NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—New Brunswick is the only community in Middlesex County with a fully-paid fire department.  And those firefighters may soon face random drug testing if their union votes to ratify a new contract with the city.

"We have negotiated with the firemen for a nubmer of years now this drug testing policy.  We now have it this close to being signed off on in an agreement," said Business Administrator Thomas Loughlin at the most recent City Council meeting.

"Director Rawls has been pushing for it and it will soon be implemented.  And it is going to be a random test of everyone in the Fire Department," Loughlin added, referring to Fire Director Robert Rawls.

"Mr. Loughlin and I are meeting next week on the policy," Rawls said, adding the proposal would be referred to the fire department's unions for ratification.

"It's a process, but we're moving forward very quickly."

The comments came in response to questions from activist Tormel Pittman, who said he raised the issue of drug testing public safety personnel months ago, but that the Council failed to address his concerns.

"I have the utmost confidence in our fire department and our police department to perform their duties in the most professional manner," said Council President Robert Recine.

"You can ask at the next meeting," said City Attorney Bill Hamilton told Pittman regarding the status of the fire department's policy.

Although Rawls said the policy could be implemented as early as this week, City Hall said it will not happen that quickly.

"Probably next month at the earliest," said Russell Marchetta, a spokesman for Mayor James Cahill.

In the meantime, Rawls says he will continue to use his discretion to punish employees who are caught using drugs.

"We don't have an official policy, but we have disciplined employees for drug use.  And it will continue until the policy is in place."

Firefighters and superior officers in the department have been working without a contract this year, the only unions in the city that have yet to sign a deal with their employer.

"We've been debating, sometimes arguing," said Loughlin, who represents the City of New Brunswick in the contract negotiations.

As we reported two weeks ago, the city set aside $500,000 for "salary adjustments" in this year's budget.  Loughlin told that those funds could be used to provide retroactive pay raises to the 20 or so employees of the fire department affected when a new deal is signed.

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Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate and a community organizer, and an independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick.