The Firefighter and Politics

Politics is hardly a topic some people want to discuss privately and definitely not publically. Although some folks loathe the subject, others relish it. Being a public service employee is no different. Recently, politics has reared its nose into the neighboring Metro Fire Department and the city counsel. More specifically, the mayor’s office. The reason for this memorandum is that our town manager has requested a meeting with myself (being that I’m the Chief Officer of the town fire department) to address some political issues in the neighboring town. The issue is that the mayor has been campaigning to implement all public safety employees to submit to random drug and alcohol testing to instill public trust in its community servants. The mayor and his administration are adamant in introducing this topic on a bill and getting it ratified by the city which some think is ulterior in motive. This city direction does not come without some opposition. Unfortunately, there has been a lot of push back from the city’s public employee workforce (primarily metro fire department) due to the belief that the tests are a direct violation of their human rights and privacy. Ultimately, whatever the outcome is, all sides need to put the interests of those they service before their own.

This is not the first time that this proposed bill has made its way as a political discussion. The mayor and his administration has filed this bill consecutively for the past two years but it has fizzled out repeatedly at the state level since the state legislature is reluctant to take on the public employee unions. Needless to say, the relationship between the Metro Fire Department and the Mayor in the adjacent county has been strained for years. Due to some recent activities, the mayor’s push for random drug and alcohol testing to public safety employee may gain a foothold in his political agenda.

One of the recent dilemmas was that a firefighter from the metro fire department was forced to resign from his position after a federal raid was conducted on his property. In the raid of the affect individual’s vacation home, federal agents found and seized 131 marijuana plants. Another issue that has come to light in the region was about the perceived cause of deaths that claimed the lives of two firefighters involved at a structural incident. Even though it has never proven, the perceived opinion of community members that the two firefighters that perished in a restaurant fire were suspected in being under the influence of a drug or alcohol that contributed to their deaths. The information from both incidents has become public knowledge and has greatly effected the reputation of the fire department in the eyes of the community negatively. The pulse of the community is that fire department members are performing their job under the influence of drugs or alcohol, putting themselves and the public in unneeded threat.

As mentioned before, the illicit activities associated with the public safety workforce have negatively affected the community’s opinion about the fire department. So much so that the city and town managers of the surrounding have became greatly alarmed. Also due to the negative reputation of the public employees, the city’s employers have become worried about the performance and service that the employees provide. Although firefighters and the union officials are steadfast on their position of being an opposition of random drug and alcohol testing, we must address the reality of the issue before it becomes an epidemic.

Being in the public safety profession, members tend to be exposed to a multitude of physical and psychological trauma. Sometimes theses types of stressors may have an adverse reaction in some that drives some into either a positive or negative addiction. By no means am I condoning any type of illegal activity on the part of our employees but we, as leaders need to understand and be on the look out for subordinates that maybe abusing a type of dependence on or off duty. In a study conducted by the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), some of the data suggested that, “rates of substance abuse in the fire service are even higher than the general population. For example, one multi-state study of 24 fire departments found that 50 percent of fire fighters reported binge drinking in the past month, compared to 23 percent of males in the U.S” (IAFF, 2017). These statistics suggests that fire fighters who are constantly exposed to acute and/or long-term stressful conditions are highly disposed to become substance abusers when compared to the general public. Even casual substance abuse by an individual can rapidly spiral out of control, attacking every facet of his or hers life. We must ensure proper policies and procedures are in place for our members.

One of the ways to facilitate support of an employee is through the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). It is a voluntary and confidential program that is offered free of charge through one of the city’s agency’s’. The EAP aids all members (including management) that maybe experiencing physical and psychological challenges in their life. These issues may inadvertently be causing the members job performance and health to plummet which in turn will impact organizational efficiency and effectiveness. EAP services include but, or not limited to employees with personal and/or work-related concerns, such as stress, financial issues, legal issues, family problems, office conflicts, and alcohol and substance use disorders (OPM, n.d.). It is paramount that we as leaders provide all the assistance we can to get our employees back to functioning properly and back to organization’s success. With this issue being addressed, we can start on working on rebuilding the trust of the public that may have been lost due to actions and perception of a few inappropriate individuals.

As the Fire Chief of our combination suburban fire department, it is essential that we sustain the public’s trust of its public servants. One of the ways we solidify this is through a proactive approach of preventative and corrective policies, which addresses alcohol and drug abuse that all members (career and volunteer) must abide by for continued employment. The approach we used once we began formulating our preventative and corrective policies was working with the local fire fighter union and the town’s human relations (HR) department. Working with the unions and county official helps to create a “buy in” from all parties involved to ensure strict adherence to all federal, state, and local laws. More importantly, cementing the trust of our community members.

While preparing our departmental policies, we utilizing national statistics and standards to add validity the guidelines. In an article by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) it states, “Alcohol and drug use among employees and their family members can be an expensive problem for business and industry, with issues ranging from lost productivity, absenteeism, injuries, fatalities, theft and low employee morale, to an increase in health care, legal liabilities and workers’ compensation costs” (Wilcox, n.d.). These are not characteristics that should be associated with the fire department. Also, individuals that choose to live this type of lifestyle will cost them substantially in the long run. Another reason our department abides with a drug free stance in our department is through necessity. According to the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 it states, “some Federal contractors and all Federal grantees to agree that they will provide drug-free workplaces as a precondition of receiving a contract or grant from a Federal agency” (DoL, n.d.). Our department has previously applied for and has been awarded the federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant. The SAFER grant was, “created to provide funding directly to fire departments and volunteer firefighter interest organizations to help them increase or maintain the number of trained, ‘front line’ firefighters available in their communities” (SAFER Grant, n.d.). The grant is pivotal for all eligible fire departments that greatly enhances staffing, response and operational criteria for all effected members. Speaking from experience, if we were not awarded the pervious grant, our fire fighters and our community’s safety would be significantly reduced. Because of the grant, we were able to increase our minimum staffing and added and additional fire apparatus to meet the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1710 standards. All of this would not be possible if we did not have drug-free workplace.

So in closing, for the needs of the neighboring community to be met, all affected parties must work collectively. Focusing on the health and safety of all city employees and the community they serve should be the priority. Although, the concerns of the fire fighters and its union officials are reluctant to submit to random drug and alcohol testing are valid, this act could negatively impact the fire department’s ability to apply for federal grants and possible safety by working with individuals that maybe under influence of substance. My advice for the town manager is that our department will maintain a drug-free work environment and I hope the surrounding fire departments will follow. Doing so should be the pattern of excellence, not a political agenda. 

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