City Beat

Audit: Sacramento Fire Department needs to keep better count of narcotics

Eight years after a scandal over stolen morphine vials rocked the Sacramento Fire Department, a city audit has found that the agency could do more to keep an accurate count of the potent narcotics it uses to administer medical care.

The department has generally strong controls over its inventory of morphine and Versed, but “it could be better,” City Auditor Jorge Oseguera said on Tuesday.

Oseguera said getting access to the drugs is a “very, very convoluted process” that includes signatures from multiple individuals. However, the department has not been conducting enough regular counts of its inventory of the drugs at its EMS central facility and had relied upon handwritten databases, leading to some inaccurate tallies.

For example, a handwritten department spreadsheet from December 2012 undercounted the number of morphine vials the agency had in stock by 100. While the morphine in question was later accounted for, the error went unnoticed for several months, according to the audit.

A count by city auditors of the department’s Versed inventory also did not match what fire personnel had on record.

“(Conducting more regular counts) is a key control to ensuring the drugs have not been stolen or are missing,” Oseguera said. “In the event that there had been inappropriate activity, they wouldn’t have detected it for quite a while.”

The auditor said that the city’s whistle-blower hotline received a tip that there was inappropriate activity involving the Fire Department’s narcotics inventory. However, Oseguera said that “from what we analyzed and what we were able to see, we weren’t able to find any misuse.”

In 2006, Fire Department officials discovered that 43 vials of morphine had been tampered with and that the contents of those containers had been stolen. The vials had been kept on fire vehicles.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Sacramento Police Department investigated the thefts, but the inquiry hit a dead end and no arrests were made.

In a response letter to Oseguera’s audit, Fire Chief Walt White wrote that the department has launched “a new tracking process of bar code scanning for each individual vial of narcotics” and that EMS staff “has implemented a monthly, random reconciliation and hand count of narcotic inventories.”

In an interview, White said the department “believes the new system is going to help considerably.” He called the inaccurate inventory counts “clerical errors.”

Oseguera said the Fire Department has made “some major improvements” to its counting policies.

Councilman Allen Warren, who chairs a City Council audit committee, said “this is an extremely important issue.”

“When something exposes the city to unreasonable liability, that has to be addressed immediately,” he said.

Oseguera also recommended that the Fire Department consider conducting random drug testing of fire personnel. Oseguera’s report noted that several other cities, including San Francisco and San Diego, randomly drug test firefighters. He said his audit found no evidence that Sacramento firefighters are abusing drugs, but said random tests could act as a deterrent for that behavior.

White said that the department is not aware of any firefighters who are abusing drugs and that the agency would discuss a drug testing program with the labor union that represents firefighters.