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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

The 51 new firefighters who recently began training for the job were tested before they were hired and will be tested again at the academy. Vehicle accidents that cause damage or injury can also trigger immediate drug and alcohol testing, MacDonald said.

If firefighters test positive, they are suspended without pay for 30 days and must complete a treatment program to return to the force. A second positive allows for dismissal.

The push for random drug and alcohol testing moved to the forefront after contract talks between the city and the union reached an impasse in August 2007. Later that month, a blaze at the Tai Ho Mandarin and Cantonese Restaurant in West Roxbury killed two firefighters. Autopsy results made public that October showed that the two men may have been impaired. One of the firefighters had traces of cocaine in his system, and the other had a blood-alcohol content of 0.27, more than three times the state’s legal limit.

The revelation prompted the Menino administration to renew a push for random drug and alcohol tests. Firefighters accused the city of inappropriately leaking the autopsy results. The union demanded compensation for testing, arguing that there had been quid pro quos with other public-safety unions.

The issue pervaded last year’s mayoral campaign. Local 718 aggressively backed Menino’s challenger, but the mayor triumphed by 15 percentage points.

In April, the union won its own victory when an independent arbiter awarded firefighters a contract that included a 2 1/2 percent raise as a direct quid pro quo for random drug and alcohol testing. The contract required an up or down vote by the City Council, which balked at paying firefighters for the screening at a time of layoffs and the threat of library closings.

The council ultimately brokered a dramatic 11th-hour compromise in June. The key element of the deal reduced the raise for drug and alcohol testing to 1 1/2 percent and delayed the pay hike until June 2011. New firefighters will still receive the additional pay, but it will be rebranded as compensation for a wellness program, which will require an annual physical and an abilities test, in addition to urine screenings.