Alcohol & Fire Trucks Don't Mix

What fire officer would let emergency apparatus drivers drink a "few beers" and get behind the wheel of a 26,000-pound fire engine? Members of the Bovard, Crabtree, Greensburg, Latrobe, Lloydsville and Youngstown fire departments in western Pennsylvania...


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What fire officer would let emergency apparatus drivers drink a "few beers" and get behind the wheel of a 26,000-pound fire engine? Members of the Bovard, Crabtree, Greensburg, Latrobe, Lloydsville and Youngstown fire departments in western Pennsylvania did just that - with eye-opening results.

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Photo by David Baker/Greensburg Fire Department
A firefighter participating in the pilot program blows into the pipe for Police Officer Dale Bonney after consuming seven beers.

Obviously, this madness had a purpose, which was to serve as a pilot for a unique course developed by Police Officers Dale Bonney, Dale Gregoritch and John Rock and Firefighters Joseph Mangini and Pete Tenerowicz. For years, this group has been teaching the Pennsylvania Fire School Emergency Vehicle Operations Course (EVOC). Rock, a former volunteer fire chief, also has conducted a driving-under-the-influence (DUI) recognition course for the Pennsylvania State Police. How did the two programs merge?

The new course in Advanced EVOC Alcohol Safety was the brainchild of Rock.

"I always take a good look at fire equipment accidents based on my fire and police background," he said. "One incident really put me over the top and resulted in the development of the course. It involved apparatus rollover with driver death and passenger ejection. The deceased driver was found to have a blood alcohol level in excess of .10%, legally drunk by most state standards."

This and other incidents convinced Rock that there is a need for awareness on the part of emergency vehicle operators about the dangers of operating apparatus while under the influence of alcohol. He is careful to point out that there is no intent to degrade firefighters or the fire service.

"What we need to think about is our own fire companies, the fireman's clubs and firemen who respond from home, maybe after a party," Rock said. "Think about how long it took the dead driver to exceed .10% BAC (blood alcohol content). Emergency drivers should know this and be able to describe in their own words how alcohol affects them."

Sponsors Enlisted

Rock approached the Comprehensive Substance Abuse Services of Southwestern Pennsylvania (CSAS), a progressive alcohol intervention and treatment service, and Pennsylvania Fire Commissioner Dave Smith. Both organizations agreed to sponsor the pilot program. It is not difficult to persuade fire departments to participate in the course, particularly when chiefs and officers learn that charges can be filed against them if an apparatus driver is involved in a DUI incident, even if minor in nature. "When you drive fire apparatus and own a $50,000 home and are involved in a DUI incident, they can take your home and maybe even our fire apparatus," said Chief J. Edward Hutchinson of the Greensburg Volunteer Fire Department.

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Photo by David Baker/Greensburg Fire Department
Tight turns severely test an apparatus operator after he has consumed three beers and registered a blood alcohol content of .057%.

The pilot program was designed to let emergency vehicle drivers describe in their own words the dangers of operating apparatus while under the influence of alcohol. It helped them to understand their responsibilities and limitations, as well as the criminal and civil liabilities of driving an emergency vehicle. And they knew what "drunk" looks like and feels like after the class.

Rock and his team established a number of requirements for participation in the pilot program, including good health, no history of drug or alcohol abuse, and completion of the Pennsylvania Fire Academy's 16-hour Emergency Vehicle Driver Training Extended Course. Participants must also attend the four-hour classroom and eight-hour driving sessions. Drivers had to be approved by their fire chiefs to participate.

Two of the four classroom hours were spent identifying Pennsylvania laws pertaining to emergency vehicles, commercial vehicles and driving under the influence. Some participants were surprised to learn that vehicles over 26,000 pounds require a commercial driver's license (CDL) unless a certificate of authorization is signed by the chief of the department.

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