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Judge: Fire chief can give lie-detector tests

| Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2005, 12:00 p.m.

An Allegheny County judge ruled Monday that Pittsburgh's fire chief can use lie-detector tests as part of his new hiring process.

Pittsburgh disqualified 26 firefighter applicants this summer based on a 12-question polygraph test that compelled them to admit they had lied or omitted information on their job applications about past drug use, lying and stealing.

The applicants challenged the disqualifications, saying Pennsylvania criminal law bars employers from requiring applicants to take a polygraph test unless they are law enforcement officers or "dispense or have access to narcotic or other dangerous drugs" on the job.

Common Pleas Court Judge R. Stanton Wettick yesterday accepted the city's argument that firefighters have access to "dangerous drugs" at emergency scenes and thus fall into the law's exception.

In his 14-page opinion, Wettick said firefighters often arrive at the scene of a medical emergency before paramedics, making it their responsibility to retrieve a patient's medication from a cabinet or table inside a home. Wettick said prescribed medications can be dangerous and are sometimes narcotic agents.

Fire Chief Michael Huss said he'll use polygraph tests on the next class of about 30 firefighter applicants who could start academy training in January. A class of 59 applicants -- the first to take the lie-detector tests -- started at the academy Sept. 28.

City police and paramedic applicants also take polygraph tests. City Solicitor Jacqueline Morrow lauded Wettick's ruling and noted that disqualified applicants may appeal to the Pittsburgh Civil Service Commission.

"Everyone who was passed over can request a hearing before the Civil Service Commission to explain why the disqualifying information will not interfere with their ability to do a good job," she said.

Joshua Bloom, a Downtown lawyer representing more than a dozen disqualified firefighter applicants, said his clients would take their case to the commission.

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