Should firefighters be dismissed for doing drugs?

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

There are certain jobs for which sobriety is nonnegotiable — fighting fires seems inarguably one of them. It’s a task that requires battling flames and high temperatures, risking third-degree burns and deadly smoke inhalation, all of it in an effort to save lives. That’s a dangerous mission, even for the most clearheaded.

So when the New York City’s fire department began quietly loosening its “zero tolerance” policy on drugs, reporters started to take notice. In a report from the New York Post last week, reporter Susan Edelman talked to squad members who said that 26 firefighters who tested positive for drugs have been returned to the job in the past month.

“They give certain guys second chances — as long as you don’t put anyone’s life in jeopardy,” a firefighter who tested positive told Edelman. “People make mistakes.”

The current FDNY firefighters manual, available online, lists “termination” as the consequence associated with a positive urine test for drugs or alcohol (even the first offense). But the Post spoke with some members who say that’s no longer the case. In one interview, a current firefighter opened up about the time he tested positive for drugs after taking one of his wife’s prescription painkillers.

Instead of firing him, the FDNY required him to complete an eight-week rehabilitation program, and then submit almost a dozen character references. After doing this, he was allowed to rejoin the firefighters, this time at a different firehouse. “Most of the 26 thought they were going back to their original houses. A lot of guys are upset about it,” the firefighter told the Post. “At least I have a job.”

Yahoo Lifestyle contacted the FDNY about the loosening of its policy and was told that a public affairs officer would be follow up. At the time of publishing, no official comment had been made.

Although the FDNY may not be publicly disclosing this change, the manual provides clues that this flexibility may have been written into the regulations all along. In the introduction to the illegal substances section of the manual, the organization implies that some cases may be different. “These guidelines are designed to cover the most common infractions, but there may be cases that do not fit precisely within them,” it reads. “The Department reserves the right to depart from these guidelines as the exacerbating or extenuating circumstances of each individual case require.”

The Post suggests that one impetus for this language might be the case of Nicholas Scoppeta, a firefighter who was discharged in 2005 after testing positive for cocaine. Years later, Scoppeta proved to a Brooklyn judge that his drug use was directly tied to the trauma he underwent from digging at Ground Zero (which won him back his pension).

Instances like that one certainly seem to signal the need for flexibility in the policy — but does it mean that a zero-tolerance policy should be abolished altogether?

Zero-tolerance drug policies in the United States originated in the 1980s as a central tenet of then-President Ronald Reagan’s newly launched war on drugs. The concept hinged — and still does — on strict, nonnegotiable punishments for drug use. The military was one of the first major bodies to enact this policy, handing out automatic dismissals to anyone caught using drugs.

For U.S. armed forces, the rule is still in effect today — and considered by many to be a shining example of why it works. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the military has lower rates of illegal drug use than civilians. “A policy of zero tolerance for drug use among DoD personnel is likely one reason why illicit drug use has remained at a low level in the military for 2 decades,” NIDA writes. “The policy was instituted in 1982 and is currently enforced by frequent random drug testing.”

While there aren’t many studies exploring this phenomenon at non-government institutions, there are a plethora performed in the education realm. There, researchers have found zero-tolerance policies to be ineffective at curbing drug use or positively influencing students’ behavior. According to a major review of the published data on this topic done by the American Psychological Association’s Zero Tolerance Task Force in 2008, there is little evidence that this works.

“[Our] review of an extensive database on school discipline reveals that despite the removal of large numbers of purported troublemakers, zero-tolerance policies have not provided evidence that such approaches can guarantee safe and productive school climates for other members of the student population,” the authors write. “Clearly, an alternative course is necessary that can guarantee safe school environments without removing large numbers of students from the opportunity to learn.”

Once students enter the workforce, drug testing continues. According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) (in collaboration with the Drug & Alcohol Testing Industry Association (DATIA)) 57 percent of employers in the U.S. conduct drug testing on all of their employees and have been doing so for more than a decade. Many of them report seeing benefits from these programs including increased productivity and decreased employee turnover.

But whether they’re actually curbing drug use remains to be seen. According to Quest Diagnostic — one of the largest companies that conducts employee drug testing — 4.2 percent of workplace urine samples in 2016 tested positive for drugs, up from 3.7 percent in 2012. Specific drugs saw a surge in positive results, with the highest increases coming in for cocaine.

One of the experts from the study, Matt Nieman (from the Institute for a Drug-Free Workplace), said it’s the last point about cocaine that employers — the FDNY included — should be paying attention to.

While the national dialogue swirls around marijuana and opiate issues, we find cocaine — a substance with well-established dangers — continuing its troubling upswing not just in the general workforce, but in safety-sensitive jobs with federally-mandated testing,” Nieman told Quest. “That positive test results for cocaine persist, let alone are increasing, should serve as a reminder to employers and employees that there is no substitute for vigilance in any effective effort to thwart the potential impacts of workplace substance abuse.”

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