The families of two Boston firefighters killed in the line of duty may be ineligible for federal death benefits, following toxicology reports showing traces of substance abuse in their systems as they fought an Aug. 29 restaurant fire
The families of two Boston firefighters killed in the line of duty may be ineligible for federal death benefits, following toxicology reports showing traces of substance abuse in their systems as they fought an Aug. 29 restaurant fire.
The $303,064 one-time benefit for survivors of public safety officers killed in the line duty can be denied “if the public safety officer was voluntarily intoxicated at the time of his death or catastrophic injury,” according to the 1976 Public Safety Officers Death Benefits Act.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, which administers the grant, refused to say whether the families of the two firefighters - Paul J. Cahill, 55, of Scituate, and Warren J. Payne, 53, of Newton - had applied for the benefit. The spokeswoman, Sandra Gunn, also would not say if autopsy results documenting substance abuse would jeopardize their claims.
“I don’t want to comment on particular claims,” Gunn said.
Autopsy results show Cahill reportedly had a 0.27 percent blood alcohol level - the level at which a person is considered intoxicated is 0.08 - when he died. Payne had traces of cocaine in his blood, according to results of autopsies performed by the state medical examiner’s office.
The two firefighters died when a ceiling collapsed as they battled a blaze at a West Roxbury Chinese restaurant.
Fire officials say there are few documented cases of substance abuse by on-duty firefighters. Neither the state fire marshal’s office nor professional associations compile statistics on firefighter disciplinary actions for substance abuse.
The Boston Fire Department had no immediate count on substance abuse-related disciplinary actions. Some 12 Boston firefighters have been forced to leave for substance abuse since 2004, according to published reports.
Boston Fire Department spokesman Scott Salmon said new recruits are subject to substance abuse tests while attending the city’s fire academy as well as during their first year on the job.
After that, tests are given when department supervisors suspect alcohol or drug abuse, Salmon said.
On a national level, random substance abuse testing is rare among the country’s 1.2 million firefighters, said Steven Westermann, president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. That despite the commonplace presence of alcohol in many fire department function rooms.
“You just occasionally hear about situations like this,” Westermann said. “Personally I don’t feel it’s real prevalent.”
There are few state laws governing firefighter personnel policies, Westermann said. Most firefighters are municipal employees and are subject to local employee policies on drug and alcohol use.
In 2003, an accident involving a drunken fire truck driver in Wyoming - resulting in the death of a 16-year-old volunteer firefighter - prompted the fire chief’s association to call for local departments to adopt zero-tolerance policies on alcohol.
Most fire departments follow a standard akin to one promulgated by the National Fire Protection Association setting a no-tolerance policy on substance abuse in the workplace, said Carl Peterson of the Quincy-based agency.
“It’s got one simple sentence: members who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs shall not participate in any fire department operations or other duties, period,” Peterson said.
While random drug testing remains rare, Peterson expects fire departments to review their policies in light of the revelations about the Boston firefighters.
“I would suspect a lot of fire departments will look at their programs,” he said. “It certainly will raise awareness of the issue.”
Meanwhile, the release of the autopsy results on the Boston firefighters to media outlets continues to spark outrage.
“I’m as angry as anybody else is angry,” Boston Mayor Tom Menino said. “Somebody gave this to the media without understanding the repercussions of what they did.”
On Wednesday, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Merita Hopkins sided with Firefighters Union Local 718 and ordered WHDH-TV Channel 7 not to air details of the autopsies, but that ruling was overturned on Thursday after the station appealed.
Paul Hynes, lawyer for Firefighters Union Local 718, demanded a criminal investigation. Boston police, the Boston Fire Department arson squad, and the Suffolk County district attorney are investigating.
“Massachusetts law is quite clear, autopsy reports are private medical records,” said Jake Wark, spokesman for Suffolk County Distrct Attorney Dan Conley. “There is absolute exemption for medical records (from public record laws).”
Acting state medical examiner Henry Nields had no comment. State Fire Marshal Stephan Coan also declined to comment.
Tom Benner of The Patriot Ledger (Quincy, Mass.) may be reached at email@example.com.