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Panel to review Fire Dept. policies

Mayor asks them to help alter substance abuse rules

The panel, from left to right: Dr. Sheila Chapman is a practitioner of addiction and internal medicine. James M. Shannon is president of the National Fire Protection Association. Craig P. Coy is a former chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Port Authority.
The panel, from left to right: Dr. Sheila Chapman is a practitioner of addiction and internal medicine. James M. Shannon is president of the National Fire Protection Association. Craig P. Coy is a former chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Port Authority.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino, launching his third outside review of the Boston Fire Department since he took office, named a three-member panel yesterday with a national fire-code specialist, a doctor who specializes in substance abuse treatment, and the former head of the Massachusetts Port Authority.

Menino vowed that this time he would overcome a history of union opposition and successfully improve the city's system for testing the department's members for illegal drugs and alcohol abuse.

For the new review, Menino tapped James M. Shannon, president of the National Fire Protection Association; Dr. Sheila Chapman, a practitioner of addiction and internal medicine at Boston Medical Center; and Craig P. Coy, former chief executive officer of Massport.

They will examine the Fire Department's substance abuse policies and suggest ways to push through changes recommended by prior panels but not instituted, including a suggestion made several years ago that the city institute mandatory, random drug and alcohol testing for firefighters. Menino said the firefighters union has previously refused to agree to such testing.

"Many times we've had that issue on the table, and [the union's] always said, 'Unh-unh, no way,' " Menino said yesterday.

Union officials did not return calls seeking comment yesterday, but said last week that they are open to discussing the issue.

The new panel is scheduled to prepare a preliminary report with recommendations by Dec. 1.

Shannon, a former Massachusetts attorney general and US representative, said the group will look at what he called "best practices" from across the country and try to set an example that other departments can follow. Many other big-city fire departments - including those in New York City, San Francisco and Chicago - require firefighters to submit to random drug and alcohol testing.

"This is a fundamental issue of fire safety," Shannon said.

Shannon, Chapman, and Coy, spoke in a conference call with the mayor at City Hall yesterday and determined the scope of their review, which will cover Fire Department supervision and accountability, personnel and human resources, and substance abuse and impairment.

The mayor began planning the review last week after news reports suggested that two firefighters were impaired when they died in a West Roxbury fire.

The Globe reported last week that two government officials briefed on autopsy results said that Firefighter Paul J. Cahill was legally drunk and that Firefighter Warren J. Payne had traces of cocaine in his system when the two died fighting a fire Aug. 29 at a Chinese restaurant on Centre Street in West Roxbury.

Fire officials also said last week that 159 firefighters, about 10 percent of the current force, have been ordered into substance abuse treatment in the past three years.

"Two months ago, two of Boston's finest died while doing their job keeping our city safe," Menino said in a statement yesterday. "As the city and their families continue to mourn their loss, we must reassure the public that our Fire Department is strong and fully capable of protecting our residents.

"This panel is made up of highly regarded individuals who will work to develop targeted recommendations for Fire Department procedure," he said. "If there are issues, we must fix them now."

Shannon represented the state's Fifth Congressional District from 1979 to 1985 and was Massachusetts attorney general from 1987 to 1991. He has been president and chief executive officer of the National Fire Protection Association since 2002 and has spearheaded several key fire safety initiatives, including the convening of an emergency committee after The Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island that led to amendments in recommended building and safety codes. The association issues national guidelines for fire codes that are adopted by many states, including Massachusetts.

Along with her practice at Boston Medical Center, Chapman is an assistant professor at Boston University School of Medicine. She is a coinvestigator and faculty member for a substance-abuse treatment project and other programs focused on alcohol abuse screening and intervention.

Coy took over the helm of Massport in 2002 when allegations of lax security at Logan International Airport forced his predecessor to resign shortly after two hijacked jets took off from the airport and crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York on Sept. 11, 2001.

Before coming to Massport, Coy spent 20 years in the US Coast Guard as an officer and helicopter pilot.

In interviews yesterday, the panel members said they hoped their review will help and protect firefighters and the public.

"From my standpoint, the fact is that these gentlemen went into a building that most of us would be walking out of," Coy said. "They provide a great service to the community."

Chapman, who acted as a consultant several years ago to the city's Employee Assistance Program, said she plans to look beyond substance abuse screening at the department to treatment and prevention.

"It's not just the individual that's affected; it's the co-workers that are affected as well," she said.

Boston Fire Commissioner Roderick Fraser, who attended the meeting at City Hall yesterday, said he welcomes the expertise the panel brings to addressing problems at the department.

"Having these people help me will really be a big benefit," he said. "We don't want to lose anybody else."

Donovan Slack can be reached at dslack@globe.com.

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