District of Columbia Fire Department officials, concerned about possible drug use in the department, are considering mandatory urinalysis tests when firefighters take physical examinations.
Officials said they are studying the proposal as a result of an ongoing D.C. police investigation of at least five firefighters for alleged involvement in the sale of illegal drugs, and the arrest three months ago of a D.C. firefighter on drug charges.
Fire Department officials are considering the tests to detect possible drug use because of a departmental concern that more firefighters are using or selling illegal drugs than at any time in the past, according to Harry Shaffer, assistant fire chief for operations.
"This is a new problem for us," Shaffer said. "We really don't know what the magnitude is."
The D.C. police department earlier this month started testing its officers for illegal drugs at routine physical examinations. Such tests are unusual in police or fire departments around the country, according to a spot check, and local police and fire unions are angry about them.
"We don't want to watch as our guys' personal rights are infringed upon," said William Mould, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 36, which represents D.C. firefighters. Mould said he fears the fire department's concern about drugs might prompt officials to enact an even tougher policy.
"It's an unwarranted invasion of our privacy," said Gary Hankins, chairman of the Fraternal Order of Police's Labor Committee. Police officers' reputations are "besmirched by the blanket presumption" that they may be taking drugs, Hankins said.
Fire department officials said yesterday that they have set no timetable to make a decision about the tests. The proposal being studied would require them at all physical examinations, which are administered upon entrance to the department, with each promotion, and every two years after age 35.
The proposal follows by three months the arrest of William Clemons, 32, of the 5000 Block of Fifth Street NW. Clemons, a 12-year veteran of the fire department, has been charged with possession of cocaine and phencyclidine (PCP) with intent to distribute, police said.
He is on suspension without pay pending adjudication of his case. Neither Clemons nor his attorney could be reached for comment.
In the meantime, police are investigating at least five other firefighters for possible violations of drug laws, police said. In the last 10 days, two other fire department personnel, suspected of drug use, have been suspended without pay for failing drug tests, fire officials said. A hearing board will recommend disciplinary action in the cases.
Both the fire and police departments have had longstanding rules that allow commanding officers to order urinalysis tests for anyone suspected of using drugs.
D.C. police officials have been testing police recruits for use of heroin and other opiate-based drugs since 1968, when the department discovered several recruits were using heroin, according to Sgt. Joseph Gentile, a department spokesman.
Police officials have been concerned about drug use in the department, Gentile said, and the recent change to conduct tests at physical examinations resulted from the availability of cheaper laboratory equipment.
Union officials say the testing is sometimes inaccurate, but D.C. police officials say the tests, when confirmed by outside laboratories, are 100 percent accurate and will help police control any drug use in the department.
Hankins said it is "more reasonable" to have an officer take the drug test, known as EMIT, or Enzyme Multiplied Immuno-Assay test, only when a superior believes the officer may be on drugs. Hankins said FOP officials are considering filing a grievance against the police department over the policy.