Tacoma Fire Department leaders have revised their hiring practices in the wake of a News Tribune story about a firefighter who died of a drug overdose in July 2016 after showing up for work impaired.
Deeper scrutiny of criminal background check information and broader questions about illegal drug use are the key changes the next round of job applicants will face in April, when the department will begin filling 16 positions — 12 new positions authorized in the city’s latest budget and four existing slots to account for retirements.
Chief Jim Duggan explained the rationale for the updated hiring policies in a statement to The News Tribune.
“We need to be aware that substance abuse is epidemic in our society. It touched us, and it would be naïve for us to believe that it could not touch us again,” he said. “The goal of these revisions is to ensure that the hiring decisions we make remain in the best interests of the public, the department and the candidate.
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We need to be aware that substance abuse is epidemic in our society. It touched us, and it would be naïve for us to believe that it could not touch us again. The goal of these revisions is to ensure that the hiring decisions we make remain in the best interests of the public, the department and the candidate.
Tacoma Fire Chief Jim Duggan
“These revisions extend the time frame for us to assess whether a candidate is ‘currently’ using drugs illegally to any time within the previous two years, not just from the point of entering our hiring process.
“They also improve our ability to gather additional information that might have bearing on our hiring decisions and to do so in a way that continues to treat all candidates alike.”
Firefighter Ramsey Mueller, son of Deputy Chief Faith Mueller, was hired in December 2015. Before his hiring, a background check revealed an active arrest warrant tied to a misdemeanor drug charge in California.
Department leaders told Mueller the warrant had to be cleared before he could be hired. It was, but leaders later acknowledged they didn’t examine the underlying court records or police reports associated with the charge, which included Mueller’s confession of a 10-year addiction to heroin and methamphetamine.
Additional public records and information not seen or sought by the department revealed prior contacts with law enforcement related to Mueller’s substance abuse. They included a January 2015 incident in University Place, in which four police officers struggled to subdue him. Mueller was hospitalized afterward.
The incident didn’t lead to a criminal charge, but it contributed to his withdrawal from the all-volunteer Browns Point Fire Academy. Duggan learned limited details of the matter, he said, but the knowledge predated Mueller’s hiring. Duggan did not seek additional information about it when Mueller later applied to become a Tacoma firefighter.
On July 16, Mueller showed up for work in an impaired state and briefly took the wheel of a fire truck. Co-workers and commanders noticed his erratic actions. He was sent home after a trip to the hospital and resigned his position a day later, in lieu of termination.
Mueller died on July 18 or 19, 2016. The cause was an accidental heroin overdose, according to the Pierce County medical examiner. On July 16, Mueller showed up for work in an impaired state and briefly took the wheel of a fire truck. Co-workers and commanders noticed his erratic actions. He was sent home after a trip to the hospital and resigned his position a day later, in lieu of termination.
He died July 18 or July 19, 2016. The cause was an accidental heroin overdose, according to the Pierce County Medical Examiner.
The Fire Department’s revised hiring process alters two questions asked of job applicants regarding illegal drug use. Under the previous system, both were framed in the present tense, in theory allowing Mueller to say no to both:
“Do you sell, possess or are you using illegal drugs?”
“Are you currently using legal pharmaceutical drugs in an illegal manner?”
The revised questions are similar, but they stretch the time frame to the past two years. Applicants who say yes to either question “will be required to provide details,” said Fire Department spokesman Joe Meinecke.
A separate section of the revised questionnaire touches on state emergency medical technician certification. That process, overseen by the state Department of Health, requires EMTs to notify the state of any changes in legal status, such as legal charges related to drug use.
A separate aspect of the revised hiring process adds another layer of scrutiny to a criminal background check. Such checks were mandatory under the previous system, but department leaders did not pursue deeper examination of underlying law enforcement and court records that provide more detail.
That aspect changes in the new process. The department will seek law enforcement records for potentially job-related issues that appear on background checks, according to Meinecke.
Also, a second review of background check results will be performed by city officials outside the department.
Mayor Marilyn Strickland supports the changes.
“It’s a good idea,” she said. “I appreciate the fact that something as tragic as what happened to Ramsey has gotten us to take a look at what happens to our first responders. All of these policies will be applicable to them.
“When we’re talking about people who are responsible for the safety of our residents, it makes sense to delve as deeply as possible without violating their civil rights.”
I appreciate the fact that something as tragic as what happened to Ramsey has gotten us to take a look at what happens to our first responders. All of these policies will be applicable to them. When we’re talking about people who are responsible for the safety of our residents, it makes sense to delve as deeply as possible without violating their civil rights.
Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland
The aftermath of the Mueller story raised questions about the prospect of random drug testing for Fire Department employees — that idea isn’t included in the revised hiring process.
Applicants still face a drug screening at the point of hiring, and employees must undergo drug screening if they are involved in job-related mishaps such as vehicular accidents or if they show up impaired at work. Random drug testing would represent a higher standard.
Meinecke said such a policy might have to be applied citywide and become an aspect of collective bargaining with all employees. Strickland agreed.
“(Random drug testing) is nothing that’s come up in conversation,” she said. “I don’t know the price tag. I’m pretty sure with 20 collective bargaining units, we’d have to bargain it.”
Separate questions surrounding Mueller’s death revolved around his mother, who did not disclose information about her son’s history to Duggan, her boss — a possible violation of department personnel policies.
In a December interview, Duggan said, “There’s an expectation that people will bring things forward. (Faith) did not meet that expectation.”
That doesn’t translate to discipline. Asked whether Faith Muller would face formal consequences, Meinecke, the department spokesman, said no.
“There will be no disciplinary action because there was no finding of misconduct,” he said.
Duggan has said the stigma of drug addiction and the associated shame is a problem for society, not just employers. His statement on the revised hiring process underlined the point. An admission of past drug addiction won’t prevent potential applicants from being hired. Continuing drug use is another matter. Such applicants face rejection.
“A history of drug addiction will continue to be viewed as a medical condition that may or may not preclude a candidate from being hired,” Duggan said.
“Candidates currently using drugs illegally, however, whether indicated by failure to pass a drug screen or evidenced by illegal use of drugs within the previous two years, will not be hired as Tacoma firefighters.”