When people call 9-1-1 for help, they expect emergency responders to be physically and mentally ready to perform all tasks the call requires. But when it comes to St. Petersburg firefighters, residents may wonder. The fire union opposes Mayor Bill Foster's demand that firefighters submit to random drug tests and yearly physical exams. Those are reasonable requirements that would be in the best interest of firefighters and the public.
The issue is preventing the union and city from reaching accord on a new contract, with only days remaining on the current contract. Foster said firefighters shouldn't fear the drug testing "unless they have something to hide." He wants the physicals done to ensure that firefighters won't "stroke out" during a rescue or while fighting a fire. St. Petersburg police agreed to the both drug testing and physicals.
The city's current fire union contract allows drug testing only when supervisors see signs the employee is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. But those aren't always easy to see. And it is important that firefighter/paramedics, who have access to powerful drugs at work, know they could be tested at any point.
The current union contract also provides for mandatory physicals, but firefighters have found a way to avoid them. They refuse to sign the release of liability that medical providers now require any time they are going to disseminate patient information. City officials say they don't get employees' medical information, just a notice that the firefighter is or isn't fit for duty. But doctors have refused to perform the exams when patients won't sign the form.
And an arbitrator ruled the city can't discipline firefighters who won't sign, thus providing a loophole for those who want to avoid exams.
A union official said firefighters are suspicious the city could obtain medical information to use against them in workers' compensation cases.
The union's concerns can be overcome. They don't trump the need to ensure that firefighters, for their own sake and the public's, are fit for the job. And city firefighters should not be treated differently from police officers.