Strong Testing Policy Needed To Address Drug & Alcohol Abuse

Major urban fire departments on both coasts have been struck in recent months by incidents of drug and alcohol abuse on duty. Following on the heels of alcohol-related tragedies involving smaller, volunteer fire departments (see Fire Law, December...


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However, testing has long been a source of controversy, largely because of the concern that it represents an invasion of privacy. Others fear the harm that inaccurate test results might cause. These concerns have led to numerous legal challenges, often based on the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the government from conducting “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Drug and alcohol testing generally is considered to be a form of search subject to this limitation. The key issue, then, is whether the test is “reasonable.”

This question is open to endless debate because it involves balancing the government’s interest against the amount of intrusion into a person’s privacy. Often, the outcome depends upon the specific facts of the testing program or the particular test itself. With respect to the fire service, the balance is between the public safety role of emergency personnel and the reasonable expectation of privacy of emergency workers. It is reasonable to expect more of emergency personnel than other workers.

A comprehensive testing program is essential to an effective anti-drug and alcohol abuse program. Strong fire service rhetoric must be backed up by action, and testing is one of those essential actions.

Steve Blackistone will present “Fire Law: Liability” at Firehouse Expo 2004 in Baltimore, July 13-18.


Steve Blackistone, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is an attorney and a member of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad in Montgomery County, MD.