THE PAIN felt by the families of two Boston firefighters killed in a West Roxbury restaurant blaze in August took a new turn this week after publication of reports that one of the men was legally intoxicated at the time of the fire and another had cocaine in his system. While autopsy reports are exempt from disclosure under state public records law, the decision by various news organizations, including the Globe, to publish the information is squarely in the best interest of the public. Yesterday, Appeals Court Judge Andrew Grainger overturned a lower court's ruling barring a TV report on the findings.
Judgment, agility, and the ability to put training into quick action can be the difference between life and death at a fire scene. It's not difficult to imagine how a firefighter's impairment might result in grave harm to himself, his coworkers, or the public. It may take months before fire department investigators fully reconstruct events and determine if drugs or alcohol played any role in the deaths of firefighter Paul Cahill, whose blood-alcohol level was more than three times the legal limit for motorists, and Warren Payne, who had traces of cocaine in his blood. But it is not too early to ask if a slack drug and alcohol testing policy at the fire department is a factor in the problem.
The fire department takes pains to ensure that its recruits are fit for duty. Officials conduct pre-employment drug screening, and administer random urinalysis and breathalyzer tests to recruits during a 14-week training program at the academy.
After that, however, there is no regular testing. This omission is especially flawed in a profession that is significantly associated with health problems, including alcoholism, due to exposures to traumatic experiences. Although supervisors can mandate a drug or alcohol screening for cause, and some are vigilant, the profession also suffers from a culture in which brotherhood and loyalty are honored above all. Some supervisors who climbed the career ladder may be reluctant to confront their firehouse "brothers."
The Menino administration and union representatives are negotiating a new firefighter contract. Any agreement that does not include provisions for annual random drug and alcohol testing - modeled along the lines Boston police officers submit to - would be a resounding failure. Menino yesterday ordered a review of management practices in the fire department. This one could be different, but a long line of department studies to date have led to only modest reforms.
In 2000, an independent panel report found a tolerance for drinking in some firehouses. It also found deep-rooted resistance to reform on issues ranging from excessive swapping of shifts to lax supervision. "Our fear of change is killing us," one firefighter told the authors. Those words may have come back to haunt the city's firefighters.