Firefighters are incredibly respected and revered members of society, and the work that they do helps to protect lives and property from danger and damage. For this reason, if you are considering pursuing a career in the fire service, you should expect to face drug testing along the way.
The number of drug tests that you will take in your career, the type of tests, and the regularity of those tests, all depend on the state, municipality and department that you are based in. It is therefore essential that you become familiar with the rules and regulations of your department.
Although there are no standardized rules regarding drug testing in fire departments across the country, drug testing is always implemented as part of the firefighter recruitment process. In fact, it is one of the main reasons why candidates are refused entry into the service.
So, before you commit yourself to the rigorous and lengthy recruitment process, it is important to learn and understand the drug testing procedures that you will be expected to go through in order to become a firefighter.
Read on for a detailed look into the rules and regulations surrounding drug tests, the types of drugs that you will be tested for, and the reasons why drug testing is so important in this field of work.
Why Are Firefighters Drug Tested?
Being a firefighter requires you to be at the top of your physical and mental game. You need to be able to make important decisions in pressurized (and often dangerous) situations, and those decisions need to be clear-headed and rational.
The decisions that firefighters make at the scene of an accident or emergency can mean the difference between life and death for those in danger, so the stakes really couldn’t be higher.
What is more, as a firefighter you have to be prepared to climb into buildings, and perform difficult and physically demanding tasks in order to subdue flames and even lift injured parties if necessary.
If your coordination, stamina or strength are in any way inhibited then the consequences could be disastrous. You also need to be ready to spring into action at any time, day or night, and therefore drowsiness is simply not an option.
Firefighters are drug tested throughout the course of their careers to ensure that no illegal or banned substances are in their system which might impede their mental judgement or physical abilities.
This is for the benefit of the citizens they are employed to protect, the crew they work alongside, and themselves. It is also done to preserve the reputation of the fire service, because respect and trust from the public are key to firefighters being able to do their job successfully.
If public opinion and trust is lost due to drug scandals or suspicions, then firefighters’ authority could be undermined during emergencies and lives could be lost.
Are Fire Departments Legally Permitted to Conduct Drug Tests?
Having discussed the reasons why fire departments conduct drug testing, it is important to now point out that you are within your rights as a US citizen to refuse any drug tests that you feel to be unnecessary or invasive.
There are no federal laws that state Fire Departments have the right to drug test you for no reason or without justifying their actions. In fact, the 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution gives people the right to:
“... be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, … no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
This means that if you feel you are being unduly targeted and made to perform drug tests unnecessarily then you can refuse to take them. However, it is always best to take drug tests when asked in order to demonstrate that you are clean and fit to work.
By law, all firefighter recruits have to take a drug test because they are opting to enter the recruitment process in the full knowledge of that part of the process. Fire Departments can legally argue that if you don’t want to take the test you don’t have to apply to be a firefighter.
In the same way, departments will disclose their own drug testing policies in their employment contracts which you actively agree to when you choose to sign them.
Therefore, it is important to read any employment contract thoroughly before signing so that you know what your rights are and what you are agreeing to in terms of drug testing practice.
When Do Firefighters Undergo Drug Tests?
When and how often firefighters undergo drug tests really does differ from department to department. Some departments will hardly ever test their employees as they feel it to be detrimental to morale and invasive.
Others will do so very rarely and only when a situation arises that prompts them to. And some fire departments carry out regular and vigorous testing (which they will have disclosed in their employment contract).
However, all firefighting recruits are drug tested as part of the hiring process and it is not possible to become a professional firefighter without passing a drug test. The following is a list of the key times when drug testing is commonly used by fire departments:
Recruitment (Medical) Drug Testing:
As previously stated, if you are thinking of applying to become a firefighter you should be aware that you will have to take a drug test and it will have to test negative for you to stand a chance of being accepted.
These recruitment drug tests are conducted as part of an overall medical examination and are usually taken in the form of urine or blood samples.
Failing the drug test is one of the most common reasons why candidates are rejected by the fire service, so be sure that you are and have been clean for at least a year before you apply. We will go into more detail about this recruitment process a little later in this article.
Reasonable Suspicion Drug Testing
By law, Fire Departments are allowed to conduct a drug test if they can show that they have reasonable suspicion a firefighter is on or has taken banned substances.
In order to conduct a drug test on the grounds of reasonable suspicion, Fire Departments have to prove that any of the following have occurred / been observed:
- Physical Signs - if you display physical signs of being on drugs or drunk whilst at work like being drowsy, slurred speech, being off-balance or hyperactive, or if any visible evidence is found or actual drug taking is witnessed.
- Sudden Behavioral Changes - if your superiors detect sudden changes in your work ethic, attitude and behavior, like becoming tardy, aggressive, difficult or reclusive, and these behaviors cannot be tied to something else.
- Evidence from Independent Source - if an independent source reports that you have engaged in drug taking off duty and has evidence to back up their claim.
- Evidence of Tampering with Drug Test - if authorities detect any interference or inconsistencies with drug tests that have been taken.
- Arrested for Drug Use / Distribution - if you are arrested by the police for drug related charges (even if you are not actually charged).
- Convicted of Drug Use / Distribution
- Accessory to Drug Use / Distribution
On any of these counts, supervisors and fire departments have to find clear and reasonable evidence to back up their suspicions in order to request a drug test. And this evidence has to be scrutinized very carefully in order to justify a drug test.
- After Accident Drug Testing
It is common for Fire Departments to request drug tests in the aftermath of an accident at the station or whilst out on duty. This is often for insurance reasons if machinery or vehicles have incurred damage as the result of a work related accident.
If a drug test reveals that you were driving or operating machinery whilst under the influence then you could face legal charges.
- Back to Work Drug Testing
If you have been off work due to drug-related issues, or due to injury, then some departments will ask you to take a drug test in order to come back. This is so that they can ensure that you have been clean for a good amount of time and are not still operating with drugs in your system.
If you refuse to take this test because you feel it to be unnecessary (having just served your period of suspension) then Departments can refuse to let you come back.
- Random Drug Testing
In many Fire Departments, random drug testing will be carried out every year, or every two years. The courts allow this kind of testing to be conducted because fire fighting is such a dangerous and responsible job.
If a Fire Department does conduct random drug tests they will disclose this information in their rules and regulations which you can read before you agree to sign up.
Of course, Fire Departments will not disclose when this kind of drug testing will take place precisely because it is designed to be random in order to keep you vigilant and drug free at all times.
What is the Drug Testing Process for FireFighter Recruits?
To become a professional firefighter you have to go through a rigorous selection process. Fire Departments need to ensure that they are hiring respectful, responsible and capable people who will be able to cope with the pressures of the job.
As part of the recruitment process you will have to first send in an application form detailing your education and employment history, as well as the reasons why you want to become a firefighter.
If your application is successful you will have to sit an academic test to establish your knowledge and mental aptitude, as well as sit an interview to demonstrate your interpersonal skills and character.
You will have to undergo a background check and provide references to vouch for your suitability. You will also have to pass a physical fitness test, a psychological examination and a medical examination. These are conducted to determine if you meet the criteria of such a demanding career.
The drug test is taken in the form of a blood or urine sample collected during the medical examination. It can be highly disappointing for candidates who have worked hard and scored highly on all the other aspects of the recruitment process to fail in this one area.
If you test positive for drugs, it doesn’t matter how great you were in the interview or how fast you ran in the physical, you will not be selected. This is why it is so important not to drink or take drugs before or during the recruitment process.
Can You Become a Firefighter if You have Taken Drugs in the Past?
One very important part of the firefighter recruitment process is the background check. This is usually conducted as a questionnaire in which you are required to answer detailed questions about your past in relation to criminal convictions, drink and drug use and employment history. The type of questions that you get asked are:
- ‘Have you ever been dismissed from a job and if so, why?’
- ‘Have you ever been arrested and if so, why?’
- ‘Have you ever participated in illegal drug taking and if so, when was the most recent instance?’
During this background check it is always best to be truthful and honest because Fire Departments value integrity as a vital characteristic in their firefighters, and also because many departments conduct polygraph tests as part of the recruitment process.
A polygraph test is also known as a lie-detector test, and although it is not an exact science and is not permissible in law, some departments use it to gauge whether or not you have been truthful in an interview.
The polygraph machine detects and monitors your anxiety levels whilst you are asked to repeat the answers you gave in your background check.
Therefore, if you said that you have never taken drugs when in fact you did take them as a teenager, the polygraph will detect a heightened level of adrenaline and expose your lie.
Most people have experimented with drugs at some time in their life, and Fire Departments know this. Having smoked marajuana as a teenager will not exclude you from becoming a firefighter, and in fact, nor will having taken drugs a few years ago.
As long as you are honest and have been clean for a good few years, you can still be successful in becoming a firefighter. However, having a history of serious drugs or a criminal conviction related to drug selling, distribution and use will negatively impact your chances.
What Drugs Are You Tested For as a Firefighter?
Firefighters are tested for any traces of drugs or substances that could impact their health, well-being, reliability, mental aptitude, judgment, powers of perception, alertness or physical abilities.
This is to ensure the safety of the general public, other fire crew members and the individual themselves. The types of drugs firefighters are tested for fall into three categories:
- Illegal Drugs - Any drugs that are illegal in that state or municipality can be tested for. These typically include cocaine, heroin, crack, marajawana (although legal in some states it is not legal under federal law), lysergic acid diethylamide, phencyclidine, and any other illegal drugs that are not prescribed for medical purposes.
- Controlled Substances - As well as illegal drugs, firefighters can be tested for morphine, amphetamines, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, methaqualone, benzodiazepines, codeine and anabolics, or any other controlled substances that can impact mental and physical performance.
- Alcohol - despite being legal, fire departments have a no tolerance stance when it comes to drinking alcohol on duty or being on duty whilst under the influence of alcohol. For this reason Fire Departments will conduct breathalyzer tests whenever they feel it is necessary or suspect a firefighter of being under the influence of alcohol.
All drug test samples have to be handled very carefully, in accordance with national health and safety standards.
They will generally be tested in a government certified Department of Health and Human Services laboratory and the samples will be tracked and traced from the point of collection all the way through to the reception of results. This is to ensure the integrity of the sample is not compromised at any stage of the process.
How Long Does It Take For Drugs To Leave Your System?
Different drugs take different amounts of time to pass through and out of your system. The length of time it takes for Xanax, for example, to leave a small, young person's body, can be far quicker than the time it takes to leave a large, older person's body.
This is all due to metabolism rates and absorbance, and it is therefore very difficult to give accurate indications of how long drugs take to leave the body. However, here is a list of some approximate timings in relation to some of the drugs that firefighters are tested for:
- Weed – takes about two weeks to pass out of your bloodstream and between seven and thirty days to pass from your urine.
- Cocaine – takes one to two days to pass through your bloodstream and between three and four days to pass through your urine
- Alcohol – takes between ten to twelve days to pass from your bloodstream and between three and five days to pass from your urine
- Amphetamines – take twelve hours to pass from your blood and one to three days from your urine
- Benzodiazepines – takes at least three days to pass from your bloodstream and between three and four weeks from your urine
- Barbiturates - take one to two days to pass from your bloodstream and three to four days to pass from your urine
- Codeine – takes about twelve hours to pass from your bloodstream and up to a day from your urine
- Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) – stays for two to three hours in your blood and one to three days in your urine
- Methadone – takes between twenty-four and thirty-six hours to pass through your bloodstream and between three and four days through your urine
- Methamphetamine – takes twenty-four to seventy-two hours to pass through your blood and three-six days from your urine
- Morphine – can stay in your blood for six to eight hours in your blood and in your urine for up to three days
Firefighters stand to be tested for drugs throughout their careers, and this is to ensure the safety and security of themselves, their colleagues and the general public who they serve.
What is more, if you are applying to become a firefighter you will be expected to undergo a drug test in order to progress in the process.
If you fail the drug test you will no longer be eligible for consideration, however, you can always stop taking drugs and reapply in the future. Alternatively, many volunteer schemes do not conduct drug testing as part of their recruitment process.
As a US citizen you have the right to refuse any unlawful drug tests that you feel are unreasonable and unjustified. The 4th amendment in the US constitution states that all people have the right to protect themselves and their property from invasive action and searches, and this applies to drug testing too.
However, as long as you are clean then drug tests should not be an issue and that is why it is best not to participate in taking illegal or prohibited substances and to take drug tests willingly when they are offered to you.
This way you will have greater peace of mind and will also promote trust and respect amongst firefighters and the community at large.