Fire Chiefs Re-Think Job's Ties to Alcohol

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- When about 4,000 firefighters and guests gathered last month at the annual volunteer firemen's convention, they knew what to expect: camping, a parade, and more than a little beer and alcohol.

But what started out as a long weekend of fun ended in tragedy when a fire chief died after a drunken bar fight. Another firefighter is being investigated in a fatal car crash because police said he, too, was drunk.

While fire chiefs across the country have been re-thinking the relationship between alcohol and firefighters, organizers of the multi-county convention insist there's no direct connection between the event and the deaths _ so they don't see a need to run the event any differently next year.

''Some things are out of your control,'' said Paul Sklodowski, president of a volunteer fire company in Cambria County, which is slated to host the next convention. He doubts any changes will be made next year, saying the event already has strict rules.

This year's incidents ''could have happened to anybody at any bar,'' he said.

But the head of the International Association of Fire Chiefs said events featuring public drinking have no place in the fire service.

''These are firefighters and they have a responsibility to uphold the public trust, and you don't do that by going out and getting drunk in public,'' said Garry Briese, executive director of the association, a Fairfax, Va.-based group includes more than 12,000 North American fire chiefs.

''Communities will not tolerate that kind of behavior from college students, why would they tolerate it from the fire service?'' Briese said.

Ray Stringer, 43, chief of a volunteer fire company in Tyrone was killed Aug. 19 in a bar fight while in town for the convention. Later that day, John Smoter, 29, of the East Taylor Township Fire Department, was involved in a head-on accident that killed an 83-year-old man.

Both incidents happened shortly after the men left the convention.

The district convention attracts firefighters from about 220 fire companies in 22 Pennsylvania counties.

More than 1,000 firefighter delegates and as many as 3,000 other firefighters and guests attended the August festivities in the small town of Nanty Glo, about 60 miles east of Pittsburgh.

The hallmark of such conventions is a tent where alcohol is served, and a campground where firefighters are free to drink their own booze.

Local authorities schedule extra police and resign themselves to the fact that the drinking will be heavy.

''That's part of the culture of these conventions,'' said Cambria County District Attorney David Tulowitzki, whose office is investigating the two Aug. 19 deaths.

Authorities are still looking into the crash, but said Smoter will be charged if mechanical failures are ruled out, since his blood-alcohol content was double the 0.08 percent limit for drivers.

Stringer's blood-alcohol content was even higher, 0.2 percent, when he got into a fight with George T. Lightcap IV, 29. Lightcap has been charged with criminal homicide, and claims Stringer started the fight at the Nanty Glo VFW Post.

The issue of drinking among firefighters also emerged in New York City in 2003, when a firefighter was charged with bashing a colleague in the face with a metal chair. A lawsuit by the injured firefighter claimed alcohol flowed freely in the firehouse and others didn't call for help because they were trying to cover up the drinking. The incident led to a crackdown on drinking in the city's firehouses.

The international association of chiefs last year developed a zero-tolerance policy toward alcohol, which they suggest departments adopt. It requires firefighters to remain sober for eight hours before they answer a call, but the practical effect for volunteers, who generally work full-time jobs and must also sleep, is to ban drinking on any day one might answer a call, Briese said.

The policy was put forth after Anndee Huber, a 16-year-old student firefighter in Newcastle, Wyo., was killed when the fire truck she was riding in crashed in 2003. The firefighter driving the truck had been drinking in a bar before the call.

''We do so much good, and to have it destroyed by people who don't understand what their alcohol tolerance is, is a shame,'' Briese said.

Cub Scouts, local firefighters and others in Nanty Glo cleaned up the campgrounds after the convention, including a ballfield dugout soiled by urine and vomit.

''So you've got the Cub Scouts cleaning it up,'' Briese said. ''What kind of message does that send to say, 'Oh, the firemen were here last night.'''

Copyright 2005 Associated Press