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    Default San Francisco Mayor gets tough on Fire Dept.'s 'dirty little secret'

    San Francisco Chronicle


    Mayor gets tough on Fire Dept.'s 'dirty little secret'
    Chief moves to fire battalion officer in on-job drinking case

    Jaxon Van Derbeken, Rachel Gordon, Chronicle Staff Writers

    Friday, April 8, 2005

    On-the-job drinking in the San Francisco Fire Department is a "dirty little secret'' that has gone on for too long, Mayor Gavin Newsom said Thursday, as the city's fire chief moved to dismiss an acting battalion chief whose alleged on-duty drunkenness has caused reverberations throughout the department.

    Chief Joanne Hayes-White sent a letter to the Fire Commission asking it to fire 26-year veteran Stephen Gritsch, who allegedly showed up drunk at department headquarters last Friday. If dismissed, Gritsch would be the highest-ranking San Francisco firefighter ever terminated for violating the department's policy against on-the-job substance abuse.

    Hayes-White's top assistant, Deputy Chief Fred Sanchez, cleared Gritsch for duty Friday and let him leave headquarters in a department car even after two members of the chief's staff told him they smelled liquor on his breath.

    Three hours later, after Hayes-White ordered Gritsch back to headquarters for a sobriety test, his blood alcohol was measured at 0.12 percent. That's over both the department's limit of 0.02 percent and the 0.08 legal ceiling for driving.

    Newsom, questioned Thursday about the incident after it was reported in The Chronicle, said that if the accusations were true, the city's response would be swift.

    "It's in everyone's best interest to deal with this quickly and appropriately and send a message to the rest of the department that things have changed, and there's going to be real accountability, and this mayor is not going to be passive in that process, nor is this fire chief,'' Newsom said.

    He said he didn't believe that the department had a widespread drinking problem and described recent incidents as "absolute exceptions'' to the norm. Nonetheless, he said, there is some on-the-job drinking, and it is hurting the Fire Department's image.

    "It's the dirty little secret that we've all known about for many, many years, and now with the new chief and I, as mayor, ultimately accountable, I'm not going to sit back and put up with it,'' Newsom said.

    "We're going to do everything we can to make sure that no one is drinking in public safety positions," the mayor said. "It's unacceptable. You shouldn't be in that profession if you're going to abuse the privilege and abuse the public trust.''

    Last year, the San Francisco civil grand jury issued a report saying the department had a problem with drinking and excoriating officials for not doing more to address it. In March, 28 firefighters, including two in Hayes-White's command staff, filed a lawsuit demanding that department brass stop on-the-job drinking.

    The plaintiffs want Hayes-White to scrap her policy of deciding whether the department should discipline firefighters for drinking or using drugs on a case-by-case basis and instead enforce an existing zero-tolerance rule. They also want the department to implement random drug testing immediately, something the chief is negotiating with the firefighters union.

    Newsom defended the chief's approach of assessing each case separately.

    "I support the fire chief's policy,'' the mayor said. "She has done more in the year since she's been in that position than the previous two administrations, so I think she's doing it the right way.''

    Hayes-White had no further comment about the case Thursday, said Capt. Pete Howes, spokesman for the Fire Department. He said the chief was overseeing the investigation into the handling of the incident herself.

    Sanchez was not available for comment.

    Hayes-White outlined the case against Gritsch in a letter to the Fire Commission that she wrote Monday and the panel released Thursday. He has been suspended since failing the sobriety test last Friday.

    "During the time you were under the influence, you drove a department vehicle,'' Hayes-White wrote in the complaint. "The California Highway Patrol reported a (blood alcohol) reading of 0.12, which not only exceeds the department's threshold, but exceeds the state of California's limit for driving."

    The commission now will schedule a hearing to determine whether to endorse Hayes-White's recommendation and fire Gritsch.

    Fire officials said the only comparable case they could recall involving a high-ranking department official happened in 1995, when a battalion chief was demoted to captain for having used drugs or alcohol on the job.

    Dan Siegel, an attorney lawyer for the firefighters suing the city, said the chief appeared to be taking the issue seriously in the Gritsch case.

    "The question is what she ultimately does about it -- that remains to be seen,'' he said. "I think there needs to be some institutionalized change, rather than just actions against individual firefighters or individuals.''

    Siegel said the command staff's handling of the incident before the chief got involved "reflects a refusal to take the issue seriously or enforce the city's policies.''

    Fire Commissioner Paul Conroy hopes for a full accounting of the events that led to an allegedly drunken acting battalion chief's being cleared for duty.

    "I certainly have concerns about it," Conroy said. "I'm looking forward to some sort of investigation that will provide us with a true picture of what occurred. I anticipate that the chief will do that."

    He added that he was confident "that the chief is administering discipline appropriately. I think this is a good example of that -- she stepped in.''

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    This is really a no brainer. Working and drinking is just plain wrong. All the time. No case by case discussions. For those who may say, well what about the volunteers whoshow up for calls after drinking?" .. the same applies. Fighting fire or commanding fire operations it just does not matter. Cut and Dry ... drink and you lose your job. Period.

    Just my (might be harsh, but hose are my) thoughts.

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    Originally posted by LaFireEducator
    This is really a no brainer. Working and drinking is just plain wrong. All the time. No case by case discussions. For those who may say, well what about the volunteers whoshow up for calls after drinking?" .. the same applies. Fighting fire or commanding fire operations it just does not matter. Cut and Dry ... drink and you lose your job. Period.

    Just my (might be harsh, but hose are my) thoughts.
    If it's harsh, so be it. It doesn't make it wrong. I agree with you 100%.
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    I don't think you were harsh enough LA. Alcohol and fire do not mix. I did a paper on this topic (alcohol in the fire service). The sad fact is, there was plenty of information out there to do the paper. You cannot possibly enforce a regulation if you decide each case individually. Whether you are the chief or the firefighter, you have other lives depending on you. Alcohol impairs your ability to think and react. I really just do not understand this one.

    Cut and Dry ... drink and you lose your job. Period

    This should be the only rule. Period.

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    Default SF...

    This subject keeps coming up and I dont know if it will ever
    go away.

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    There are a very few jobs that its ok or neccesary to drink at...

    If you have to drink on the job go get one of those...

    If you have peoples lives and wellbeing in your hands you are a disgrace if you are drinking on the job.

    So let it be written, so let it be done.
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    This subject keeps coming up and I dont know if it will ever
    Yeah, but you have to admit the heat is on...and that's a good thing.

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    Default Hmmm...

    Originally posted by ThNozzleman

    Yeah, but you have to admit the heat is on...and that's a good thing.

    I am doubtful. I dont think much is going to happen. The SF
    drinking subject comes and goes and not much action taken.
    Maybe this will change something, who knows.

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    If it's harsh, so be it. It doesn't make it wrong. I agree with you 100%.
    NUFF SAID... I hope she hangs em all including the staff officer that cleared him for work.
    09-11 .. 343 "All Gave Some..Some Gave ALL" God Bless..R.I.P.
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    Three hours later, after Hayes-White ordered Gritsch back to headquarters for a sobriety test, his blood alcohol was measured at 0.12 percent. That's over both the department's limit of 0.02 percent and the 0.08 legal ceiling for driving.
    How can a fire service have anything apart from a big fat ZERO when it comes to on the job drinking?

    It seems this rule can interperted as, "you can arrive at work, having had a a drink and still be below what the Dept says is a "safe" anount to have drunk".

    I don't know what 0.02% means in terms of beverages but surely no booze should mean no booze?
    United Kingdom branch, IACOJ.

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    Im pretty sure that the .02 limit imposed by SF is for things along the lines of cold medication, and not for recovering from a wild night. At least thats what I hope it would be for
    After I'm dead I'd rather have people ask why I have no monument than why I have one

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