In the 2 1/2 years since Baltimore County began requiring career firefighters to take random drug tests, at least a half-dozen have been dismissed for substance abuse – proof, union leaders say, that the policy works.
But the county’s estimated 2,000 volunteer firefighters and paramedics are not required to take the tests. And union leaders say that is a problem.
“It’s an inherently dangerous field,” said Michael K. Day Sr., president of the Baltimore County Professional Fire Fighters Association. “To potentially have individuals under the influence of a substance, there’s just no room for that.”
A representative of the county’s volunteer fire companies, which receive funding from the county but operate largely independently, said money and scheduling problems have prevented the companies from requiring random drug tests of members.
“It’s not that people are standing there saying, `I’m going to refuse to go to a drug test,'” said Susan Coroneos, president of the Baltimore County Volunteer Firemen’s Association. But most volunteer firefighters have full-time jobs that limit the time available for taking the tests, she said.
The asociation’s members voted last week on a plan to pay for tests of new volunteers starting Sept. 1, she said. And the association is looking at the prospect of random drug testing for all volunteers, she said.
Baltimore County is one of at least three counties in the area – Anne Arundel and Howard are two others – with paid and volunteer firefighters.
Anne Arundel County requires all public safety employees, including career and volunteer firefighters, to take random drug tests, a fire official there said.
In Howard County, career firefighters must take random drug tests, but volunteers are generally tested only after accidents or if there is a “reasonable suspicion,” officials there said.
Harford and Carroll counties, where all firefighters are volunteers, have no uniform drug testing policy, though individual companies might have policies, officials said.
The Baltimore City Fire Department randomly tests firefighters.
Baltimore County created a drug policy several years ago after a firefighter filed a grievance against the county, saying it was not doing enough to guarantee a drug-free workplace, said Elise Armacost, a county fire department spokeswoman.
Since Jan. 1, 2005, the department has required all applicants for paid firefighting and paramedic positions to be tested for drugs, including alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, narcotics and barbiturates, Armacost said. Firefighters are also tested after serious accidents.
Every weekday, a computer randomly picks three of the county’s more than 1,000 paid emergency responders to be tested at a clinic, Armacost said.
Those who test positive are subject to dismissal but can present arguments to an appeals board and, in some cases, enter a drug treatment program.
Six to 10 fire department employees have been dismissed for using drugs, including marijuana and cocaine, and for the illegal use of prescription drugs, Armacost said.
The county’s 33 volunteer fire companies, which work out of separate stations but work alongside paid firefighters in emergency response, are largely autonomous and do not have to adhere to the county’s drug testing policy, officials said.
Armacost said fire officials respect the volunteer companies’ independence in coming up with their own drug policies, adding, “We would be very happy to see them come up with a drug testing program that works for their members.”
Volunteer companies have been discussing a policy that would require random drug tests for volunteers, but one question has been who will pay for the testing, which officials estimate would cost $30,000 a year countywide.
Logistics is also a problem, said James Doran, administrator for the Baltimore County Volunteer Firemen’s Association.
“It’s easy for career service to do this because they know exactly when these people are going to be available according to the duty schedule,” Doran said. Volunteers, however, often come and go at the firehouse, and it might be difficult for them to take time off their full-time jobs to take the tests, he said.
Day, the local fire union president, pointed to the policy in Anne Arundel County, where, a spokesman there said, volunteers receive notices when they go to the station that they need to be tested by a certain time. The county uses a contractor that administers the tests at night, the spokesman said.
Richard Duffy, assistant to the general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said the association opposes random drug testing on grounds that it violates privacy rights. But he said the association essentially supports an all-or-none policy, adding that it did not make sense to require random testing of career firefighters but not volunteers.
“If it is truly going to be random, then it has to be random from the top to the bottom,” Duffy said, adding, “How could you exclude anybody?”