Board OKs drug policy

Firefighters union questioning policy’s legality (Feb. 16)

By: Lauren Burgoon
   WASHINGTON — A random drug-testing policy unanimously approved by the Board of Fire Commissioners on Feb. 8 will not end debate on the matter, as the firefighters union is questioning the policy’s legality.
   The commissioners voted 4-0 to implement a random testing and zero-tolerance policy on all staff last week. The policy comes nearly two years after two firefighters tested positive for drugs.
   The township recently learned of the tests and demanded a testing policy, especially for ambulance drivers. Washington owns the ambulances and could be held liable for accidents caused by substance abuse, Township Administrator Mary Caffrey said.
   One firefighter who tested positive remains with the department and was disciplined with a three-month suspension and 18 months of restrictions. He was not fired.
   The other no longer works with the department for reasons unrelated to the test results.
   Under the new policy any firefighter who tests positive can be terminated, an option that did not exist before. The policy also provides for random testing of all staff.
   Fire Commissioner Mike McGowan said Monday that a random testing policy is necessary for the department. Random testing procedures previously did not exist and the former drug policy was "more of a preamble to something than a policy," Mr. McGowan said.
   "It had no disciplinary actions," he said. "Now we have something nearly identical to the Police Department. We feel it’s important to protect the community and property."
   But the new policy is already under question. Jason Palmer, who heads the local firefighters union, said firefighters are "not opposed to a drug policy as long as it’s a legal drug policy." The union actually pushed for a testing policy last year but the matter was dropped after the union and fire district could not agree on the policy’s language.
   The new guidelines may not be legal, he added.
   "The policy passed the other night is not supported by the United States legal system," Mr. Palmer said, pointing to an Arizona case about randomly testing firefighters when there is no suspicion of drug use.
   The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case in 2004, letting stand the Arizona Supreme Court ruling that such random testing is an abuse of firefighters’ privacy rights.
   The union also finds fault with the zero-tolerance clause in the new policy.
   "We have a different interpretation on zero tolerance. (The fire commissioners’) interpretation is that you can be fired right away," Mr. Palmer said. "Our interpretation of zero tolerance is that you could be punished very severely, but also given a chance. But that’s your one and only chance."
   The township threatened to pull the ambulances from service if the fire district refused to enact a drug-testing policy. The new guidelines passed without objection from the union last week, but Mr. Palmer said it will feature largely in collective bargaining between the union and fire district.
   The two groups agreed to begin negotiations early and are already discussing the 2007 contract. Any decisions also could impact the 2006 contract.