Controversy flares over SFFD alcohol tests 

The firefighters union is calling for changes to the Fire Department’s alcohol testing policy after six members of an engine crew were given Breathalyzer tests without sufficient cause.

In a letter to the Fire Commission dated Feb. 16, Firefighters Local 798 President John Hanley called for an investigation into a Feb. 15 incident in which the six-member crew was tested for alcohol even though their immediate supervisor and their battalion chief did not believe them to be inebriated.

"Our guys have got nothing to hide, but it’s an infringement on our freedom to come in and say, ‘We think you guys have been using alcohol,’ with nothing to back it up," Hanley said Monday.

In his letter, Hanley claimed the testing violated the department’s own alcohol testing policy, namely, that there was not reasonable suspicion to conduct the test after the crew was reviewed by its supervisor. "These are young firefighters. Nobody was drinking, but they were all scared and it was pretty invasive," he said.

The department instituted a policy of random drug and alcohol testing in September 2005 after allegations surfaced in 2004 of rampant drinking, drug use and sexual harassment at fire stations. Chief Joanne Hayes-White said Monday that, to date, the department has conducted 500 such tests.

But the crew of Engine 44, located on Girard Street in the Portola district, was not subjected to a random test, both Hanley and Hayes-White said Monday. They responded to a call for service and were tested after a civilian called claiming to have smelled alcohol on the breath of one or more firefighters. After their immediate supervisor and their battalion chief investigated the complaint and found them not to have appeared inebriated, a captain sent to investigate conducted a Breathalyzer test, which came up negative.

"While I agree that voluntary alcohol testing may not have been appropriate, the Substance Abuse Policy does not appear to be violated," Hayes-White wrote in a response to Hanley’s Feb. 16 letter. Hayes-White said the captain who tested the crew did so because the crew members, eager to clear their names, volunteered for the test.

"I agree that, by the spirit of the policy, even though they volunteered, we shouldn’t have tested them," Hayes-White said Monday.

Commission President Paul Conroy said Monday that the commission would wait to decide on whether to investigate the matter until after Hayes-White meets with union representatives to discuss new language in the department’s testing policy. "I think they could very well come to a resolution on the matter. Hopefully they will do so," Conroy said.

amartin@examiner.com

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