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Fleetwide breath tests start now

Here's what you must know to blow clean under new alcohol policy

Jan. 28, 2013 - 09:14AM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 28, 2013 - 09:14AM  |  
Chief Personnel Specialist Rico Habersham takes a breathalyzer test aboard the carrier George H.W. Bush.
Chief Personnel Specialist Rico Habersham takes a breathalyzer test aboard the carrier George H.W. Bush. (MC2 Tony D. Curtis / Navy)
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When the sailors of Assault Craft Unit 4 in Little Creek, Va., discovered they would be subject to Breathalyzer tests last summer, they bristled at the thought. The Navy was again invading their lives.

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When the sailors of Assault Craft Unit 4 in Little Creek, Va., discovered they would be subject to Breathalyzer tests last summer, they bristled at the thought. The Navy was again invading their lives.

Their unit had just been picked as one of 13 commands that would breath-test sailors arriving on duty through use of what the Navy calls "alcohol detection devices" or ADDs.

"There was a lot of initial resistance to this policy at the deck-plate level, but through the conduct of the pilot program, that perception was overcome," said Capt. Michael Ott, the unit's commanding officer, in an interview with reporters.

"It is now simply a tool to them, a tool that we [as leadership] can use to help shape behavior — shape acceptable behavior — with regards to alcohol consumption. I don't want to say that the sailors welcome it now, but it has become a tool that the sailors now respect and are ready for."

The rollout of the Breathalyzer policy begins Feb. 4 and the hand-held devices should be Navy-wide by May 24.

Ott spoke to the media through a telephone conference sponsored by Fleet Forces Command on Jan. 23, a day after the rollout was announced to commanders, commanding officers, officers in charge and command master chiefs through fleet commanders Adm. Bill Gortney and Adm. Cecil Haney.

"We must educate service members on the responsible use of alcohol and deter alcohol abuse in the fleet, in home port and on deployment," Gortney and Haney wrote in their message.

Here are 12 things you need to know about the new program:

1. Why is the Navy doing this? The stated purpose is to curb irresponsible drinking in the fleet, something that's seemingly been a problem since there's been a U.S. Navy. Alcohol abuse is a major factor to "motor vehicle and safety mishaps, sexual assaults, self harm and poor fitness," wrote chief of naval personnel Vice Adm. Scott Van Buskirk in a fleetwide message.

Simply put, leaders believe that sailors knowing they'll possibly be tested when they report to work could make them think twice about drinking excessively or too close to reporting to duty. But the testing is just part of their overall efforts to educate sailors about the dangers of alcohol use.

2. Who does this affect? All active duty and drilling reserves — both officer and enlisted — who are assigned to a Navy unit and reporting for work are subject to the tests. This not only includes Navy personnel but any members of other services who are permanently assigned to Navy units or assigned under temporary duty, including attending Navy schools.

3. Who isn't affected? Sailors on authorized leave or in a liberty status do not fall under the "intent" of his policy, according to a Navy press release. Those reporting to work, whose liberty is about to expire, do fall under it.

It doesn't apply to sailors assigned permanently to units of other services. Those sailors would be subject to that service's policies.

4. Who gets flagged? The Navy's threshold for a positive blood-alcohol test is 0.02 percent. Anything below that is considered a negative test.

Any result 0.02 percent or higher will trigger a sailor retest in 20 minutes to ensure it wasn't a false positive that could be triggered by use of mouthwash, breath mints, gum or breath sprays.

Once confirmed, a sailor could be referred to the command's drug and alcohol program's adviser.

Sailors above 0.04 are "presumed to be not ready to safely perform duties," the instruction states. Along with being referred to an adviser, the sailor will be "retained on board the command in a safe and secure environment until the ADD-indicated reading is not detectable."

5. What's the device? The Navy is using two ADDs from New Jersey-based company AK GlobalTech Corp. Two models will be employed — the "AlcoMate Premium" and the "AlcoMate Alcolyzer."

The Alcolyzer is the latest technology, and the Navy is the first customer to use it, company general manager Charles Lee said.

While the premium model can register blood-alcohol level variances of plus or minus 0.01, the Alcolyzer tends to be more "spot on," Lee said.

Detection devices also tend to skew higher the drunker a test-taker is. But the Alcolyzer will "hold its precision."

Lee said it's too early to say exactly how many of each model the Navy is receiving.

6. What's the rollout plan? Delivery of the devices is underway and should be complete by April 26. Officials have outlined five phases of implementation.

Exact dates, officials say, are subject to device availability, but will happen in the following order:

• Submarine Forces, Atlantic and Pacific and Navy Expeditionary Combat Command.

• Naval Air Forces, both Atlantic and Pacific.

• Surface Forces, Atlantic and Pacific, and Cyber Forces.

• Special Warfare, Bureau of Medicine and subordinate medical units, staff commands and all shore units.

• Any remaining units, to be fully implemented by May 24.

7. Is there CO discretion? Yes. Officials say commanders must have a testing program and there are ground rules for everyone to follow. But they allow commanders to have some leeway.

Tests must be random, because the intent is to catch those engaged in questionable behavior. No individual can be given a "spot" test by himself, unless he is late for work.

Some examples given in the instruction — which officials say isn't all-inclusive:

• Commanders could sweep an entire unit.

• Or, do random sampling of sailors during the workday just as the service does for drug detection under the urinalysis program.

• Or, limit a sweep to entire "sub-units," which could mean detachments, divisions or departments and even duty sections or personnel assigned to special unit evolutions such as weapons handling.

This applies to active-duty units and also reserve drill periods.

8. Is it really nonpunitive? Yes and no. The rules specifically state that a positive breath test alone can't be used as evidence for any disciplinary proceedings or any adverse administrative action, such as an administrative discharge. By comparison, processing for discharge is mandatory for positive drug tests.

Commands do have the power to refer flagged sailors for counseling and education programs. But they are forbidden from documenting it anywhere in a sailor's record — that includes enlisted evaluations and officer fitness reports, as well as administrative remarks, formally known as a "page two entries" and now entered on a NAVPERS 1070/613 in the electronic service jacket.

Ott referred to sailors avoiding prosecution under the policy as a "free pass."

Still, he pointed out that the instruction doesn't prevent commanders from investigating sailors they believe are intoxicated while on duty.

With a positive breath test of 0.04 or higher, COs have "probable cause" to order a competence-for-duty examination, which can lead to punitive action if the CO deems necessary. In that case, the result of the breath test is considered along with "other evidence of intoxication, including but not limited to, bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, muscular movement, general appearance or behavior."

9. What if you refuse to blow? That would be very ill-advised, the Navy says.

The service considers a breath test an inspection approved or directed by a commanding officer and thus a lawful order.

Refusing to take a test, the instruction says, is considered direct disobedience of that order and would subject the sailor to disciplinary or administrative action under existing rules.

10. What do sailors in Marine units face? The 7,895 Navy officers and enlistees assigned to Marine Corps units will still get breath tests, under the Marine Corps' policy announced Dec. 12 in MARADMIN 709/12. A blood-alcohol level of only 0.01 — eight times less than the legal driving limit in most states — will trigger a positive test. Sailors and Marines who test positive under the Marine Corps could be referred for further testing or alcohol abuse counseling. In severe cases, they also could face discipline from their commanders, although that's not the stated purpose of the program adviser.

11. What are the levels of impairment? The Navy has outlined some of the ways your body will react in the various stages of drunkenness.

12. How much is too much? Sailors who think they can sleep off a few drinks and be below the limit before their shift may not have the math on their side, according to statistics released in the Navy's ADD operating guide.

While the figures are approximate and can vary with an individual's tolerance, there is a basic blood-alcohol level that sailors can expect to blow if they imbibe a given number of drinks, based on their gender and weight. One drink raises the level anywhere from 0.02 to 0.04 depending on those variables, according to the ADD guide.

The levels drop about 0.01 for every 40 minutes of drinking; if a 240-pound man spread out two beers over two hours, the alcohol would be nearly out of his system by the time he finished.

They also drop anywhere from 0.01 to 0.025 per hour of not drinking, again depending on variables such as gender, weight and individual metabolism.

Example 1: A 180-pound man has eight drinks over a four-hour period, ending at midnight. That gives him a 0.11 blood-alcohol level at the end of the night (0.17 minus 0.06 for the time spent drinking). If he reports for duty at 6 a.m., his level could be anywhere from 0.05 to zero — a risky range.

Example 2: A 140-pound woman has four drinks over the same period, ending the night with a 0.05 level (0.13 minus 0.06 for time spent drinking). If she reports for duty at 6 a.m., the alcohol should be out of her system entirely. Again, individual tolerances may vary.

Staff writers tlombardo@militarytimes.com?subject=Question from NavyTimes.com reader">Tony Lombardo and Kevin Lilley contributed to this report.

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