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New Britain Fire, union agree to random drug testing following issues within department

The New Britain Fire Dept. and union have agreed to randomly drug test a third of staff yearly after a firefighter’s death revealed drug use within the department.

NEW BRITAIN, Conn. — The New Britain Fire Department and Local 992 have come to an agreement to randomly drug test staff members.

The agreement will test a third of the department yearly. That is about 45 people of the 130 on staff. Chief Raul Ortiz says it’s a robust and extensive policy.

In January, a New Britain firefighter died at his Southington home.

His cell phone had drug-coded text messages with a colleague, investigators said. This later revealed a drug problem within the department. A lieutenant was fired and seven more firefighters, including two lieutenants, were suspected of drug activity.

MORE: New Britain firefighter's death leads to discovery of drug ring in department

“It’s something we’ve been working on since I got here about four years and it really has taken a life of its own in the last six months to a year,” the chief said. “Most of our members, if not all of our members, want this kind of policy in place for protections.”

RELATED: 2-alarm fire rips through home in New Haven

The goal is to protect the staff and the community. The chief says firefighters cannot be impaired while on the job. He understands the profession can take an emotional and mental toll on firefighters but says drug use is not an acceptable way to cope.

If someone fails a test, they will not be fired. They will be placed on leave while getting the needed help from counselors. The chief said they want to hold staff accountable while also making sure they have access to resources. A refused test will be treated as a failed one.

“They need the time to one, not only get the help but two, address whatever issues are leading the individual to that avenue,” the chief said.

Captain Ken Keough is the union president. He says an overwhelming majority of union members, of which all but the chief and assistant chief are a part of, support the policy.

“The change was coming regardless. I just think it expedited the whole process,” Keough said. “There was probably more of a sense of urgency that we need to get this hammered out between all the entities and get together and make sure we get this to work.”

There is also a reasonable suspicion aspect of the agreement where staff members who may potentially be under the influence of drugs or alcohol on the job can be tested if identified.

“That would be looking out for each other. When we get into work, are you fit for duty or not?” Keough said.

Credit: FOX61
New Britain fire truck. A third of the department will be drug tested yearly following a new agreement with the union.

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He said the vote was not unanimous, however, didn’t hear what concerns people had. In general, the captain says people want a safe work environment.

The chief says mental health is also something they want to address but separately from the drug screening. He says this is a societal issue.

“After extensive collaboration with the New Britain Fire Union, there is now a comprehensive random drug policy in place that ensures our residents receive the high level of professionalism from the City’s first responders that they are entitled to, while protecting our firefighters. This is yet another positive step towards modernizing the New Britain Fire Department and creating a culture that reflects the best of 21st century firefighting,” Mayor Erin Stewart said in a statement to FOX61.

The chief says the publics’ trust should not be diminished and they will reinstate any trust lost.

Tony Black is a multi-media journalist at FOX61 News. He can be reached at tblack@fox61.com. Follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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