Firefighters acing drug, booze tests

Results from three years of random drug and alcohol tests reveal that The City’s fire employees have been on their best behavior since a boozing scandal rocked the San Francisco Fire Department.

With almost 1,000 random drug and alcohol tests conducted since September 2005, only two Fire Department employees have failed. The results are so unexpected, authorities said, that the Fire Department has cut more than $35,000 from its 2008 budget proposal originally earmarked for retesting firefighters who failed their first test.

Fire officials had been feeling the heat after a 2004 grand juryreport slammed the Fire Department for tolerating alcohol consumption in a number of station houses. The report was followed by a series of high-profile disciplinary hearings and a lawsuit. Battalion Chief Stephen Gritsch was dismissed in April 2005 for having a blood alcohol content of more than 0.12 percent while on duty. Following Gritsch’s disciplinary hearing, Mayor Gavin Newsom called for swift action with regard to on-duty drinking.

Dan Siegel, an attorney who represented 28 firefighters in 2005 who were fed up with the department’s lax regard for on-duty drinking and asked a judge to intervene, said the lawsuit was filed because residents were being endangered.

“The chief and other officers of the department had the power to enforce city and department polices, such as drug testing and disciplinary measures,” Siegel said. “They just chose not to.”

The firefighters’ case was dismissed — Siegel said the court decreed it was a jurisdictional issue — but the resulting uproar did push random drug testa to be included in contracts for firefighters.

The City currently spends thousands of dollars on random testing in which names are picked every week by a private contractor. On average, one or two employees are tested every weekday.

The number of tests doled out has dropped slightly since the process began. There were 444 tests given between September 2005 and September 2006. The next year, 367 tests were administered, and to date, the Fire Department is on pace to administer about 350 tests per year.

Fire Department spokeswoman Lt. Mindy Talmadge said the fact that only two employees have been disciplined shows that random drug testing is working. Those two employees were handed 90-day suspensions and were required to complete a 52-week therapy program, which included scheduled testing for three years.

“It’s been a great policy,” Talmadge said. “I think people have actually liked having it. It keeps everybody on their toes.”

John Hanley, president of the firefighters union, said he wasn’t surprised by the results.

“Through and through, we’re a good group of men and women,” he said.

bbegin@examiner.com

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