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The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) has adopted a strong zero-tolerance alcohol policy following a series of tragic incidents involving firefighters who had been drinking. Most visible was the May death of a Wyo-ming volunteer firefighter, Anndee Huber, who was killed in a highway crash when the fire department vehicle in which she was riding overturned while responding to a grass fire. The driver was found to be intoxicated. In September, he pleaded guilty to a charge of aggravated vehicle homicide.
The new IAFC policy calls upon any firefighter to "voluntarily remove himself/herself from the activities and functions of the fire or emergency service agency/organization, including all emergency operations and training." Further, no alcohol should be located in any operational portion of a fire department, including station living areas, apparatus bays or the apparatus itself. Departments should have in place both written policies and enforcement procedures to ensure compliance.
The IAFC policy statement shouldn't be necessary. Many departments already have policies and are enforcing them, according to the IAFC's president, Chief Ernie Mitchell. But, as the Wyoming tragedy and other recent incidents have illustrated, there continue to be alcohol problems in the fire service.
IAFC Executive Director Garry Briese said the board wanted to make a clear and unambiguous statement regarding alcohol. Further, chiefs must convey the message throughout their chain of command. Finally, he noted, firefighters must be talking to each other, since peer pressure is critical to establishing a firehouse culture in which alcohol is not accepted.
There is little new substance in the IAFC policy. It calls for firefighters to refrain from participating in fire department activities, including both operations and training, for eight hours after consuming alcohol. Further, firefighters who are "still noticeably impaired" after the eight-hour period also should not participate. Fire departments should test for alcohol any individuals involved in a vehicle collision that causes "measurable damage," personal injury or a fatality. It calls upon departments to develop policies to support and enforce the zero-tolerance standard, but it does not provide for any specific enforcement or disciplinary measures.
The one significant new element of the policy is its call for separating fire department social and operational activities. This will especially affect volunteer departments in smaller communities where the fire house might also be one of the community's social centers. IAFC recognizes that many smaller departments hold fundraising social events at which alcohol might be served. These are perfectly appropriate activities, often important for maintaining the fabric of the community. However, they should be completely separated from the department's operations.
Many departments have alcohol policies that are far more detailed. The IAFC statement's value is not in its specifics, but in its call to refocus the fire service's leadership on the problems that alcohol consumption can create. There must be a culture throughout the fire service, in departments large and small, that alcohol consumption is never acceptable. No firefighter should ever participate in any department operational activity (not just emergency responses) with any positive blood alcohol level. Unless social activities involving alcohol are physically separated from fire department operational areas, this becomes far more difficult.
We have made great strides toward reducing the tragic consequences associated with alcohol misuse. For example, drunken-driving deaths have declined significantly since peaking in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The problems associated with alcohol consumption by youth also have diminished since the minimum drinking age was raised to 21 in all states. Many states have strengthened their drunken driving laws in recent years. There now are widespread and sophisticated public education campaigns.
The Wyoming tragedy may be unusual, but it illustrates that there still are problems, both within the fire service and in the community that we serve. Last year, more than 17,000 people died in alcohol-related traffic crashes. That number has been increasing for the past three years. An important recent study by the National Academy of Sciences documented that there still is a serious problem with underage alcohol consumption. We still haven't found effective ways to deal with hard-core drinking drivers and others with serious alcohol problems. The driver in the Wyoming crash, who had lost his license and been jailed and fined for a previous drunk driving offense, appears to fall into this category.
We in the fire service see the tragic consequences of alcohol involvement in traffic crashes, violence and other injuries and illnesses every day. We should be leading the charge for improved drunk driving laws, workplace alcohol use policies, and prevention and treatment programs.
But the fire service must first make sure that its own house is in order before seeking to change others. It's not enough merely to have departmental policies against alcohol abuse. They must be accepted at all levels, and made a part of the department's inherent culture. We can no longer allow so-called "innocent" drinking to be mixed with any fire department activities. The new IAFC policy statement should be a call for each of us to reconsider our attitudes and the practices of our department.
Steve Blackistone, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is an attorney and a member of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad in Montgomery County, MD.