Drug, Competency Testing Long Overdue


February, 2005

Why do we hire public employees?

Is it to have them perform an important service that the public requires, or is it to provide the employees a guaranteed paycheck and great benefits?

All too often, it seems that we are more concerned with providing employment than we are with ensuring that critical public needs are met.

The attitude is pervasive. When North Andover was considering a $4 million override several years ago, a Finance Committee member publicly stated, “Our number one objective is to NOT cut any jobs.” Really? We thought that public safety and education might come in first?

While that story is now old, it illustrates an attitude that is accepted by practically everyone involved in government. Just consider these examples:

Presumably, teachers are hired to educate our children. Roughly 60-70% of local budgets are spent by our school departments. Do we insist on testing teacher competency? No. Worse yet, there are few if any demands for such testing. If we were serious about education, wouldn’t we insist on such testing? Instead, we accept the union’s refusal.

Police and firefighters are hired to protect the public. To do so, they must be physically fit, knowledgeable about their profession and drug free. Do we test any of them for drugs? No, the unions refuse to allow it.

The police and firefighters’ unions call it “protecting” their members, but what happened to protecting the public? Which comes first? Their employment or the public’s need for safety? Why do we accept the union’s stonewalling?

Members of our military are an exception to this philosophy. Our servicemen have to pass physical fitness tests every six months and, if they are not up to established standards, they are required to correct their deficiencies or leave the service. Why? Because we insist on having a military made up of servicemen competent to protect us. Shouldn’t this apply to education and public safety as well?

 Why are our police and firefighters exempted from such competency testing?

Don’t we want a police force or firefighters that can protect us? Or 911 operators that can actually dispatch help in response to 911 emergency calls? Don’t we care if public safety personnel are so out of shape or so deep in a drug-induced stupor that they can’t serve the function we hire them to perform?

 Our lead story in this issue underscores the risks to public safety posed by on-the-job drug abuse … an abuse that appears to be more widespread than that exposed by the video tapes recorded at the Bodwell Fire Station.

 It is time for the public to take stock of their priorities and demand change. We don’t have public employment to provide jobs … we hire public employees to provide critical public services. The only reason we should spend taxpayer dollars and hire anyone is to fulfill those needs. Proof of competency should be a continuing obligation and a condition of public employment. Don’t like it? Find another line of work.

 Public officials have an obligation to ensure that public employees are capable of fulfilling the job we hired them to perform. That means tailored drug and competency testing of all public employees. Teachers, police and firefighters should be at the very top of our list.