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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"This means that when your chief authorizes you to operate the apparatus, he is also responsible for your actions," Rock said. "He can technically receive the same penalty as the driver."

A closer look at the laws lend further credence to this type of training:

  • The blood alcohol content DUI limit for a Class C license is .10% but it is .04% under CDL regulations.
  • Under the CDL law any alcohol reading at all can result in a $100 fine and 24-hour license suspension.
  • Any CDL driver or individual with a chief's certificate technically gives consent to a blood alcohol test while operating an emergency vehicle.

The course which the selected drivers followed was basically the same one used in standard EVOC training, consisting of straight-line, serpentine, threshold-braking and evasive maneuvering. Scoring was in the form of penalty seconds; for instance, 10 seconds for any cone hit, three seconds for out of line, etc. Drivers were advised that they had no time to beat as there was no precedent and they were establishing the course.

The driving course activity was rigidly controlled. A little-used runway at Westmoreland County Airport provided ample space, name tags controlled access to the area and designated drivers returned apparatus to quarters. Participating drivers were not be permitted to leave the site until their BAC fell to .05% and were required to sign agreements that they would not drive any vehicle for 12 hours after the course. Veteran EVOC instructors accompanied the drivers on all runs.

Test Day

The Saturday morning chosen for the pilot program dawned wet and cold. Drivers assembled for instructions, which were simple:

  • Each driver drove the course alcohol free. Beer was then consumed at a regular rate, "not chugged or nursed."
  • Information such as weight, age and food consumed was entered into computers by Bonney. BAC was continuously monitored on a standard calibrated Breathalyser.

The first beer of the day was consumed at 8:45 A.M. and Bonney gave the pronouncement,"We are not as interested in getting to the .10 level as we are in letting you see and feel the effects of a few beers".

Photo by David Baker/Greensburg Fire Department
Police Officer John Rock, a former volunteer fire chief, briefs participants during the wrap-up portion of the exercise.

Rick (only the first names of the participants will be used) consumed his second beer and climbed into the engine with Tenerowicz - straight ahead 200 feet OK, backed up 12 inches from the barrier and completed the serpentine. One cone knocked down. Rick's BAC at this point was .044%, just over the CDL limit.

"There is definitely a difference," said Rick, who weighs 180 pounds. "Whatever they tell me my alcohol level is now, I should not be driving a fire engine. A lot of people have done it, probably because they don't think about it."

"I am lightheaded after three beers," said Ray, who knocked down a cone on backing up his second time through the course. "I drove faster and I had more confidence...originally, I was intimidated, I thought the other drivers might do better. Now, after three beers, I can drive as good as any of them."

Bonney pointed out that Ray is a slim 155 pounds, and his minimal breakfast increased his alcohol absorption. Sue Soroko of CSAS observed, "The first things that go are inhibition and judgment." Ray's BAC after three beers is .084%, above the CDL limit but below DUI for a regular license.

Dave, after three beers and a BAC .048%, started out well but then ran over the backup cones, dragging one the rest of the way. Tenerowicz noted, "I tried something we do at regular EVOC - halfway through the backup, I asked him a question. He broke right and started hitting cones and he never regained control." Rock called this "divided attention," which is very difficult to handle even cold sober.

After six beers, Rick's BAC reached .104%. He was legally intoxicated for all license classes, although it did not show on his last course run. Gregoritch said, "We have professional drivers here who drive better than average in general and are well aware that they will be affected by alcohol. At this level, the real problem is when something unusual happens".