Firefighter accused of leaving city limits to get food suspended for drinking; official also suspended

Hani Barghouthi
The Detroit News

Two Detroit Fire Department personnel were suspended Monday after alcohol was found in a fire engine operator's urine when he was on duty, the department confirmed Tuesday.

The operator is accused of taking fire Engine 48, and three other department personnel with him, to pick up carry-out food from a restaurant near the Melvindale-Detroit border on Feb. 11, interim Fire Commissioner Charles Simms said. 

The department was alerted to the incident by a resident who called 911 to report the fire engine parked outside the restaurant, Simms said. The four accused employees were ordered to return to the engine house and immediately take tests, he added. 

Breathalyzer and urine tests given to two of the three employees came back negative, and the tests given to the fourth, a fire lieutenant, were inconclusive at first, but further analysis showed no alcohol in his system.

That lieutenant was still suspended due to other factors, Simms added, including for allegedly allowing a fire engine to leave city limits. 

The Friday incident not the first case involving alcohol consumption on the job in the fire department in recent years.

The department was scrutinized last year after two officials, a battalion chief and a firefighter, were accused of drinking on the job and driving work vehicles in the same week last year. 

The two employees later resigned, and a peer-support unit was re-enforced to address the issue after Mayor Mike Duggan ordered an environmental assessment of the department. The audit found that many employees "believe alcohol abuse remains a problem that needs a solution."

The Detroit Fire Fighters Association, the department's labor union, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The fire engine operator and lieutenant will remain suspended until the department's investigation is concluded, which Simms said he expected would be the end of the week or beginning of the next. 

"We just want to make sure we cover all bases and ... get as much information as possible before we make a final determination," he said. 

The incidents of alcohol consumption in the department are isolated and not reflective of a larger problem, according to Simms, who was appointed after Duggan announced in January that former commissioner Eric Jones would would leave the department on Jan. 14 as it sought "new direction in leadership."

Simms added that he hoped the enhancement of the peer-support group will lead more firefighters and medics to use the resources it offers them.

The group includes 14 department personnel charged with crisis management, a number the department is hoping to double, and introduced a wellness manager around two weeks before the Friday incident. 

"Whether it be alcohol abuse, substance abuse, or whatever it may be, we always want to be here to support them and give them the resources they need to combat that issue," Simms said.