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Zero Tolerance for Alcohol and other Intoxicants - Policy Required

As a retired Deputy Fire Chief, Attorney at Law and health care practitioner, I read with great interest the most recent postings on all of the fire service media related to Reno Fire Department's negotiated Policy agreement to allow firefighters to report to duty while impaired. This Policy negotiated in 2002 between labor and the City allows the following levels of drugs and alcohol in a firefighter’s blood (add on descriptors are authors notations):

City of Reno limits for a positive drug or alcohol test for firefighters:

Alcohol: .08 percent

Marijuana: 50 ng/ml – Illegal under Federal Law

Cocaine: 300 ng/ml – Available only by prescription. All other found in testing is illegal

Opiate: 2000 ng/ml – Codeine, Morphine, Hydrocodone, Oxycodone, Fentanyl etc.(prescription only)

Phencyclidine: 25 ng/ml – PCP or Angel Dust is a recreational dissociative drug

Amphetamines: 1,000 ng/ml - Adderall, Dexedrine et. al. (prescription only)

State of Nevada limits for driving under the influence:

Alcohol: .08 percent

Marijuana: 10 ng/ml

Cocaine: 150 ng/ml

Opiate: 2000 ng/ml

Amphetamines: 500 ng/ml

Source: City of Reno, State of Nevada.

The current Reno fire service leadership indicate this has not been a problem in the past and although there have been a few of firefighters who demonstrated impairment and were tested and were found to be clear of any intoxicating substances. One was found positive and rehabilitated.

The source of this policy, like most policies was created where a firefighter was partaking of an illegal substance in a fire station and there was no current policy to correct behavior. So, in the interest of Public Safety, this Policy was created outlining permissive limits to the above mentioned substances. Apparently this current policy affects only the fire department and not the remainder of the departments in the City.

It is my opinion that this policy, although never tested in a court of law to date, has the following problems:

Safety - Firefighters should not show up to work impaired as there is a safety nexus to your community and fellow firefighters. Look to the incidents across the country where impaired firefighters driving apparatus crashed into and killed and injured civilians and their own brothers and sister firefighters. In 2007, an evaluation of two Boston Fire firefighters who died in a restaurant fire had cocaine and alcohol in their systems. Was that the cause of their deaths? None the less a tragedy, this finding places some question related to the department’s drug and alcohol policy, bitterly contested by the Boston Firefighters. Only after major concession by the City was a Policy enacted.

Illegal per se - Nevada State Law (NRS 484C.110) driving while impaired is Illegal Per Se which means the operation of a vehicle by a person with a blood alcohol content (BAC) at or above the legally defined threshold constitutes an offense of impaired driving in and of itself. Nevada’s blood alcohol limit is .08 and .04 for commercial drivers. Noting these limits are only guides, drivers can be arrested and convicted for DUI with a lower BAC reading or for driving under the influence of controlled or prohibited substances. (http://www.leg.state.nv.us/NRS/NRS-484C.html)

Federal Law – Currently under federal law, the use of Marijuana, a Schedule I drug, is illegal. Cocaine is a Schedule II Drug and only available (legally) by prescription. Even in states such as Washington and Colorado which passed laws on the recreational use of marijuana, it still remains illegal under Federal Law. Although not yet tested, fire departments may be precluded from receiving federal grants under this prohibition on a Schedule I drug while there is a permissive department policy allowing such use.

Self Medication – with the current issues of alcohol and other mind altering substances to manage behavioral health and mental health issues by those affected individuals, this permissive Policy only reinforces those firefighters self medicating instead of a creating a proactive behavioral health policy allowing for self referral by the firefighters or supervisors noticing such behavior. Remember, firefighter suicides are at an all time high and our industry is struggling with each tragedy which may be fueled by the firefighter self medicating and not seeking treatment.  

Zero Tolerance Policy – The IAFC has a Zero Tolerance Policy as it relates to alcohol and is a good start for departments seeking such guidance but is not a complete Policy. Many department have similar and more complete polices that indicate a ZERO TOLERANCE to all substances including certain prescription medications. My suggestion is to adopt such a policy and reduce your liabilities and provide a pathway for treatment for those affected or afflicted by the use of alcohol or other drugs.

I understand the need to protect firefighter jobs if they are tested and found to be impaired. There are hundreds of IAFF Labor Agreements that have strict provisions for testing of firefighters for drugs and alcohol while on duty and numerous protections against random termination with the eye towards treatment, rehabilitation and last chance agreements.

Understanding that “this is not a high priority item” for the City, fire department, labor or management at this time, the first time your firefighter driver blows an intersection, rolls a fire engine, kills a firefighter or civilian while impaired will cost your department and City more than was bargained for with this permissive policy.

As a retired fire service leader, attorney and health care practitioner, I urge your department and City to take a few moments and think about the safety of your firefighters and the community you protect. 

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