Monrovia Law Means Smoke Eaters Won't Smoke

Times Staff Writer

Monrovia firefighters believe that they inhale enough smoke fighting fires.

So without a fight they agreed with city officials that no one who smokes should be hired as a firefighter.

"The majority of our people feel it is a good thing," said Capt. Darrel Wilson, a member of the Monrovia Fire Fighters' Assn. "Most of the young guys coming in are non-smokers anyway so nobody really opposed it. And maybe it will help promote the ability to curb smoke inhalation."

The city wants to keep smokers from becoming firefighters because city officials believe that some illnesses leading to disability payments could be linked to smoking.

Monrovia is apparently one of only three cities in the state taking steps to keep smokers out of firefighting units, a spokesman for the state fire marshal's office said.

Effective July 1

Under the agreement, which went into effect July 1, the city will not hire anyone who smokes, can fire anyone hired after that date who starts smoking and will challenge any disability claim those smokers may file. Firefighters on the payroll before July 1 are not affected by the policy.

Monrovia has 35 firefighters and only a few smoke, said acting Fire Chief Mark Foote.

City officials hope that any "secret smokers" would be caught through annual physicals, which include chest X-rays and blood tests.

Cities began looking for ways to protect themselves five years ago after the state Legislature passed a law under which firefighters with at least 10 years of service who have lung or heart disease or cancer are presumed to have acquired the medical problem on the job.

In reaching the agreement, Monrovia learned from mistakes made in San Mateo and sought the early support of the Fire Fighters' Assn.

San Mateo pioneered the smoking restriction two years ago but apparently failed to sell its plan to its firefighters union.

San Mateo Had Plan

"Under our original plan, a prospective employee had to sign a pre-employment contract that if he ever started smoking he could lose his job," said San Mateo Fire Chief Arthur Koron.

"But the union filed a lawsuit because it felt the city had taken too harsh a position," Koron said. "Under a court settlement, we compromised. We have a hiring rule that we can disqualify any applicant if he has smoked in the past year, but we can't terminate him if he starts smoking and we can't attempt to prevent disability payments."

Monrovia's policy is much broader than San Mateo's and city officials think it can be defended successfully in court, if necessary.

Dan Cassidy, Monrovia's labor counsel, said no court has ruled on the issue.

"If it is a condition of employment, the city can let them go," he said of new firefighters who begin smoking after they are hired. "It is like being required to have a driver's license and then losing it--the employer can terminate a worker in that case.

"The rule has to bear a reasonable relationship to the job, which this does. As long as it is done through the negotiating process and as long as it does not affect existing employees, it should stand up.

"We are just seeing the start of this," Cassidy added. "More cities will do it."

In Downey, where the rule went into effect early this year, anyone who begins smoking after he is hired may be fired, said Fire Chief Don Davis.

"We had talked about it for years but we wanted the right way to implement it," Davis said. "The city feared lawsuits and we needed the support of the Fire Fighters Assn. We have very few smokers, maybe five or six out of 80 firefighters, and we have had no negative feedback."

Foote said Monrovia city officials approached the new policy "gingerly because you don't want to be challenged in court (by the union) on principle."

"We have the cooperation of the Fire Fighters Assn. and that moved us to implement the plan," he said. "You can't be arbitrary and capricious in setting up a plan like this.

"The motivation of the firefighters is that the smoke and gases they are exposed to in the profession are exacerbated by smoking. And the cities are concerned with insurance liability."

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