Smokers Told Not to Apply for Jobs as Downey Firefighters

Times Staff Writer

The City Council has made smoking hazardous to persons looking for jobs with the Fire Department.

In an effort to reduce the cost of firefighters' disability pensions, the council unanimously has approved regulations that prohibit hiring smokers as firefighters. The regulations are in response to a state law passed in 1982 that made cancer a presumed job-related disability for firefighters.

City Manager Robert (Bud) Ovrom said the new regulations are needed to protect both the lungs of firefighters and the wallets of taxpayers.

"When a person goes out on disability retirement, it's very costly to the taxpayers," Ovrom said. "Everybody knows that smoking is a major contributor to lung cancer, but (without the new regulations) a person could smoke, get lung cancer and automatically get a disability retirement" from the city as a firefighter.

Disqualifying Candidates

The new regulations disqualify as candidates for firefighter anyone who has smoked a cigarette in the past year. The regulation would be enforced by a lie-detector test, Fire Chief Don Davis said. New firefighters will have to sign a statement saying that "as a condition of continued employment," he or she will refrain from smoking.

Any new firefighter found in violation of the policy could be fired, city officials said.

The regulations have no effect on the city's current 70 firefighters and drew no opposition from the Downey Firemen's Assn., which reviewed the regulations before their adoption. However, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department said he doubted such regulations can be enforced, and an official from a state firefighters' union claimed the regulations may be unconstitutional.

"We think that's a violation of privacy," said Kim Mueller, health and safety director for the Federated Firefighters of California, a statewide union with more than 100 locals and 1,700 members.

The union had sued San Mateo, which had passed a similar ordinance without bargaining with the union, Mueller said. In an out-of-court settlement, the city agreed merely to inquire whether potential firefighters smoked, without use of a lie-detector, said Lee Middendorf, labor relations representative for Local 2400 of the San Mateo County Firefighters.

No Union Objections

But, the Downey Firemen's Assn. had no objections to the ban on smokers.

"We think it's a good idea," said Capt. Earl Rucker of the Downey Fire Department and secretary of the firefighters' association.

Rucker, who gave up smoking after 15 years, said city firefighters have become much more concerned about smoking since the department began a daily 60-minute exercise and jogging workout more than five years ago. Only two or three firefighters still smoke, Rucker said.

Ovrom said the new regulations do not interfere with constitutional rights. The city manager added the smoking issue would become "just one small additional item to the many questions we ask before we hire somebody."

Inspector Ed Reed of the Los Angeles Fire Department said he believed Downey's new regulations will be hard to enforce.

"How are you going to prove that this person isn't smoking on his day off," said Reed, who said he is a reformed smoker.

But Downey officials were divided on whether the program would present any enforcement problems.

Ovrom said he did not believe the it would because the city last year banned smoking in all offices, including the Fire Department. In the 10 months since the ban went into effect, there have been few objections and no formal grievances, Ovrom said.

The most "serious transgression" Ovrom could recall was a city employee who, while smoking a cigarette outside the building, stepped indoors momentarily to answer a question. The employee was told by his supervisor that such behavior was "inappropriate," and the employee finished his cigarette outside, Ovrom said.

Fire Chief Davis, who does not smoke, said city officials will question job applicants about smoking as part of a polygraph test given by the Police Department to all new firefighters. The city plans to hire six firefighters by July.

But Davis conceded it would be difficult to monitor whether the firefighters smoke at home.

The change in the workers' compensation law, approved in 1982 and in effect since January, 1983, shifted the burden of proving that cancer was a job-related illness. Previously, a firefighter had to prove that his illness was job-related, but under the amended law, the presumption is that a cancer is job-related because of frequent smoke inhalation associated with the job and the city has to prove otherwise, Mueller said.

One Downey firefighter, who co-workers describe as a former smoker, has contracted lung cancer and applied for a disability pension. Personnel Director Jeff Allred said that the pension, if approved, would amount to between 50% to 75% of a firefighters' wages. Disability pensions are granted tax-free, for the remainder of the firefighter's life, Allred said. The top salary for Downey firefighters, except for officers, is $27,014 a year.

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