Recently, first responders have been blasted in the news — and perhaps justifiably so. Some of the headlines: "Ambulance Driver Charged with DUI, with Patient Aboard"; "Autopsies Find Alcohol, Some Cocaine, Two Officials Say"; "Drunk EMT Rants on Radio, Calls 911"; "Nevada Firefighter Booked on Drug Charges"; "N.J. Firefighter, Accused of Apparatus DWI, Due in Court"; " New Jersey Department Awaits Alcohol Ruling"; "New York Firefighters Accused of Rowdy Behavior"; "Firefighters Suspended"; "Other Massachusetts Departments Talk About Drugs"; "Beer Banned in Firehouses"; and "New York Departments Move to Cork Excess Drinking."
Many fire departments continue to struggle with the issue of alcohol use by members. In a Newsday article written by Eden Laikin, a letter from a fire district attorney, Joseph Frank, is quoted as noting difficulties in disciplining volunteers: "The volunteer fire service presents a unique challenge when to comes to discipline, since the need to continue to maintain an adequate staff and the need to maintain discipline must be balanced in an environment, where there is no significant financial incentive to retain personnel as in a paid workplace."
Alcohol and rowdy behavior in the fire service are not new. The modern-day FDNY was formed from an all-volunteer force that protected the city until the formation of the Metropolitan Fire Department on March 30, 1865. Ironically, the idea of creating a fully paid fire department was supported by the city's police commissioners. Newspapers of the day gave eight reasons in support of a fully paid city fire department and the abolishment of the volunteer fire department. Reason number four, quoted from Our Firemen by A.E. Costello: "Because associations of young men from the class that supplies volunteer firemen in a great city are removed from the restraints of family and well-ordered society become proud of vices and popular with their fellows because they possess them. Being organized and acting under a semblance of command, they feel a degree of strength that impels them too often to defy the law and disturb public order."
Many civilian detractors for years claimed that we were a bunch of drunks who went around saving foundations and chimneys. As they say, we've come along way, baby, but with that said, it is hard to deny based on recent headlines that alcohol and more recently drugs are a huge problem in the fire service. A recent Boston Globe article stated, "Some firefighters said that long hours, boredom and high levels of stress contribute to a culture in which drinking is accepted, if not condoned. They hope that these reports would shine light on a problem some described as pervasive." It happens more often than people think. "Said a Dorchester firefighter, who declined to give his name because he said his peers would ostracize him, 'It happens more than we want to admit.'"
Alcohol is typically the substance most abused by public safety workers. A June report on substance abuse in the U.S. workforce found that 9.1% of workers in a group that includes firefighters reported heavy alcohol use during the previous month. The rate of alcohol use in the protective-service category was slightly above the national average for all workers, according to the report by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Conversely, firefighters, law enforcement workers and others in the protective-service group had the lowest rate of illicit drug use of any group of workers, with 1.5% reporting drug use in the previous month.
In Boston, where two firefighters died in the line of duty in a store fire in August, autopsy information that was released recently found that a 55-year-old firefighter had a blood alcohol limit of 0.27, more than three times the legal limit for being drunk, and a 53-year-old firefighter had cocaine in his system. The families of both firefighters are in jeopardy of losing the Department of Justice line-of-duty death benefit under the Public Safety Officers Benefit (PSOB) Program. The current $303,064 benefit will not be paid to any firefighter's survivors where it can be proven that the firefighter had any alcohol or drugs in his or her system at the time of death.
The federal Motor Vehicle Safety Act that was passed into law in the late 1980s had a provision to require fire apparatus operators to obtain commercial driver's licenses (CDLs) to drive fire apparatus and hence would have compelled fire departments to enact random alcohol and drug testing policies. However, most states chose under heavy political pressure from the fire service itself to exempt fire departments from the previsions of this law. (Funny how the public works department in your municipality is required by law to have a random alcohol and drug testing program and the fire department is not. With that said, one may conclude that the garbage truck driver in your town is operating a vehicle to a higher degree of safety than the fire apparatus operator in your town.)
We are in the business of providing public safety and yet we represent some unsafe drivers by virtue of the laws from which we have gotten ourselves exempted. We had our chance and we blew it! Many occupations require random testing and have declared that alcohol and drugs have no place in the workplace — truck drivers, bus drivers, pilots, police officers, train engineers, ship captains, nurses and, in some states, even amusement park ride operators. I will never understand why many in the fire service believe we have a sense of entitlement and need not follow the safety rules that everyone else does.
When I conduct my emergency vehicle driving classes, I ask my students whether the United States has a drug and alcohol problem. The answer is always an overwhelming yes. So where does the U.S. fire service think that firefighters come from, Mars? If this country has a drug- and alcohol-abuse problem, which it does, then so does the fire service. Fire service administrators at every level need to get their heads out of the sand. Why? Because we have a problem. We need a national movement to embrace random alcohol and drug testing for every member of the U.S. fire service. The citizens we protect deserve nothing less.
MICHAEL WILBUR, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a lieutenant in the New York City Fire Department, assigned to Ladder Company 27 in the Bronx, and has served on the FDNY Apparatus Purchasing Committee. He consults on a variety of apparatus-related issues around the country. For further information, access his website at www.emergencyvehicleresponse.com.