Tacoma, Washington Firefighter Was Hired Despite Drug Addiction
The background check policies of the local fire department in Tacoma, Washington are under a microscope following the death of a firefighter from a heroin overdose. Per a report from The News Tribune, one of the largest newspapers in Washington State, the firefighter in question had a long history of drug addiction and several interactions with the law. The department was not aware of his drug problem.
The firefighter, Ramsey Mueller, joined the Tacoma Fire Department in late 2015 following a reportedly rigorous testing and screening process. Per the News Tribune article, Mueller needed to complete a background check, a drug test, and a physical before the fire department would hire him officially. He passed his drug screening and his physical. He filled out a medical questionnaire, which included a query about past use of illegal drugs and a question about whether Mueller had a condition that might put himself or other persons at risk.
The record of Mueller’s medical questionnaire is confidential, so the News Tribune couldn’t report on whether he had given truthful answers to those questions. Most fire department officials don’t see the actual questionnaires, reports indicate. Instead, department commanders receive a pass/fail notice on each candidate’s medical questionnaire. Whoever reviewed Mueller’s medical questionnaire gave him a pass, which suggests to reporters that the candidate wasn’t entirely truthful about his drug history at that time.
Even if Mueller didn’t admit his drug history on his questionnaire, the information was hinted at by his criminal background check, coverage explains. Mueller’s drug history included encounters with the law as well as a hospitalization, but it didn’t include a conviction. Normally, reports indicate, that would mean that his background check would come back clean. However, there was a pending misdemeanor charge against him in California as well as a still-active warrant for his arrest.
The Tacoma Fire Department’s Deputy Chief saw the arrest warrant and the pending misdemeanor charge from California. The background check report didn’t provide detail about the nature of the charge, reports indicate. The Deputy Chief didn’t ask, but told Mueller that the warrant needed to be cleared up for his hiring process to proceed. Mueller could clear up the warrant, as he had already been arrested on the charge in question. The issue never came up again, and Mueller was hired to join the Tacoma Fire Department.
Mueller’s mother, Faith Mueller, is a long-time employee of the Tacoma Fire Department. Under department policy, employees are required to notify their superiors if they have information that might help safeguard “the best interests and welfare of the department.” Faith Mueller knew about her son’s lengthy battle with heroin and meth addiction but never disclosed that fact to a supervisor, coverage explains.
In July, Mueller showed up to work acting strangely. He was hospitalized and drug tested, but the drug test was labeled as private, so the fire department was not told which substances he might have been using. Two days later, Mueller resigned from the department. His mother and her partner found him in his bedroom the next day dead of an accidental heroin overdose.
As the News Tribune explains, a background check report without enough detail, a system that keeps commanders from seeing medical questionnaires, dishonesty on the part of Mueller, and a ban-the-box policy that bars public employers from asking certain questions during the interview process may all be reasons for Mueller’s hiring despite his battles with a potentially harmful and risky addiction issue.