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City Initiates Random Drug Tests On Firefighters

City Initiates Random Drug Tests On Firefighters

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Boston Globe via YellowBrix

September 24, 2010

BOSTON – Unmarked white box trucks arrived without warning outside three Boston firehouses yesterday, as the Fire Department began random drug and alcohol testing, a quiet ending to what had become a bitter and protracted labor dispute.

A total of 20 firefighters stepped inside the customized trucks with private bathrooms and running water, submitting to instant-read breathalyzers for alcohol and to urine tests, which will yield results for a spectrum of drugs in 24 to 48 hours.

The procedure took about 10 to 15 minutes per firefighter, performed with none of the fanfare or acrimony that accompanied the nearly five-year contract dispute between the union and the administration of Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

The Fire Department would not release the results of the breathalyzers, citing the privacy of the individuals who were tested, said Steve MacDonald, the department spokesman. Several officials with knowledge of the screening said everyone passed.

“My understanding is it went very well,’’ said Edward A. Kelly, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 718. “My phone wasn’t ringing off the hook with members. Firefighters were enthusiastic about it.’’

The city had the contractual right to begin random drug and alcohol testing Sept. 1, but it took several weeks to finalize details. Firefighters received a detailed 15-page guide outlining the program, which will screen for marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, PCP, opiates, and alcohol, but they did not know what day it would begin, MacDonald said.

It kicked off around 9:30 a.m. yesterday, when the first box truck arrived at Engine 4 and Ladder 24 on Cambridge Street, not far from Government Center. Fire Commissioner Roderick J. Fraser Jr. said he did not know in advance that testing would begin yesterday, but he joined a later group at one of two firehouses screened in Charlestown and voluntarily submitted to a breathalyzer and urine test.

“I though it was the right thing to do to show that I believe in the testing program,’’ Fraser said. “It’s a good thing, it’s being conducted properly, and guys shouldn’t have anything to fear.’’

The company, Occupational Drug Testing LLC, bid for the $91,000 contract that will ultimately perform a random test for each member of the union, which currently numbers about 1,450. Engine and ladder companies will be selected at random by computer, so some firefighters could go an entire year without being tested, while others could be screened several times, MacDonald said.

The box trucks will arrive at all hours, day and night, on weekends, and over holidays. Dispatch will pull the company out of service while firefighters are screened. The testing team will include a member of the department’s employee assistance program. Officials urged firefighters with substance-abuse problems to come forward before they face random screenings so they can get help before they get caught.

“We don’t want to fire people,’’ Fraser said. “That’s not our goal.’’

Occupational Drug Testing screens about 40,000 people a year in New England, said John Quintal, president of the company, which is based in Manchester, N.H., and has an office in Boston.

The breathalyzer cutoff will be a blood alcohol level of 0.04 percent, using the federal standard for commercial drivers, which is half the state’s legal limit of 0.08 percent.

Local 718’s new contract also mandates testing when firefighters are promoted, a provision exercised when seven men became lieutenants and captains last week. Before joining the officer ranks, they were summoned to the Fire Department’s headquarters without warning for screening, MacDonald said.

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