The first random drug and alcohol tests began today at three firehouses in Boston, quietly ending a saga that became a flashpoint in a bitter labor dispute.
Without warning, the randomly selected engine and ladder companies were visited by Occupational Drug Testing Inc., a private company that subjected 20 firefighters to instant-read breathalyzers and urine tests, which yield results in a few days after processing at a laboratory.
The fire department declined to release the results of the breathalyzers, citing the privacy of the individuals who were tested. A source with knowledge of the screening said that everyone passed.
Boston Fire Commissioner Roderick Fraser learned this morning that testing would begin and he joined one of the first groups at Engine 32 in Charlestown, voluntarily submitting to a breathalyzer and urine test.
"I thought it was the right thing to do to show that I believe in the testing program," Fraser said this afternoon. "Itís a good thing, it's being conducted properly, and that guys shouldn't have anything to fear. Iím willing to do it, too."
The firefighters' contract allows for a number of random tests each year equivalent to the size of the union, which currently has about 1,450 members. Companies will be selected for screening by a computer at random, which means some firefighters could go an entire year without being tested while others could be tested several times.
The testing team included a member of the department's employee assistance program. Officials urged firefighters with substance abuse problems to come forward before they face random screening so they can get help.
"We want to help people," Fraser said. "We don't want to fire people. That's not our goal."
Contract talks between the city and the union had already reached an impasse in August 2007 when a blaze at the Tai Ho Mandarin and Cantonese Restaurant on Centre Street in West Roxbury killed two firefighters. Autopsy results made public that October showed that the two men may have been impaired.
One of the firefighters had traces of cocaine in his system and the other had a blood-alcohol content of 0.27, more than three times the state's legal limit.
The revelation prompted the Menino administration to renew a push for random drug and alcohol tests. Firefighters accused the city of inappropriately leaking the autopsy results. The union demanded compensation in exchange for testing, arguing that there had been quid pro quos with other public safety unions.
The issue became a flashpoint that pervaded last year's mayoral campaign. Local 718 aggressively backed the challenger, but Menino still triumphed by 15 percentage points.
In April, the union won its own victory when an independent arbitrator awarded firefighters a contract that included a 2 1/2 percent raise as a direct quid pro quo for random drug and alcohol testing. The contract required an up or down vote by the City Council, which balked at paying firefighters for the screening at a time of layoff and the threat of library closures.
The council ultimately brokered a dramatic 11th-hour compromise in June. The key element of the deal reduced the raise for drug and alcohol testing to 1 1/2 percent and delayed the pay hike until June 2011.
On the beat
Columnist Shirley Leung says Boston mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh should focus on middle-class housing. Read more