San Francisco Fire Department Sued by Firefighters Over Alcohol Usage
Fire Dept. sued over alcohol usage
Firefighters, officers want action to stem 'notorious' abuse
Jaxon Van Derbeken, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, March 18, 2005
A group of 28 San Francisco firefighters sued the Fire Department on Thursday, complaining that on-the-job drinking was "frequent, open and notorious" and asking a judge to force department bosses to do something about it.
"We're here to announce nothing less than an effort to change the culture of the San Francisco Fire Department,'' said Dan Siegel, attorney for the firefighters.
Two of Chief Joanne Hayes-White's nine assistant chiefs -- the fourth- highest rank in the department -- and seven battalion chiefs, the next rank down, were among those filing suit in San Francisco Superior Court.
The chief called the lawsuit unnecessary and perplexing, saying she relied on her staff to inform her of problems, not file lawsuits.
"I am disturbed by what I am hearing,'' she said of the suit. "There are a number of members of the department, more importantly officers, (who) would be obligated to report any allegations of conduct they observe.''
Siegel called drinking in the firehouses "an open and dirty secret'' and said the plaintiffs want the department to heed the "zero tolerance'' policy toward drinking and drug use that Hayes-White's predecessor as chief, Mario Trevino, spelled out in 2003.
Siegel called on the department to implement random drug and alcohol testing and to test every firefighter involved in accidents on duty.
One of the main issues in the suit is Hayes-White's decision last year to decide "on a case-by-case basis" whether the department should discipline firefighters for drinking or using drugs.
Assistant Chief Christopher Stevenson, one of the plaintiffs, said the lack of a uniform policy made no sense and was potentially unfair to firefighters. Either every firefighter should be given an option to enter a treatment program on first offense, he said, or everyone who uses alcohol or drugs should be fired.
"How can you have a consistent substance abuse policy that is based on a case-by-case basis?" asked Stevenson, who supervises half the city's fire crews when he is on his 24-hour shift. "Just like all discipline, it should be transparent -- one size fits all, whether it's diversion or 'see you later.' ''
Hayes-White said any allegation of firefighter drinking or drug use she had learned of since becoming chief had been acted upon. One rookie firefighter has been terminated, she said, and three firefighters have been disciplined for drug or alcohol use on her watch.
"Four in my 14 months is more than several years of previous administrations,'' she said.
Allegations of substance abuse have dogged the department for more than a year. In June, the civil grand jury said the department "knows, or should know, it has a problem. Many SFFD personnel interviewed have witnessed on-duty drinking and other types of substance abuse. Many in the rank and file know the stations and officers that tolerate on-duty drinking."
In November 2003, firefighter Kristen Odlaug filed a sexual harassment claim against the city in which she said high-ranking officers looked the other way as firefighters got drunk. She has since sued the city.
The grand jury said Hayes-White's policy of reviewing drinking and drug allegations on a case-by-case basis created a potential for favoritism. It said the department should have a range of options for discipline and a clear statement of what conduct would trigger such discipline.
It also said the department should conduct random testing as soon as possible.
The firefighters who sued Thursday said heeding the grand jury recommendations would be a good start.
"We've yet to see random drug testing implemented -- that disturbs me personally,'' said John Darmanin, a fire inspector. He noted that the department had negotiated the right four years ago to test firefighters after accidents, and that "to date, not a single firefighter has been tested. That's shameful.''
Kevin Smith, head of the San Francisco Black Firefighters Association, said case-by-case punishments carried the potential for discrimination along racial or gender lines. "That's a concern of all the members here," he said.
His group joined the 28 firefighters in filing suit, along with four residents of San Francisco and a frequent visitor to the city.
On the chief's side is the Firefighters Union Local 798 and its boss, John Hanley.
"The union feels the chief is doing a very good job," Hanley said. "She has done what she said she would do.''
Hanley said that fireboat crews had been tested at random for alcohol and drugs but that nothing had been implemented throughout the department. "The cost is the big factor, to tell you the truth,'' he said.
Hayes-White said the union and the department were negotiating over what testing can be conducted and under what circumstances. Marijuana testing appears to be a sticking point.
"I may have been overly ambitious in assuming we could have a policy (on random drug testing) in place at the end of last year,'' she said. "We have made progress.''
Hayes-White said testing after every accident would be impractical. She said crashes involving Fire Department vehicles had dropped 17 percent since she ordered a crackdown on speeding and other violations.
Re: San Francisco Fire Department Sued by Firefighters Over Alcohol Usage
Originally posted by superchef
.....Hayes-White said testing after every accident would be impractical. She said crashes involving Fire Department vehicles had dropped 17 percent since she ordered a crackdown on speeding and other violations.