Those who are interested in becoming firefighters are frequently concerned with whether their past drug use will have an effect on them getting hired. Does it matter what kind of drugs you used? How often? How long ago you used them? How old you were when you experimented?
Whether or not you can be a firefighter with past drug use will depend. While firefighters are expected to be clean from any drugs; using them in your past doesn’t necessarily prevent you from getting hired. It will depend on a variety of factors that we will discuss in this article.
If you are curious about what factors may affect your ability to become a firefighter, based on past or current drug use, read below.
You may have heard the term “Public Trust”. In the context of being a firefighter, this means that you are in a position where the citizens you serve trust you because you are a firefighter. They don’t know you. Most of them have never even met you, yet they already trust you.
This is because of the reputation the fire service has built throughout its history and because you are a public servant. As a firefighter, you are expected to maintain this hard-earned reputation and to be the type of person who is deserving of this level of trust.
Why am I talking about trust when this article is supposed to be about drug use? Because the community you serve as a firefighter needs to be able to trust that you are not the type of person to use drugs on the job.
For the most part, drugs are illegal (I know marijuana is now legal in some states, but it is still federally illegal), and using them can prevent you from getting all different types of jobs. But as a sworn (taking an oath) firefighter, you are held to an even higher standard and expected to be a professional at all times.
Details of Your Drug History
To start, many people have experimented or used some type of drugs (illegal and not) in their past and that doesn’t always mean that they can’t be firefighters. I know plenty of firefighters who talk about their past use. It’s not a deal-breaker, depending on a few different factors.
What kind of drugs: In the eyes of your potential employer, there is a difference between past use of Marijuana, Cocaine, Heroin, Methamphetamine, LSD, Ecstasy or Steroids.
Some of these are looked upon much more harshly than the others. Marijuana use is usually viewed as less of an issue, especially since it is now legal in some places. If you have a history of using some of these other drugs (or any others), it will really depend on what each department decides they are comfortable with. There are some departments that will automatically disqualify anyone who has used certain hard drugs, but not all departments have strict guidelines about this.
How often you used them: If you smoked marijuana a few times when you were a teenager, that’s usually no big deal. However, if you smoked weed every day for years, that may be seen as more serious. This is especially true with harder drugs. From what I know, frequently using hard drugs will usually disqualify a firefighter candidate, but again, not always.
Last time you used any drugs: The last time you used any drugs can be an important factor. Many departments are okay with some past drug use if it was years ago and you were young.
They are much less likely to hire someone who has used drugs in the last few months. Many departments will have a defined guideline when it comes to the last time used. For example: No hard drugs in the last 5 years and no Marijuana in the last 2 years.
Department’s Standards: As I discussed above, there are some fire departments with very strict standards that will disqualify you for any hard drug use, ever. And then there are some departments that will hire people with “less than perfect” pasts; as long as they determine that past is truly behind them. I have heard that many volunteer departments, federal and wildland firefighter jobs are less strict with their standards, but that can vary by location.
How will the department know if you are using drugs? They will test you for it. Almost all departments will do a drug test as part of your pre-employment medical exam. (Possibly not all volunteer departments will).
This will tell them if there are currently any drugs detected in your system. Usually, a urine (pee) test or sometimes blood or hair test is used. Different drugs will stay in your system for different amounts of time. Some departments will also test for drugs at other times during employment.
Drug tests will only tell them about your current or very recent drug use. So how do they know if you have used drugs in the past?
Background Checks and Polygraphs
The way the hiring process usually works, once they decide that you are someone that may want to hire and you are on the eligibility list, is they will give you a conditional job offer. This means that if you pass all the steps after, they will most likely hire you. A very important one of these steps is the background check.
It can be different from one department to another, but when I was getting hired, my background check was extremely thorough and a lot of work.
I had to fill out a huge (I’m talking like 50 pages of information) packet of forms. They asked me all kinds of things about my job history, past relationships, credit history, education, long lists of people they could contact to ask questions about me, and, you guessed it, past drug use.
It was pretty detailed, asking about each type of drug specifically. If I had ever used it? The date I used it? How many times did I use it? Who I used it with? And they use all this information to find out who you are and what you have done in your past. They are really trying to catch you in a lie.
Not all candidates will have to take a polygraph (also called the lie-detector) as part of their background check, but many do. During a polygraph test, they will use all the information you provided in your background packet (and any more they discover in the process).
They will use a machine to measure your response when they ask you certain questions. It’s not a perfect science. It can’t actually tell if you are lying, but it measures your stress response (anxiety) to the questions they are asking. They will certainly ask about your past drug use, so make sure you are honest in all your background information.
Don’t give up on your dream of becoming a firefighter just because you have used drugs in your past. If you are still using drugs and are serious about becoming a firefighter, you need to stop now.
As a firefighter, you will be held to a higher standard and you need to prove that you deserve the trust that comes with it. That starts now. Regardless of what you have done in the past, honesty is your best option. If they catch you in a lie, that will ensure you don’t get the job 100% of the time.