Editorial: Hillsborough Fire Rescue should toughen drug policies

Published March 3 2018

One paramedic died of a drug overdose. Another slumped at his desk from opioid use during a shift. A third stole morphine from a truck, replacing it with saltwater. As the cases stacked up, Hillsborough County relaxed rather than toughened the drug and alcohol rules for firefighters, making it an outlier among similar-sized fire departments in Florida. Hillsborough needs to toughen the disciplinary policies for firefighters to protect both the public and rescue workers.

An investigation by the Tampa Bay Times found Hillsborough has a disturbing history of drug issues — and alcohol abuse — among first responders. The Times found 47 drug- and alcohol-related incidents involving county fire rescue employees since 2010. The review exposed a system that is far weaker at Hillsborough Fire Rescue than at peer departments across Florida. As the Times’ Steve Contorno reported, experts and former employees wonder if the department does all it can to help firefighters and paramedics cope with a job that is dangerous and taxing, both physically and emotionally. Of course it doesn’t.

The Times identified substance abuse among firefighters after reviewing thousands of pages of discipline records, internal and state investigations and police reports. The incidents involved a range of employees, from engine drivers to company captains, and they occurred on and off the job. At times, some rescue workers endangered themselves or their colleagues — or the public. Eleven employees failed a drug test from 2010 to 2015, when Chief Dennis Jones arrived after being lured out of retirement from Tampa Fire Rescue.

In Hillsborough, a failed drug test usually results in a one-day suspension and employees complete a rehabilitation program before returning to work. Yet in other large counties, a failed test could result in termination or criminal prosecution. Most of the state’s fire departments also drug test more frequently. But under the county’s collective bargaining agreement with the fire union, drug testing takes place only twice a year.

Jones said he is working with the union to strengthen policies and to institute random drug testing. For the first time, the contract would expressly ban the use of illegal drugs outside of work. The department would randomly test, and those caught would be placed on leave and required to complete rehabilitation before returning to work. Hillsborough County commissioners voiced support Wednesday for Jones’ stronger approach. They also called for a review of mental health services available to first responders.

These are sensible changes the commission should support. The commission, however, should dismiss the idea of paying for any expanded services with funds from a county tax meant to cover indigent care. These are good union jobs, and funding for substance abuse should be negotiated between the county and the union as part of the firefighters’ collective bargaining agreement.

A big question is whether the union is prepared to fulfill its responsibility. It should recognize that protecting its members does not include keeping substance abuse under the radar. The union and county should work together to track the results of any new disciplinary standards and work harder to create a drug-free work environment.