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New Mehlville fire district chief says he wants a stiffer drug testing policy


May 04, 2005 - New Mehlville Fire Protection District Chief James Silvernail wants a stiffer drug testing policy and the reinstitution of free child-safety seat inspections.

Silvernail highlighted the two goals in his first address to the Board of Directors as the district's new fire chief. He replaced retiring Chief Ray Haddock last week.

"I'm a believer in firefighters' safety," he said. "I'm also — I don't like criticism from firefighters that shouldn't be, and I feel we need to do an at-random drug testing. I don't want to find out that we have somebody that's trying this stuff after we go into a burning building and somebody gets screwed up. On the other hand, if somebody is even thinking about it, I want them to come honest with me. You come honest with me, I'll be honest with you. But I think it is something that will help people see the facts of life."

Board of Directors Chairman Aaron Hilmer said, "We would like to have the strictest random drug testing that would levy the harshest penalties for any infraction."

"We already know that we've already had a problem in this district and we want to make sure that no one's safety or our patients' care is jeopardized," board Treasurer Bonnie Stegman added, referring to former Deputy Chief of EMS Greg Harwood.

Harwood was charged last year with replacing morphine from ambulances with saline and ordering more morphine than he reported to the district, according to documents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

"This could be lethal to that patient," Stegman said, "so I think we need to take a hard line, be very understanding, offer assistance to those who are honest with us, but we need to have a progressive disciplinary policy related to drug use."

"That's common sense," board Secretary Dan Ottoline said. "Anybody wants a drug-free situation."

The board did not take action, but discussed hiring an independent firm to conduct computer-selected, at-random drug tests.

Also, Silvernail wants the district to offer free child-safety seat inspections again, beginning at engine house No. 1, which is under construction on Lemay Ferry Road across the street from Mehlville Senior High School.

"Once we get some people trained, then we're going to do that," he said. "We will have time setups. We really don't want anybody coming in at 8 or 9 o'clock at night. There's a time for it and a time we can do it. If we're on duty, we can tell them: 'We're on duty. If the bell rings, we're going. That's the way it's going to be.'

"As far as doing it outside the district," Silvernail continued, "I'm not really for that because there's other agencies that have this program in effect. We need to get a list of all the fire departments that are doing it, so if someone comes in from Lemay, we can tell them: 'Lemay does it.' If there's a hardship somewhere that doesn't do it, we'd be glad to do it, which we're not going to see that much. We're going to do the best we can to save little kids' lives."

"It's the view of this board member that we would institute these at no cost to the taxpayers," Hilmer said. "That way they can see their fire district working for them."

"Mehlville should be very proud because my understanding (is) that this is the first fire district that actually started this in the area," Stegman said. "They were instrumental in legislation in Jefferson City to get some of this legislation passed and it's really a shame to me that it was ever stopped without trying to find an alternate way to be given to the community."

Briefly outlining his ideas to the board, Silvernail also tried to stifle any concern associated with the shakeup of district leadership.

After reform candidates Hilmer and Stegman won election April 5, ousting two incumbents from a three-member board, five high-ranking officials resigned. Once taking office, Hilmer and Stegman acted quickly, appointing a new fire chief, hiring new general counsel and beginning talks of trimming the budget by scaling back sick leave, health insurance, holiday pay and overtime pay.

Meanwhile, district employees are wondering what will happen next.

"I'm not going to come in here and make no clean sweep," Silvernail said. "I hope everybody understands that. I want all avenues of this fire district to be a part of this department of communication. And whether we agree on everything that's one thing. I can tell you that I'm a reasonable individual and I will listen. I don't know what's gone on in the past, but whatever anything was, I'm assuming it was all good.

"We'll review some policies," he said. "And when I get ready to sit down, to really start evaluating, I want somebody on the labor end to go over it. I'm going to go over them now because there may be nothing wrong, we may see some things we want changed. But one thing I do want, I do want people to tell me what some of the problems are, if there's problems. We may not agree on everything, but I will look at everything. Substance abuse policy, I want to look at that: vehicle usage. It's only as good as the input from everybody ... We may not all agree in this room, but when we walk out that door, we should all be friends. We need to work as a team. "

Silvernail also expects to improve the district's image.

"I understand that there might have been some problems in the past," he said. "That's gonna change. I've got some very good rapport with the news media. I've been there. I've done it. I think that is very important to build up a fire department of this nature, of this greatness.

"I think the Mehlville fire district is a damn good fire department, but could we use some fine tuning? Everybody could use some fine tuning," he said.

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