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Hillsborough Fire Rescue chief should take random drug tests with firefighters, union says

TAMPA — Hillsborough County firefighters and paramedics will vote on a new union contract next week that for the first time would require random drug testing.

Union leadership says it is up in the air whether the contract will pass, citing growing discord between the rank and file and Fire Rescue Chief Dennis Jones.

One thing that might help? If Jones and non-union department leadership agreed to drug testing, too, said Derrik Ryan, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 2294.

"I can tell you this: it would not hurt," Ryan said. "Certainly we have other issues, morale issues, besides drug testing here. But that certainly would not hurt if they fall in line and do this drug test with us."

County Administrator Mike Merrill and Jones declined to comment on the contract before it is finalized.

The contract vote comes after a Tampa Bay Times investigation found that drug testing procedures for Hillsborough first responders are far weaker than most similar-sized fire departments in Florida. Employees aren’t randomly tested — they know urine samples are collected only in January or July. Unlike other departments, they also aren’t tested for alcohol.

TIMES INVESTIGATION: Overdoses, DUIs, stolen drugs: Florida’s third-biggest fire rescue department has a problem

The Times found 47 drug- and alcohol-related incidents involving county fire rescue employees since 2010. In 2016, an off-duty fire medic died of a drug overdose, and another overdosed while at work. One employee stole morphine from an ambulance and replaced it with saline; police found materials to evade a drug test, including powdered urine, in the home of a firefighter investigated in the death of his son.

About 20 employees failed a drug test or were arrested for drunken driving.

The new three-year contract, tentatively agreed to by the county and union leadership, would for the first time explicitly ban the use of illegal drugs outside work hours. It also would initiate random drug testing — five employees, every other week.

A change in drug testing procedures was a sticking point for Jones and the county. During negotiations, they said their demands were straightforward: Show up to work and don’t do drugs.

Jones told the Times in January that his emphasis came out of the incidents he observed since his hiring in 2015 and that "the most effective way to curtail drug use in any organization is a random process and what we had was not." Hillsborough County Fire Rescue has roughly 1,200 employees in 44 stations servicing the county’s unincorporated communities.

A counter-proposal from the union asked for Jones and department leaders to be included in the pool of names that could be randomly tested. The county shot down the idea immediately because the collective bargaining agreement doesn’t cover those positions and leadership’s employment is not part of union negotiations.

Jones reports to Merrill, who determines the conditions of the chief’s employment based on county policies and with oversight from the County Commission.

Ryan said it’s a fair argument that the union contract doesn’t cover leadership positions, "but human nature would say if you’re demanding for us to do something different than we have ever done before when it comes to drug testing, why wouldn’t you do it with us?"

After the Times published its investigation, a majority of county commissioners said they supported Jones’ push for stricter drug testing. They also said they wanted to see improved mental health services for first responders.

RELATED: Random drug testing, better mental health services sought for first responders after Times investigation

If the union approves the contract when it meets Monday and Tuesday, then it will be voted on by the county commission. The soonest it could come before commissioners is April.

If rejected, county and union will go back to the bargaining table. Already negotiations are in overtime; the previous contract ended in September.

County Commissioner Al Higginbotham recently said approving the contract with the new drug testing language is the "responsible, compassionate decision to help fellow union members, as they’re helping people in need of first responders who are sharp on the job."

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.

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Hillsborough Fire Rescue chief should take random drug tests with firefighters, union says