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Hillsborough fire chief agrees to random drug testing after called out by union

Jones and his administrative staff will join the rank and file in a 'show of good faith'
Hillsborough County Fire Rescue Chief Dennis Jones has agreed to be randomly drug tested along with the rest of his employees, if the union agrees to a new testing policy in the tentative contract. OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times
Hillsborough County Fire Rescue Chief Dennis Jones has agreed to be randomly drug tested along with the rest of his employees, if the union agrees to a new testing policy in the tentative contract. OCTAVIO JONES | Times
Published Mar. 20, 2018

TAMPA — Hillsborough County Fire Rescue Chief Dennis Jones has agreed to submit to random drug tests as he seeks to require the same of rank and file firefighters and paramedics.

The fire union is voting this week on a new contract that for the first time requires random drug testing of the county's first responders. Last week, Derrik Ryan, the president of International Association of Firefighters Local 2294, told the Tampa Bay Times that it would go along way to help employee-employer relations if the chief would join the rank and file in the bi-weekly tests.

As a "show of good faith," Jones and his administrative staff are willing to be included in the random drug testing pool, senior assistant county attorney Rudy Haidermota informed the union Friday.

"The fire chief sincerely hopes that this voluntary gesture will further show his support for all fire rescue personnel and his continued commitment to HCFR," Haidermota said.

The contract vote this week comes after a Times investigation found that drug testing procedures for Hillsborough firefighters and paramedics are weaker than most similar-sized fire departments in Florida. Employees aren't randomly tested — they know urine samples are collected only in January or July. Unlike other departments, they also aren't tested for alcohol.

The Times found 47 drug- and alcohol-related incidents involving county fire rescue employees since 2010. Records show several incidents in which employees were accused of stealing or tampering with drugs on an ambulance or those owned by patients they were called to help. In 2016, an off-duty fire medic died of a drug overdose, and another overdosed while at work.

TIMES INVESTIGATION: Overdoses, DUIs, stolen drugs: Florida's third-biggest fire rescue department has a problem

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

The new three-year contract, tentatively agreed to by the county and union leadership, 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.

If the contract is approved, it will go to the county commission for final action in April.

Haidermota's note to the union made clear that the employment conditions of fire rescue administrative staff are not negotiable. The fire chief reports to the county administrator and is subject to administrative employment policies.

When he spoke with the Times last week, Ryan said it's a fair argument that the union contract doesn't cover leadership positions, "but human nature would say if you're demanding for us to do something different than we have ever done before when it comes to drug testing, why wouldn't you do it with us?"

READ MORE: Her brother was a Hillsborough firefighter. Then he overdosed. What she hopes you learn from her hero.

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