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Spotsy group seeks tougher fire and rescue drug testing

BY JEFF BRANSCOME

Spotsylvania County’s fire and rescue volunteers would receive pre-membership and random drug and alcohol tests, according to a proposed policy.

The Fire and Emergency Medical Services Commission on Wednesday unanimously recommended the proposal, which must next be approved by the Board of Supervisors.

Fire Chief Chris Eudailey said it has nothing to do with the ambulance drug thefts that occurred in April, May and July at stations staffed by career personnel and Chancellor Volunteer Fire and Rescue.

Career personnel already must undergo pre-employment and random drug tests.

“This is something that had been contemplated before [the thefts],” Eudailey said in an interview.

The drugs stolen include morphine and Versed, which is used to produce drowsiness and relieve anxiety before surgeries and other procedures. It’s unlikely a drug test would detect those medications because they don’t stay in a person’s system for very long.

The Sheriff’s Office is still investigating the thefts, sheriff’s Capt. Mike Harvey said.

The recommended policy outlines procedures for testing volunteers. A computer program would select volunteers for random drug tests, just as it does for paid personnel.

Commissioner Mark Kuechler, an assistant chief with the Spotsylvania Volunteer Fire Department, said the random testing may be difficult because volunteers have such unpredictable schedules.

“Everybody recognizes that the random portion of this is going to be problematic,” he said. “We’re just going to have to work through it and figure it out.”

The Fire and EMS Commission also discussed accelerating the county’s plan to hire 55 fire and rescue personnel by January 2014.

Current plans are for the county to hire nine firefighters in January 2013. Commissioners recommended that Spotsylvania hire six more.

They also endorsed Eudailey’s proposal to hire those firefighters in November instead of January.

Supervisor Timothy McLaughlin, who also serves on the commission, noted that he’s not sure if the county can afford to add more firefighters to this year’s budget.

Career firefighters have been stretched especially thin since they began working at stations in Salem Fields and Salem Church at the request of Chancellor Volunteer Fire and Rescue. Chancellor previously tried to cover those stations on nights and/or weekends but often had to call paid firefighters to fill in.

Battalion Chief and Commissioner Jay Cullinan said firefighters have been working a lot of overtime—more than 100 hours a week in some cases—to fill staffing gaps.

“We haven’t had to order anybody back to work yet, but I feel like we’re probably getting pretty close at this point,” Eudailey said.

He said the county is spending up to $50,000 a week in overtime.

Ernest Bartosh, the commission’s citizen representative, said all the overtime could present safety problems.

“You can only do this for so long,” Bartosh said.

Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402

jbranscome@freelancestar.com

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