Fit-for-duty policy needs revamping, MFPD board told

By MIKE ANTHONY

Mehlville Fire Protection District Administrative Chief Fire Officer Tim White last week proposed revamping the district’s fit-for-duty policy for employees.

White told the Board of Directors Sept. 17 that he soon would provide more details regarding his proposal, adding he would like to have a revised fit-for-duty policy in place by the second week in October.

The Board of Directors established a mandatory fit-for-duty policy in August 2006. Under the policy, all 24-hour personnel with the rank of captain or below are required to have an annual fitness-for-duty evaluation. Such evaluations determine whether an employee is:

• Fit to work without limitations.

• Fit to work with identified limitations.

• Not fit for duty.

“… (The) fit-for-duty policy that we have now doesn’t really meet the true meaning of the word, which is fit for duty. It needs to be revamped, redone,” White told the board. “I brought in the experts in here and had a meeting with them to determine what is fit for duty for a firefighter here at the Mehlville Fire Protection District or anywhere in St. Louis County or the United States as well. It is something that you have to be very cognitive of the fact that these are men and women who want to do a good job and a lot of bad habits were learned over the years. And how could we test them fairly and how can we see what their performance is and if — if — they cannot pass this particular test that has been devised by PRORehab, what can we do to help to make sure they can pass?

“That is what it’s all about — finding the target areas, find out where the weaknesses are, find out where they need help and helping them. We’re not going after them. I do not want to go after anybody. That is not the intention of this. The intention is to bring them up, not push them down.”

White said he will propose a “three-prong approach” — a fit-for-duty policy, a wellness program and a physical-fitness program.

“The question is why, and obesity is a major concern among firefighters and it shows worsening trends over time. Periodic medical evaluations coupled with exercise and dietary guidelines are needed to address this problem, which threatens the firefighter’s health and may jeopardize public safety,” he said.

White later said, “… Here at Mehlville Fire Protection District, I feel that we have an obligation to meet the needs of our firefighters and paramedics. With the help of this Board of Directors, I am asking for the backing and the support to institute this three-prong approach to protect our firefighters and paramedics and ultimately their families, which by default protects our citizens of the Mehlville Fire Protection District.

“Once again, the idea is here not to hurt our employees, not to hurt our firefighters and paramedics, but I think they want our help because they always want to help the community,” he continued. “Now the question is what can we do now to be proactive and help them meet what they love to do?”

But Capt. Nick Fahs, president of Mehlville Local 1889 the International Association of Fire Fighters, voiced concerns about White’s proposal and how it might impact some firefighters.

“… I just want to go over where our fit for duty was a few years ago when you designed it, (board Treasurer) Mrs. (Bonnie) Stegman,” Fahs said. “We’ve had some people struggle to pass it already … I know one employee that has left because she didn’t think she could pass it and it was probably part of her decision to leave. But the point I’m trying to make is it was designed by a professional. It was well researched. Other departments do it and at the end of the day, we did your test. We still continue to do your test. We work hard to pass it …”

Fahs said, “… In the preliminary discussions I had with Chief White about some his ideas for the test, it troubled me greatly because we have different statured employees here. And just because somebody can’t pick up 170-pound bag backwards because maybe you’re petite or a female or don’t have the body mechanics, your job should not depend on that. That doesn’t mean we’re not going to rescue people here. It’s a team aspect of it. It’s part of society.

“There’s different types of people and at the end of the day because of some of the changes here, we have some older employees. And I guess what I’m trying to say and maybe I’ll just be blunt about it … we have 55-, 58-year-old men that have been firefighters for a long time. They cannot — that has to be a factor in the testing.

“I understand why you want to do it and I think your test is fair. We took your test. We still take your test and no one complains about it … I understand the physical-fitness portion of it, but please you don’t have to change your test. We can stretch. We can do what the chief wants to do as far as physical aspect of it, but imagine being 55, 58, 60 years old and it changes with the threat of: If you can’t do this, you’re fired. And that’s eventually where this is going to be. At the bottom of this policy, I’m just afraid it’s going to say: Failure to adhere to this or pass this could result in action up to and including termination,” the union president said.

“And all I’m saying is we want to be physically fit. We want to serve these taxpayers. We want to do the right thing … But please remember at the end of the day, people are afraid. They’re afraid that if I can’t climb a hundred-foot ladder and come back down if my heart rate goes too high, and that might not be an industry-standard test. Everybody should be able to do it. But if my heart rate goes up and then I have a few minutes and then I have to take another physical aspect of it or drag in a body or whatever, and if I have the wrong stature or I’m … this test shouldn’t be a Mehlville test. It should be a standard that nationwide everybody uses to test their employees …,” Fahs said

White responded, “… We currently have a hundred-foot aerial platform. I think — my opinion is, is we should be able to climb it. We should be able to climb to the top, then climb to the bottom. So I personally have asked blindly some citizens: Do you think firefighters should be able to climb that ladder? And they felt that they should.

“Now the other aspect … is climbing up and down stairs carrying a hose. And there again, most people expect firefighters to climb up and down the stairs with a hose. The other aspect was like he had mentioned, carry a 175 — or drag, not carry — drag a 175-pound dummy. There again, if I ask the taxpayers: Do you think that a firefighter should be able to drag your 175-pound frame if they’re the only one there? Maybe you don’t have help. Maybe you’re the only one there for whatever reason. Do you think that that firefighter should be able to drag you out of your house? And there again, they say yes.

“With that being in mind, I want to actually meet those needs and take into consideration everything that Capt. Fahs said … I’m not trying to put Capt. Fahs on the spot, but that person that is with Capt. Fahs fighting that fire — if all of a sudden, Capt. Fahs goes down. The question is: Is that person fit for duty? Can they perform the job of a firefighter to get him out? Is his wife, Mary, willing to accept the fact that I as chief have allowed a firefighter to work here that couldn’t do the rudimentary, basic things that a firefighter’s required by what the people think. If they’re not able to do that, I as a chief have just put him and his wife basically in the toilet …”

White said any new fit-for-duty tests would be formulated by professionals.

“… We want people to pass it. Like I said before, the idea is here not to let people get fired … I feel that everybody will be able to pass it,” he said. “What happens if they can’t initially? You know what we do? Capt. Fahs and myself and all of us here, they rally around that person and work with them so they can pass it. They can do it …”

Fahs interjected, “… I believe they can do it …”

White continued, “But we’ve got to give them every opportunity to do it … Anybody who is required to perform the task of a firefighter, who is going to go in that structure to rescue or help our taxpayers should be fit for duty …”