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In over a decade of writing this column for Firehouse® Magazine, this is the most difficult. It was so difficult that I did not have a title for it, and I had to keep writing the column over and over again. Trying to find the right words to be forceful, but not too forceful. To tell the truth about a fire service plague (our dirty little secret), with a high degree of sensitivity to both firefighters and the citizens they protect. A plague that is as old as the fire service itself. To produce a document that must be the subject of at least one training period for each fire station in this country and an awful lot of soul searching for the leadership of the nation's fire service. A subject that causes some fire service leaders to look at it with a blind eye.
The plague is alcohol in fire stations - or in firefighters (what follows may also be said of illegal drugs). This is a serious look at what occurs when firefighting and alcohol are mixed and the very high price that is paid by everyone involved. The high price was evident in my last column (see Emergency Vehicle Operations, July 2003) concerning the death in Newcastle, WY, of a 16-year-old Explorer firefighter and the arrest of an apparatus operator on charges of aggravated vehicular homicide. Also paying the price are the officers and members of the Newcastle Fire Department, officials in Weston County and even the state of Wyoming itself. This essay is not meant to demean anyone directly or indirectly involved with this tragedy, but rather it is my hope that everyone in the fire service will learn and take a stand against alcohol in the fire service so that history does not repeat itself.
To recap, the Explorer firefighter, Anndee Huber, and the apparatus operator, Ronald Caillier - volunteers with the Newcastle Fire Department - were responding in a fire department tanker to a rekindle of railroad ties on the night of May 22. The tanker was one of five apparatus responding in the emergency mode at the time. On the way, the tanker rolled over. Huber was thrown out of the vehicle and killed. A Wyoming state trooper's report lists Caillier's blood alcohol level at 0.086% two hours after the accident. That's above Wyoming's legal limit of 0.08%. Caillier told troopers he swerved to avoid hitting an antelope on the highway. He has pleaded not guilty to aggravated vehicular homicide. If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine. No date has been set for Caillier's next court appearance.
As with any tragedy there were many signs and signals that problems were unrecognized or ignored, or a combination of both. Many times in this column, I have written about response policies that are in line with the national definition of a "true emergency," as it relates to the situation to which a fire department is responding. In my opinion, sending five pieces of fire apparatus in the emergency mode to a rekindle of railroad ties is not in line with the definition of a true emergency, and I would suggest that a reduced response may have prevented this accident.
The mandatory use of seatbelts - another favorite topic of this column - apparently was ignored in this instance. It appears that neither firefighter in the tanker was using a seatbelt at the time of the accident. Seatbelts save lives. Could a seatbelt have saved the life of Anndee Huber? No one will ever know.
I was born and raised in a small town where everybody knows everybody. More important, everybody knows everybody's business. It would appear that Newcastle is a similar town. According to Newcastle Volunteer Fire Department records obtained and reported by the Newcastle News Letter Journal, the local newspaper, Caillier was suspended from active duty in September 2001 for six months for violating section two of the department's policies, which in part states, "No member shall appear on duty in a state of intoxication." That suspension followed an altercation between Caillier and a Weston County assistant fire warden. Court records indicate that the warden pressed charges of battery. Caillier's record also shows that he was convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol last September, and recently served weekends in jail for violating the conditions of his parole. So then one must ask the question, why was he allowed to drive a fire apparatus? Was it the case that everybody knew that there was a problem, but nobody did anything about it? Is the Newcastle Fire Department the only fire department with this kind of problem? Heck no.