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 did just that - with eye-opening results.

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.

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.

"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".

Tenerowicz added, "He had to tell himself out loud where to go and what to do on the whole course." Rick loudly observed, "I am now at .10, DUI for any class license, and I am not yet to the point where I have been in the past in my personal car. I never knew or suspected. It is very scary." Rock then noted, "Rick is now out of the program for the day. He has to be told where to go on the course and what to do. He is finished for the day at six beers."

As the program continued, Rock noted that all of the participants were driving more slowly; the penalties were about the same but the drivers were being more cautious. He believes that's because they were aware of their condition and were trying to be cautious.

Stan downed three beers, which put his BAC at .057%, and he was ready for his second turn. "I know I should not be driving. I can feel it, I feel lightheaded and relaxed," he said.

Tenerowicz noted, "He was quiet and subdued the first time but...the whole way through he was yelling and screaming...telling himself how to go through the course. He says he can still handle the vehicle." Rock added, "His time on the first run was 135 seconds, second run 150 seconds with penalties. His driving time increased along with the penalties."

The blood alcohol record shows the drivers physical characteristics, time, number of drinks they had and their % BAC. (Note: All 10 drivers exceeded the legal intoxication limit of .04% within one hour and each consumed only three beers.) The average alcohol dissipation rate was .021% per hour.

Lou, after six beers and with a BAC of .0999%, stated,"I don't feel drunk, I feel extreme tingling. Instructor Joe Mangini is asking me questions about stuff and it took my concentration. I told him to shut up...I should not be driving a fire engine. The interruption of the concentration is the worst thing."

Ray, with a BAC of .14% after six beers, wobbled toward his engine. His backup was performed well but he knocked down a cone on alley docking. He was driving too fast and dragging a cone. "I knew I was drunk going into this run but I had to go anyway," he said. "I had no sense where the cones were unless Joe Mangini told me where to go. If I had been by myself, I would have never made it. I was scared. I am glad that I am done."

After six beers and with a BAC of .091%, Doug was driving noticeably slower but showed no outward signs of drunkenness. Doug said he feels "OK - yep, I can drive." Tenerowicz said, "He can go some more, he is OK to drive." Doug weighs 245 pounds and had eaten two cookies for breakfast.

Stan crawled back into the pumper with a BAC of .104% after six beers. He stopped six feet short on the dock trial but on the whole didn't perform badly. After completing the course, he started to laugh and said, "There is no way I should be doing this. There is no way a fireman doesn't know when he is drunk." Rock noted, "He didn't know what gear the truck was in or where to go. Pete had to tell him everything."

Rudy, the heaviest of the participants at 240 pounds and who ate pizza for breakfast, had a BAC of .073% after seven beers. He appeared competent but became confused at the end of the course, trashing many of the cones.

Lou had a BAC of .142% after eight beers and sped down the course on his final run. He had two cones under the engine but performed the dock stop well. Tenerowicz noted, "He wants to go wild and crazy. He thinks he can do anything in this engine."

Brian, with a BAC of .126% after six beers, took out four cones in the backup, otherwise he did well. Mangini said Brian drove fine but fumbled a bit. Brian said he's "definitely drunk, no doubt about it," and felt he was incapable of driving.

Mike had a BAC of .92% after six beers. He was not quite intoxicated but he said, "I am a little shaky and I take more time to do the course and I must be a little more careful." He was allowed to continue.

Doug consumed nine beers and his BAC was .122%. When he drove the course, he didn't knock any cones down but Mangini attributed that to Doug being very cautious. Doug said, "It doesn't matter, I know I am drunk. Just because I get through the course it doesn't matter because one mistake and you kill someone!"

Bonney said, "The real danger is if something happens and they couldn't be able to stop…Mike could drink seven beers and drive his car, according to the law.

Wrap-Up Observations

The conclusion reached by the participants and instructors was that the course was of value to all firefighters. They all say they learned that they should never drink and drive emergency apparatus or their personal vehicles. Some say that even though they could maneuver the course, that was not always an indicator of whether they should have done it.

Statistical assistance was provided by Kathy Baker; technical assistance by David Baker.

William Anderson is assistant chief of the Greensburg, PA, Volunteer Fire Department. He is an instructor in fire science at the Community College of Allegheny County and Westmoreland County Community College. Anderson is employed as a technical services representative/loss prevention for Millers Mutual Insurance Co. in Harrisburg.