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Berkeley Continues to Pursue Drug Testing for Firefighters & Paramedics

Berkeley is continuing to pursue drug testing for its 125 firefighters and paramedics after failing to get union approval of it in a four-year contract agreement that was reached in August.

That contract goes before the City Council for approval Tuesday night.

Meanwhile, the city will start pre-employment drug testing next spring, Assistant Fire Chief David Orth said.

For current firefighters, the city is continuing to push for post-accident drug testing and testing for reasonable suspicion, a program that could be agreed to with the union at any time, according to city and union officials.

The new firefighters' contract includes a pay increase of about 12 percent over four years, retroactive to June 2006. An entry-level firefighter starting this year would make about $80,000 a year.

The city also is pursuing a drug-testing program as part of a new police union contract that is still being negotiated.

"Drug testing was part of our negotiations but it was dropped," said David Sprague, Berkeley Fire Fighters Association president. "We said, 'What's the justification?' And there wasn't any. They cited issues that occurred in other departments, and we said, 'That doesn't apply to our membership.' We've never had any problems."

In July the Berkeley City Council rolled back a citywide moratorium on drug testing in place since 1988. That move occurred about a year after an 18-year veteran of the Berkeley police department was convicted of one count of possession of heroin and methamphetamine and sentenced to five years probation.

When City Council members vote on the new firefighters contract at Tuesday's meeting, they will see recommendations from an audit critical of the fire department's procedures for tracking and controlling drugs in its ambulances.

The audit recommends a drug-testing program in the fire department, which also oversees the paramedics who drive the ambulances. The audit looked at controls for tracking the drugs morphine, Valium and Versed in city ambulances.

"They need better written procedures, better filing, better inventory control, better monitoring," City Auditor Ann-Marie Hogan said. "We couldn't find the paper trail of how they got rid of expired drugs."

In her audit, Hogan cited an industry survey that said 75 percent of ambulance providers drug-tested employees before hiring, and 37 percent did random drug-testing.

Hogan said the audit of drug controls for ambulances was undertaken after a poll revealed that 13 percent of employees in the fire department said that "inventory access (of drugs) wasn't restricted enough."

"So some folks are saying the controls are a little loose," Hogan said. "The firefighters don't want to be put at risk by folks who are not ready for duty. If 13 percent of the people say something is wrong, then it's worth looking into."

Hogan, Orth and Sprague said there have been no incidents of drug abuse in the department, although they agreed on the need for changes in controlling the drugs in ambulances.

"We found the conditions that needed to be improved in order to prevent the possibility of abuse," Hogan said. "And they are working on it. It's important to them."

Sprague said the department has already taken steps to better control drugs in ambulances.

"That audit (showed) one of those things that was broken for a long time, and this was a catalyst that was necessary for the program to be fixed," Sprague said. "We've completely revamped our policies and procedures."

Orth said the controls on drugs in ambulances were not a priority because the department has never had any problems with drug abuse.

"Certainly, the drugs are secured, so we don't worry about outside people, and there is the danger of someone on the inside doing something," Orth said. "We haven't enacted some things because we felt we haven't had difficulties."

He also said the drug-testing issue is not a result of problems in the department with paramedics in ambulances or with firefighters.

Reach Doug Oakley atdoakley@ebdailynews.com.

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