Drug test results alarming 53 subject to action in Fire Department

January 25, 1992|By Roger Twigg

Twelve Baltimore firefighters and paramedics have been fired and three others face dismissal after flunking drug or alcohol tests -- mostly because of cocaine use.

The firings -- and disciplinary action against 40 others -- resulted from an 18-month-old testing program for drug or alcohol abuse.

Eight recruits also were dismissed from the Fire Academy because of their test results.

"I'd say 99 percent of them were for heavy cocaine use," said Tyrone W. Wallace, executive secretary to the Board of Fire Commissioners.

"It's a lot more serious than we thought it would be," Mr. Wallace said. "I think it's a tough program and a fair one.

"It's doing exactly what we wanted it to do -- weed out those with alcohol or drug problems."

One firefighter who lost his job tested positive for cocaine last year after he ran a fire truck off a bridge while making an emergency run in West Baltimore, barely missing a group of construction workers, said Samuel T. Redd, a member of the Board of Fire Commissioners.

Several firefighters were slightly injured and the truck was demolished, he said.

Another dismissed firefighter tested positive for drugs after he had an accident with a fire engine and failed to report it, officials said.

The membership of Firefighters Local 734 helped the department set up the program and is "reasonably happy" with it, according to the union president, Jeffrey A. DeLisle.

"Personally, I have no use for someone who uses alcohol or drugs on the job," Mr. DeLisle said. "If a person is under the influence, what good is he? It puts the workload on everyone else."

"One of the things that the program is doing is weeding out those who had problems that went unchecked for years," Mr. DeLisle said. "You won't believe how many chances people got. People used to look the other way."

Mr. DeLisle said he recalled one fire lieutenant who was always drunk on the job and had to be strapped in the seat of the engine before it went out on a call. Another firefighter who drank a lot would stay behind, the union leader said. "He'd tell them, 'Go get it. See you when you get back.' "

Another firefighter was found rolling marijuana joints on his bunk bed, department officials say.

The program calls for mandatory testing for any of the department's 1,981 firefighters and paramedics if there is a "reasonable suspicion" of a problem with drugs or alcohol, manifested by chronic lateness or absenteeism or unusual behavior.

Since the program's inception, 65 employees have been ordered to undergo testing, Mr. Wallace said.

An initial positive test result brings a suspension of seven working days. The employee is expected to enroll during that time in a one-month treatment program, and then is placed on sick leave during that period.

After completion of the program, the employee is suspended for another eight working days, could be deprived of leave time by a departmental trial board, and is subject to random testing for one year.

Flunking a subsequent test brings dismissal.

One city firefighter who was cited a second time for alcohol abuse was fired this month -- just four months short of eligibility for retirement and a half-salary pension for the rest of his life, Mr. Wallace said.

"It makes you wonder why people would take such a chance," he said.

That case disturbed Mr. DeLisle. While he did not condone alcohol or drug abuse, he said, some provision should be made for people so close to retirement.

"He's earned that [pension]," the union president said.

Commissioner Redd said he had no idea 18 months ago how many employees would turn out to have problems.

"I always said one would be too many in a job like this. I was pleased we were seeing the numbers that showed the program was working. We weren't seeing those numbers before the program because they weren't being detected."

Capt. Patrick P. Flynn, a Fire Department spokesman, said he was surprised at the large number of firefighters who tested positive for drugs or alcohol. "I guess it's a sign of the times," he said. "What I don't understand is, how can they afford it?"

The city Police Department implemented a random drug-testing program in February 1990. In 2,024 random drug tests of veteran officers and 291 of recruits, positive results have turned up with only four veteran officers. Two of them were fired, one resigned and the fourth case is pending, said spokesman Dennis S. Hill.

Mr. Hill said he believes the reason the Police Department has found few officers or recruits testing positive is that substance abusers are being screened through pre-employment testing.

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