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The "Big One" - defined in fire service terms as that response that will surpass all others in a lifetime. We in the fire service often talk about the "Big One" in terms of fires or other emergencies, yet it is seldom mentioned as it relates to emergency vehicle operations.
In Newcastle, WY, the fire department has just had the "Big One." Anndee Huber, a 16-year-old Explorer firefighter, was killed on the night of May 20, 2003, while riding on a Newcastle Volunteer Fire Department tanker driven by 46-year-old Ron J. Caillier. The tanker was one of five apparatus responding to a report of railroad ties burning as a result of a previous grass fire.
According to law enforcement sources and news reports, about six miles outside of Newcastle the tanker drifted off the roadway. When Caillier overcorrected, the apparatus went into a skid and overturned 11/2 times, a Wyoming Highway Patrol report stated. Huber, who like Caillier was not wearing a seatbelt, was ejected from the cab and trapped underneath, police said. She was extricated and transported to Weston County Hospital, where she was pronounced dead on arrival. Caillier, who suffered minor injuries in the crash, was initially detained on suspicion of driving under the influence (DUI). Those charges were expanded to include violations of Wyoming Statutes 31-5-233, driving a vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor, and 6-2-106, aggravated homicide by vehicle.
Chief Clarence Baker, who heads the 40-member department, said there was no drinking at the fire station that Thursday night, news reports indicated. "We have had various functions where we've had alcohol here, but we haven't seen that as a factor in this incident," he said.
Baker said the department has policies against attending any function while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. "If I've had a beer, I just don't come," the chief said. "Ninety-nine percent of the members also feel that way. To come in while intoxicated - that's the height of stupidity."
Caillier did not attend the Thursday "work night," and did not arrive at the fire station until the page for the railroad tie fire. The chief said the department members are uncertain where he came from, but some people reported seeing him at a local establishment that serves alcohol. As far as consuming any alcohol at the fire station, that did not happen, the chief said. Baker said he later learned that Caillier was fined and jailed in connection with a 2002 drunken driving charge, and that he had recently violated probation and was spending weekends in jail. According to both city and county policies, no one with a DUI conviction is permitted to drive a government vehicle.
Caillier was tested 21/2 hours after the May 20 accident with a portable Breathalyzer, and according to the investigating trooper's report, had an alcohol level of 0.086%. State law defines legal intoxication at 0.08%. According to Newcastle Volunteer Fire Department records obtained and reported by the Newcastle News Letter Journal, Caillier was suspended from duty in September 2001 for six months for violating section two of the department's policy, which states in part, "No member shall appear … on duty in a state of intoxication."
Some in the fire service say that alcohol in fire stations or on fire apparatus is part of the past and doesn't happen much anymore. If you believe this and you are in a fire service leadership position, you need to get your head out of the sand. You need to read fire service publications and websites, because the opposite is true, as it will become apparent as you read on.
- Dateline Connecticut: "Beer Has Connecticut Firefighters In Hot Water." Pictures on a fire department website showing firefighters with beers in hand were removed from the website after a civilian complained. The civilian was quoted as saying the pictures looked "more like a fraternity house than a firehouse."
- Dateline Florida: "Firefighter Must Face Marijuana Charges." This firefighter was charged with growing marijuana plants in his apartment.
- In the "you can't make this stuff up" category … Dateline Indiana: "Local Fire Department's Chief Arrested, DUI Charge Could Be Least of Worries." It seems a fire chief was responding to a brushfire when the fire truck he allegedly was driving crashed into a ditch. When the chief reappeared at the crash scene in another fire department vehicle, authorities became suspicious and administered a field sobriety test, which the chief allegedly failed.
It is apparent that the tragedy in Newcastle is not an isolated incident. Next time, I will address the issues contained in this column and have some answers as to how we could deal successfully with these issues. I will recommend some policies that could help your organization deal with these very complex issues. Alcohol and drugs have no place in the life of on-duty emergency response personnel. If you and your department feel differently, you could have the "Big One."
We send our sincerest sympathies to the family of Anndee Huber and the members of the Newcastle Fire Department. I thank the staff of Firehouse.com for providing information for this column.
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 for the past five years on the FDNY Apparatus Purchasing Committee. He has consulted on a variety of apparatus related issues throughout the country. For further information access his new website at www.emergencyvehicleresponse.com.