Random drug testing, better mental health services sought for first responders after Times investigation

Published February 28 2018
Updated February 28 2018

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners want a full review of the mental health services available to first responders after the Tampa Bay Times discovered a history of drug and alcohol abuse in the fire rescue department.

Commissioners also said they support Fire Rescue Chief Dennis Jones’ push for stricter drug testing in ongoing contract negotiations with the fire union.

"There’s an expectation that we see those policies strengthened," Commissioner Stacy White said.

Calling the Times’ report "surprising" and "tragic," Commissioner Sandy Murman suggested that the county expand mental health programs for first responders. The county could pay any additional costs with a local tax meant for indigent care, Murman said.

She expects the Hillsborough health care advisory board to take up the issue immediately.

"Our goal is to keep residents safe, and these are the key people that we need for public safety. We need to help these guys," Murman said. "Let’s start from scratch and build this up."

A six-month investigation by the Times, published last week, uncovered dozens of drug- and alcohol-related incidents among county fire rescue workers since 2010. In 2016, an off-duty fire medic died of a drug overdose, and another overdosed while at work. One employee stole morphine from an ambulance and replaced it with saline; police found materials to evade a drug test, including powdered urine, in the home of a firefighter investigated in the death of his son.

About 20 employees failed a drug test or were arrested for drunken driving.

Job-related stress was often a factor, according to interviews with former employees and family, investigations and medical and discipline records. Experts said post-traumatic stress among first responders is as high as veterans returning from combat.

The Times also found that Hills­borough’s drug testing practices lag behind departments of a similar size across the state.

Hillsborough County Fire Rescue has roughly 1,200 employees in 43 stations servicing the county’s unincorporated communities.

Most large departments drug test employees randomly throughout the year. Hillsborough, the third-largest department in Florida, does not. Instead, up to half the department is tested twice a year, always in January or July.

In many other departments, an accident involving a first responder can trigger a drug test. That’s not the case in Hillsborough, which had at least 20 vehicle accidents since 2011.

"I was taken aback that there wasn’t random drug testing of firefighters," Commissioner Pat Kemp said. "It seems important. It seems like a best practice."

The county and its union representation, the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2294, tentatively agreed to a new contract that would for the first time explicitly ban the use of illegal drugs outside work hours. It also would initiate random drug testing — five employees, every other week.

Union members still need to vote on the contract, and they so far have not set a time to do so. If it is approved, the County Commission will vote on the contract; if rejected, the two sides go back to the bargaining table.

Union president Derrik Ryan did not respond to multiple requests for comment throughout the reporting of the Times investigation.

On Monday, the union executive board released a statement saying it "does not condone or promote the use of illegal drugs, the abuse of prescription drugs or any substance abuse in any manner or form" and criticized the Times report as sensational.

The existing contract does not include testing for alcohol, a change first added in 2014. The County Commission approved that contract, but now some commissioners say that should be reviewed.

"For someone who is a first responder, I think that would be important," said Commissioner Al Higginbotham.

Higginbotham said he thinks the department’s issues are isolated to "a small group of people" and date back to previous chiefs and former union representation. He is optimistic that the rank-and-file will approve of the new direction laid out by Jones.

"I would think they would look at not only themselves but society in general and say we have issues that we need to address," he said, "and they will make the responsible, compassionate decision to help fellow union members, as they’re helping people in need of first responders who are sharp on the job."

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.