $35,000 could be spread over many employees in the city of Hattiesburg who need pay increases.”

Council members will be provided with more information on the process and are expected to make a decision on the matter in the near future.