Wide Variation On Alcohol Policy In Iowa Fire Departments

WATERLOO --- Beer in fire department coolers isn't uncommon, but neither are rules against alcohol on city property.

A sample of Northeast Iowa fire departments shows many firefighters do have access to alcoholic beverages after fire runs or during special events.

"It is a local issue that has to be dealt with locally," said Jim Saunders, spokesman for the Iowa Department of Public Safety, which includes the Iowa Fire Marshal's Office.

"This is not something that is regulated by the state," he said.

The issue raised a fiery debate this week in Hampton when the City Council considered banning alcohol on all city property except parks. The resolution is needed for liability purposes, City Attorney Mike Cross.

On Monday, Hampton Fire Chief Jeff Ferris resigned, saying drinking has never been an issue. On Tuesday, volunteer firefighters threatened to quit if council members approved the resolution. The council tabled the action.

Charles City

Charles City Assistant Fire Chief Dave Boehmer remembers when former Mayor Bob Monroe issued a proclamation forbidding the use of alcohol.

Jerry Joerger, one of the few city officials who remembers when the ban went into effect, recalls only that a minor incident precipitated the prohibition.

Boehmer said the ban on alcohol "destroyed our fellowship." Prior to that, firefighters would retire to an upstairs room after monthly meetings to play cards and chat. Some of drank beer, a few opted for pop. But nearly everyone stayed, Boehmer said.

"It really drew the fire department together."

The Charles City Fire Department has eight full-time paid firefighters and more than 30 volunteers.

Boehmer, a paid firefighter since 1988 and a volunteer for several years before that, said the gatherings never got out of hand. Most people drank very little.

Grundy Center

Fire department officials removed alcohol from the fire station at least eight years ago, and firefighter Jerry Hoffman said alcohol is not allowed in city buildings. Grundy Center was reportedly the first station in the county to empty its coolers.

"It's just good policy not to have it there," Hoffman said. "I realize that it may not hurt anything, but it just doesn't look good."

Firefighters are not to respond or go on calls if they have had more than two drinks. If a firefighter showed up anyway, they would be asked to go home.

"I don't have anything against having a beer or a drink, but there are other places to do that," Hoffman said.

Independence

Until about a year and a half ago, beer in the fridge wouldn't have been an uncommon sight at the Independence Fire Station, Capt. Kevin Peterson said.

But times have changed. Alcohol is perceived more negatively today, he said, and firefighters are now expectated to be more professional.

"We just decided it was time to get rid of it," Peterson said.

Jesup

Nearby, Jesup follows similar guidelines. City Clerk Amber Youngblut said she doesn't believe a formal ordinance has been adopted, but alcohol is not allowed in city buildings.

Osage

There is alcohol at the station, said Fire Chief Kurt Angell, "but it is controlled --- locked in a refrigerated machine."

No drinking is allowed at department business meetings or training sessions.

"But there are times --- after everyone is back at the station and all the equipment is back in service --- some may have a beer," he said. "Usually while we are sitting around talking about what happened on the fire or emergency call."

Department policy holds any firefighter reporting to the station under the influence subject to disciplinary action, including suspension.

"That's why we have 30 firefighters, so if some are drinking we have others who can go out on the fire and emergency calls," Angell said.

Nora Springs

Firefighters in Nora Springs don't have a problem with restrictions on alcohol in city buildings.

Their fire station is a private building, owned by the Nora Springs Farm-Fire Association, Fire Chief Bob Willsher said. The association was organized 50 years ago to protect the town and rural area and operates independently of the city.

Willsher isn't impressed with the flap in Hampton.

"I think it's a lot of crap," he said. "It's kind of nice when we get back from a fire or after a meeting to have a drink. In fact, most of my firefighters now drink pop."

Each year, the association gets a temporary liquor license to allow the sale of beer at the annual Fireman's Ball, held in the fire barn.

"It's never been a problem," he said. "Never. People don't come to fires if they've been drinking. In fact, we have a policy that you don't come to a fire if you've been drinking."

Dike

No alcohol

Parkersburg

Has alcohol

The confrontation in Hampton attracted attention.

"Every fireman in the state was talking about it Wednesday morning," said Scott Hagenson of Lake Mills, second vice president of the Iowa Firemen's Association.

And it tars everyone involved.

"The bad part about it is that it makes everyone look bad --- the City Council, the firefighters, everybody," he said.

"It's too bad this has come up. The fire department is the oldest organization in any city," he added.

One fact overlooked in the controversy, Hagenson said, is that alcohol is a legal substance.

"There's a lot of talk about liability. Well, with anything you do in life you're opening yourself to liability in this lawsuit-happy world."

Many insurance carriers for fire departments declined comment about liability.

Peter Holt of Humboldt, state program manager for Iowa for Iowa Fire Pak Insurance, said his company covers 350 fire stations and emergency management services in the state.

"We have no problem with firemen having some beer in their refrigerator. It's merely a refreshing drink for them to have when they've done hard work," Holt said.

"Our stance is that most firemen are so dedicated to their job and so well-trained that most times they don't report when they're in an impaired condition," he said.

The company also "routinely" writes dram shop liability for fire departments to enable them to sell beer or liquor to the public as a fund-raiser at the fire station or on city property, Holt said.

"These people are so responsible that we don't feel that a beer or two is going to be abused by these people," Holt said. "Safety is one of their trump suits. Fire departments themselves have codes of conduct for their volunteers."

EMC Insurance Companies is the insurance carrier for the city of Hampton. Charles City and Osage also are insured by EMC, officials said Thursday.

Hampton City Attorney Mike Cross on Tuesday said EMC representatives told council members the presence of alcohol in public buildings or property could affect its continued coverage of the city, "and that likely they would drop us if they became aware that there was alcohol available in public buildings."

EMC officials were not available for comment Thursday.

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