In the firefighting business, it is a point of pride when a son or daughter joins the ranks, cementing a proud multigenerational legacy of service to one's community within the branches of a family tree.
Even that word, "legacy," is one firefighters at the Unified Fire Authority use to describe the hiring of department offspring—a process so common that when the department moves to make new hires once or twice per year, it is not unusual to see one or even two family members of existing UFA employees make the cut.
But among many firefighters at UFA, the term "legacy" has, since the summer of 2011 when 10 of 14 new hires at the department were family members of either UFA brass or politically connected individuals, taken on a tainted meaning.
This hiring, which took place on June 27, 2011—four days before the state's pension system for public safety employees was set to switch to a much-less-lucrative payout formulae—is widely referred to by UFA's 650 firefighters, administrators and paramedics as the "legacy hire."
That 10 of 14 new hires—71 percent—could make the highly competitive short-list of the hundreds who routinely compete for a slot at UFA, is an unprecedented statistical anomaly, UFA officials say. Five years after the hiring, the nagging suspicion that some hires might have received an unfair advantage continues to plague the embattled department, which over the past two months, has seen its fire chief and deputy chief resign amid an internal audit and a state audit focusing on the use of gas cards, department credit cards and lucrative bonuses for top UFA officials.
Interim UFA Chief Mike Watson says he does not know for certain whether, or how, the firefighters hired in 2011 received an unfair advantage. But he says safeguards have been devised to ensure that the testing and interview process cannot easily be manipulated by high-ranking department personnel.
"The perception out in the field—out with our folks—is that something took place that might not have been above board because the percentages were just so high at that time when the retirement system was changing," Watson says.
The hiring, says UFA Director of Human Resources Arriann Woolf, was purposely held ahead of the state's switch to the "Tier II" retirement system, whereby retirement eligibility for firefighters would be stretched from 20 years to 25, and the maximum pension would be cut from roughly 50 percent of a person's high salary to 37 percent.
But what began as an effort to ensure that the department's newest employees would receive a pension at the same level as existing employees, concluded with an apparent giveaway to the sons, brothers-in-law and nephews of high-ranking UFA authorities.
Several of those hired are the sons of current or former UFA chiefs.
Michael Jensen, who was chief of UFA in 2011 and stepped down only one month ago, saw his son, who had just graduated high school, and a brother-in-law get hired.
Jensen, who is running unopposed for his fifth term as a Salt Lake County council member, says that he followed UFA protocol when making any hire, including those in 2011. The standard procedure, he says, was for assistant chiefs and human resources to thoroughly interview the candidates and deliver him a set of recommendations, on which he would sign off.
"That's been the policy and that's what happened with that class as well as all the other classes," Jensen says. "I followed the recommendation list. If there were issues, I don't know of any issues."
When asked about the high number of relatives hired in 2011, Jensen says that he did not know how many were or were not related to existing employees. As for his son and brother-in-law, Jensen noted the traditional importance of familial connections in the fire service.
The assistant chief over human resources and hiring is Mike Kelsey, who did not return calls seeking comment.
Though both Watson and Woolf say they do not know exactly how the hiring system might have been abused, they say that steps have been taken to fortify the process against improper influence.
For instance, Woolf, who has been a human-resources official with the department since its inception, says that during oral interviews with chiefs, HR representatives must be present.
During the time of the 2011 "legacy hire," Woolf says that the department was experiencing rapid growth as it added new cities and towns to its service area. As a result, multiple oral interviews occurred at one time, sometimes where family members of interviewees might have been able to sway their colleagues into giving favorable scores to relatives.
Woolf emphasizes, though, that even this is speculation. All she knows is that the anomaly occurred, and that as a result, UFA employees began to question the integrity of the department's hiring process.
"I don't know that anything definitely happened," Woolf says. "But there was enough that I just made changes going forward in my own procedures to remove the appearance of wrongdoing."
The UFA is the state's largest firefighting department, serving unincorporated areas of Salt Lake County, as well as the cities of Holladay, Cottonwood Heights, Draper, Eagle Mountain and Taylorsville, among others.
The organization is governed by a board made up of elected officials from the areas it serves. On the heels of an announcement by the state auditor that an investigation was underway, the UFA board in August voted to convene its own internal audit. Jensen resigned in step with this announcement, turning in his badge about a month after his deputy chief, Gaylord Scott, abruptly resigned as City Weekly was in the midst of publishing a series of stories about UFA bonuses and the chiefs' use of credit cards and personal vehicles.
As the board has grappled with the alleged misdeeds of UFA leaders, more revelations of problems at UFA continue to surface, including the "legacy hire," which Eagle Mountain Mayor Chris Pengra says the board has been briefed on.
"The board was recently made aware of potential anomalies that happened with that testing cycle back in 2011," Pengra says. "We were also given a history of the measures that were put in place, along with that legacy program, to prevent any mishandling of the new-hire process."
The board, Pengra says, has been hard at work revamping UFA policies with the goal of creating accountability and transparency among its top ranks. For example, key positions like legal counsel, director of human resources and chief financial officer, will all now report directly to the board, rather than to the chiefs, who would then report to the board.
"They're accountable to the board in that way, that if they ever do have a concern, there's no wall between the board and those key, critical functions," Pengra says.
At this moment, Woolf says, UFA is in the process of making another round of hires. Of the 16 people who made the cut, none are related to current UFA personnel.
If the hiring process was compromised, Watson says, it is important to remember that many of the firefighters brought on in 2011 are sterling employees, working hard for their communities.
"I don't know that you can work backwards, but you can work forwards and you can put some protections in place so that if something happened before, it won't happen again," Watson says. "It's not a statement about any of the folks that got hired on that list; it's a statement that the speculation is that there was a way that was figured to get around the system, to beat the system, and I don't know what that is."