Pa. fire recruits who use drugs, alcohol sometimes hired

"If you've managed to stay out of trouble for two years, as long as it relates to drug and alcohol, I say, 'OK,' Fire Chief Darryl Jones said.

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Aspiring Pittsburgh police and firefighter recruits admit to smoking marijuana, abusing alcohol and popping prescription pills, but officials say not all confessions result in an applicant’s rejection.

“None of us are perfect,” fire Chief Darryl Jones said. “As my pastor used to say, ‘None of us have stepped out of heaven and never touched a cloud.’ ”

Applicants disqualified from competitive police and fire department hiring lists can tell their side of the story in an appeal to the city’s three-member Civil Service Commission, which can vote to put them back in play for a job.

More stories could come soon. Mayor Bill Peduto wants to increase the number of police officers on the street from 880 to 900, including 38 recruits in the training academy. But a new academy class is on hold pending work on the Act 47 financial recovery plan, mayoral spokesman Tim McNulty said.

Criteria for disqualification include being a habitual drug or alcohol user, engaging in “notoriously disgraceful conduct” or falsifying records.

“You know ‘notoriously disgraceful conduct’ when you hear it,” said Todd Siegel, director of the Department of Personnel and Civil Service Commission. “Like use of marijuana 1,500 times in the last five years might be considered notoriously disgraceful conduct and/or habitual use.”

Siegel said the commission typically holds about 30 public hearings a year for all civil service jobs. Seven police and five firefighters appealed disqualifications this year, records show. The commission granted appeals from three police applicants and one fire bureau applicant.

One would-be officer told the commission this year he was “high as a kite” when he joined the military in 2005 and couldn’t count how many times he got high. A firefighter candidate admitted to taking the erectile dysfunction drug Cialis without a prescription in 2011 during a 2012 public hearing. The commission granted his appeal, reversing Jones’ decision.

“The standard is the standard,” Jones said. “It’s not an illegal drug, but it’s illegal to use without a prescription.”

Jones makes the initial decision about whether to disqualify firefighter candidates. He rejects applicants who used drugs illegally or abused alcohol in the previous two years. “If you’ve managed to stay out of trouble for two years, as long as it relates to drug and alcohol, I say, ‘OK.’ ”

He said he hasn’t had drug or alcohol problems with candidates who won appeals.

Then there are the hairless applicants.

Since 2011, two women and a man appeared before the commission to explain why they showed up for mandatory drug testing with shaved heads when they were supposed to submit a hair sample. The city requires tests of urine and hair to check for the presence of drugs.

The commission granted the appeals of a male firefighter applicant and a female police officer.

“We give them at least four to six weeks, or as much time as we can, to ensure they have a half-inch of hair,” Siegel said.

The Civil Service system is intended to promote merit-based hiring that’s free of political influence. Pittsburgh fields 5,500 to 6,000 job applications a year, Siegel said, including 808 firefighter applications this year and 1,824 police applications in 2012, the last time the city sought to build its pool of police recruits.

“We’ve heard things that are really gut-wrenching … but basically you have to go by the evidence that’s presented in the background and make sure you’re not led by a purely emotional state,” Siegel said.

Attorney James DePasquale, who represented several firefighters before the Civil Service Commission, said he thinks more applicants are being disqualified for minor offenses.

One of his cases involved a Marine who admitted to smoking marijuana and taking a prescription pill once — the night he learned his mother had terminal brain cancer. That appeal was granted.

“It was a very compelling situation,” DePasquale said. “It was totally an isolated incident, and thirdly, who would you want fighting fires? Somebody like him, or somebody who’s never stepped on a crack in the sidewalk?”

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