The Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors last week strengthened the district’s substance abuse policy.
The new policy changed the drug testing protocol from annual scheduled testing to random testing, eliminated a clause removing positive tests results from district records after two years, tightened the criteria for alcohol test standards and added a clause re-garding off-duty illegal drug use.
Chris Francis, president of Local 1889 of the International Asso-ciation of Fire Fighters, asked the board July 5 to postpone voting on the policy until union members could review the changes, noting that the substance abuse policy is part of the memorandum of understanding between the board and the union.
“My only objection would be that, as I said before, I cannot make that assumption for the membership that they accept the changes,” Francis told board members. “Our meetings are tomorrow night and Thursday night. I would respectfully ask that you allow our membership to see the policy in its entirety, with the amended changes and to be able to vote on that and (the board) vote on it at your next meeting.”
Board Treasurer Bonnie Stegman, who moved to approve the policy, replied that there was no need to wait.
“I just want to say that we have been working on this for several months and I think we need to have this policy in place. … I’m sure you are as anxious as we all are to get this in place so that we don’t have any incidents where people are put in danger because of the actions of others,” Stegman said.
The new substance abuse policy was approved 2-0 by Stegman and board Chairman Aaron Hilmer. Secretary Dan Ottoline Sr. was absent.
Under the new policy, employees will be selected for drug testing using a computer-based random-number generator. Because all employees are subject to random testing, an employee may be subject to more than one test each year.
The previous policy required the district to conduct drug screening tests annually within the first four months of each year.
Once testing began, all employees were tested within an eight-week period. If an employee tested positive and un-derwent treatment, that employee was subject to an unannounced drug test after the treatment was completed.
The new policy follows the former policy’s guidelines that stated the district may require employees to take a drug test after work-related injuries or post-vehicle accidents, when drugs are missing or are damaged, or based on reasonable cause. Also, any employee who refuses to be tested or tampers with a test sample will be treated as if he or she had a positive test result.
The new policy does not specifically state who will be informed of a positive test result or how long the test results will be kept on record. The policy states that the results “will be kept confidential among only required MFPD representatives, the applicant or employee, the facility collecting the specimens, the laboratory performing the testing and the medical review officer.”
Stegman told the Call that any positive test results will remain in the district’s records.
The previous policy required positive tests to be kept confidential among the board, the chief, the employee, the medical review officer and testing facility. Any negative test results were destroyed. If an employee who tested positive underwent treatment and completed rehabilitation, he or she was returned to duty.
The old policy also included a clause that stated two years after substance abuse treatment, “the records of the treatment and test results shall be retired to a closed medical record. All other references to test results, disciplinary actions and treatments were removed from the district’s files.”
This clause was removed from the new policy.
“It was done because results kind of went to the (former) chief, and were never heard of again, and I had an officer who came to tell me that he had raised concerns and nothing was done about it,” Stegman told the Call.
The new substance abuse policy also has stricter rules for people who test positive more than once.
The first time employees test positive, they may use their paid sick leave and then their paid vacation time to go through rehabilitation through the Employee Assistance Program.
If an employee tests positive a second time, he or she will be subject to discipline up to dismissal. If employees are referred to the EAP again, they will not receive paid leave for the rehabilitation period.
Employees basically had two chances to clean up under the old policy. After the first positive test, an employee was given up to 45 days of paid sick leave to complete re-habilitation. After the second positive test, an employee was granted up to 45 days of unpaid leave to complete the rehabilitation treatment, for which the employee had to pay. The old policy stated that a third violation could result in dismissal.
The procedure for alcohol testing also has changed. The district now uses a breath alcohol test. An employee will be sent home after the first instance of a positive alcohol test. The district will refer the employee to the EAP for treatment on a subsequent instance.
If employees are asked to take an alcohol test, they will take two tests. If they test with an alcohol concentration between .02 and .039 on the first test and then the alcohol concentration increases on the second test, the test is considered positive and employees will be sent home.
Stegman said this is a sign the employee consumed alcohol shortly before reporting for duty because the blood al-cohol level still is rising.
Stegman said the alcohol concentrations of the new policy was based on Missouri Department of Transportation guidelines.
“If you look at medical literature, people actually have disabilities between .02 and .039. They don’t have good judgment, they don’t have good motor skills … they still can’t work and they will be sent home,” Stegman said.
If employees test between .02 and .039 on the first test and then their alcohol level goes down on the second test, that test is considered negative. Stegman said that is a sign an employee consumed alcohol quite some time before going on duty.
However, any subsequent occurrences where an em-ployee’s level dropped on the second test will be considered positive within 24 months of the first occurrence.
Francis said this second-occurrence standard is unfair to employees because the test is considered positive whether the employee’s alcohol concentration is rising or falling. Therefore, he said, it does does not take into consideration when an employee ingested the alcohol, whether it be the night before or in the morning before coming to work.
“Everyone is different as to how their body reacts to alcohol,” Francis said. “That’s why you set a standard of .04 on the second blow … believe me, there is no one here that wants to work with someone that is under the influence.”
Before, alcohol testing was done through collecting a urine sample. A positive test was considered .10 percent, based on the legal limit at the time the policy was written.
The new policy also added a clause that requires the district to take disciplinary action when an off-duty employee is arrested for illegal drug use, sale or possession. The district will place an employee on unpaid administrative leave pending the outcome of the charges after the arrest. If an employee is cleared of wrongdoing, he or she will be reimbursed for lost pay and may return to work.
An employee is required to notify the chief of any criminal drug status arrests or convictions within 24 hours or before returning to work.
Sale or distribution of drugs while on duty will result in termination, while before the district’s policy said it would consider disciplinary action, including employment termination.
Some additional stipulations in the substance abuse policy include a requirement for employees to inform the district of any prescriptions for medication or controlled medical substances, while before it was voluntary.
The board also added a clause that states that the district has the right to search any district property, including lockers, gear, desks and vehicles that are furnished to em-ployees.