It’s a matter of public safety.

There’s no room for drug usage in the McAlester Fire Department, whether that usage is on duty or off, according to Fire Chief Harold Stewart.

“We have zero tolerance for that,” he said. “Zero tolerance. If we find someone with drugs on duty, they’re going to be in the Pittsburg County Jail. It’s that simple.”

The three top spots in the department, chief, assistant chief and fire marshal, are all filled by people who have been certified as law enforcement officers by the Council for Law Enforcement Education and Training — the group responsible for certifying police officers. As such, all three have the authority to arrest people and all have been trained in certain investigative and questioning techniques.

“We are officers of the law,” Assistant Chief Eddie Sanders said. “If we catch someone breaking the law, we’ll enforce it.”

But people don’t necessarily violate drug laws while they’re on duty. There’s also a possibility that they could use illegal substances away from the station.

That’s why the fire department has a policy of having random urinalysis testing on 25 percent of its employees every year.

“We have a contract with someone else, away from McAlester,” Stewart said. “We don’t know who’s going to be tested or when it’s coming.

“They have all the names in a computer somewhere and the computer will randomly select a name and that’s it, you’ve got to be tested.

“I was tested myself just a few months ago.”

Under fire department policy, no one in the department, including the chief, has the authority to waive testing for an employee who has been selected for random urinalysis.

The random testing is unannounced, meaning no one is told ahead of time when testing will be held.

If a test result comes back positive for drugs, the same sample has to be retested. That’s a safeguard against having a “false positive,” or a test that shows a positive result when the result should have been negative. If the second test also reads positive for drugs, “You’ve got a problem,” Stewart said.

An employee who refuses to submit a urine sample can be disciplined, as can an employee whose sample comes back positive for drugs on a retest.

Department policy requires for an employee who has a substance abuse problem to be offered a chance at rehabilitation. If an employee agrees to undergo rehabilitation, he or she must also undergo random or periodic testing for two years.

Agreeing to undergo a rehabilitation program doesn’t preclude the possibility of an employee being disciplined, according to policy.

“We can also test someone specifically if we have reasonable suspicion they might be using something,” Sanders said.

In addition, city police requires testing any time there is an accident involving city personnel or property in which supervisors believe drugs or alcohol could have been a factor.

“The simple fact is, using drugs on duty as a firefighter is a felony,” Stewart said. “If someone is caught doing that, they’re going to jail. If they’re caught through a urinalysis, we’re going to offer them a chance to get straight.

“But we’re not going to tolerate drugs in this department.”

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