Ignoring Potential Personnel "Flashover" Situations

Dec. 1, 2007

By now, you have probably read the media reports in which some undisclosed sources contend that autopsy results showed that of the two Boston firefighters who died in the line of duty while operating at a restaurant fire in August, one had traces of cocaine in his system and the other had a high blood-alcohol content.

Firefighters Warren Payne, 53, of Newton, MA, and Paul Cahill, 55, of Scituate, MA, were both tragically killed at that fire. News outlets reported (from leaked documents) that one firefighter was legally drunk and the other had illegal drugs in his system. Meanwhile, the victims' families are grieving over the loss of their loved ones — with a new twist to further add to their lifelong grief. Five children lost their fathers. "I hope this isn't true. My husband really died a hero," Cahill's wife, Anne, was quoted in a Boston newspaper.

The two men clearly lived heroic lives and were heroic firefighters. One of the most well-known and written-about chiefs of the FDNY was Chief Edward F. Croker, who served in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He left us with many great quotes, but one I have always liked says, "When a man becomes a fireman, his greatest act of bravery has been accomplished. What he does after that is all in the line of work."

The point is that Firefighters Payne and Cahill were brave and absolutely led heroic lives as firefighters. Their history and years of heroic, brave and dedicated service prove it and speak for themselves. But, if what the news reports said about alcohol and drugs proves to be true, they have caused irreparable and lifelong pain and suffering to those they love the most — their family members. How? There are significant possibilities that local, state and federal death benefits to the families may be challenged (see related article on page 28). Therefore, it is possible that not only have the families of these fallen firefighters suffered horrific losses, but they may also end up without the fiscal death benefits they would otherwise be entitled to because of the actions of their lost loved ones. What a nightmare.

You also may have read about the City Council in New Ulm, MN, which chose to maintain the tradition of allowing beer in the firehouse. New Ulm City Council President Daniel Beranek was quoted as saying firefighters who put themselves at risk are responsible enough to know when they've had too much to drink. The City Council chose to ignore Assistant City Attorney Roger Hippert, who said letting firefighters drink on the job raises concerns about liability: "I think there are some legitimate causes for concern like (operating firefighting equipment) while impaired and who is going to determine when a firefighter is impaired." Ya think?

In most cases of drinking-involved situations with tragic outcomes, the offenders did not know when they had too much to drink. Attempting to use logic and self-discipline when drinking doesn't always work. For more on that, speak to any member of MADD — Mothers Against Drunk Driving. In a subsequent article, Beranek, after reading articles and letters criticizing the council's decision, was quoted as saying, "There has been no reaction worthwhile. I mean, people from Massachusetts and Wisconsin, I'm not going to listen to them tell me what we're supposed to do here in New Ulm."

We have to think that New Ulm firefighters aren't much different from any of us in doing the job and we hope they will do what their City Council president suggests — self police so that a problem doesn't come up. But it would probably be much easier if the stuff wasn't in the firehouse to start with. And if something does go wrong, look how they have positioned themselves out as targets and potentially hurt their families, not to mention each other and the public. It isn't worth it.

Have you ever worked with a firefighter who was not "clean"? It's a real treat! I would guess that each of us, at one time or another, has known a firefighter who had no business being on duty. And I would also guess that in nearly every case the issue was ignored — perhaps more often "back in the day" and a bit less these days. Ignoring the impaired condition of another firefighter is and has been a chosen option. For most of us, it's not easy taking on issues like drinking on duty. In some places, if you do it, your career is shot, like it or not. "The Brotherhood." So for that and other reasons, many firefighters and fire officers choose to ignore it. They let someone else worry about it; another tour/shift, another officer or chief, another firefighter or whoever. Unfortunately, the "system" (official and unofficial) at many fire departments can make it easier to ignore the problem than to deal with it. That's the problem.

As you know, inappropriate drinking and illegal drug abuse is a societal problem — and the fire department, any fire department, is a part of society. So it shouldn't be a shock that a firefighter may be drunk or high on duty or responding to calls. To me, the bigger shock is the in-depth cultural behaviors and attitudes that can allow it, hide it and sometimes even support it. After all, "He's a great firefighter and what a great guy"; "He has issues, what are you going to do, rat the guy out?"; and "She is always like that and she functions better that way." A fire department that provides open doors to help those with a problem is probably a better place than those that don't, but most already do that. Having access to help is not generally the problem — it's getting the "problem" to get the help and the actions required to make that happen.

The problem is at the first-line supervisor level, where fire departments succeed or fail. This is not an easy issue by any stretch of the imagination. It is sometimes much easier to make decisions on the fireground than it is to make tough decisions related to those you work with. And in many, many cases, these are people who you have gone through a lot with — good times and bad. "What are you going to do, turn the guy in?"

The solution is supervisory training and more related training for fire officers so they find a way to help the "brother" or "sister" who has a drinking or drug problem. And those may absolutely be the toughest decisions any fire officer has to make due to the way "we" act, either as the victim or as the one who doesn't want to see a "good" firefighter get "ratted out." Perhaps you've heard "Let him sleep it off"; "She's going through some tough times"; or even "Who are you to talk? I've smelled you when you have arrived at the firehouse — and now you want him to get help?"

Not easy stuff, but stuff that must be dealt with and confronted by officers working with other officers and firefighters. It takes courage and bravery. Those are two words we are familiar with, but the courage and bravery used at runs and the courage and bravery used in "attacking" a serious personal issue or disease are from two different worlds. We can deal with courage and bravery on the fireground; after all, that involves saving lives. Courage and bravery in dealing with a member who has a drug and/or alcohol problem is a lot tougher in some respects. There are some in our business who don't see that as heroic, but we are still attempting to save lives — the victims just don't know it and often don't want rescuing because they don't know they need help. A child trapped in a bedroom filled with smoke and fire clearly wants out. The firefighter who has a drinking or drug problem thinks the "room" he or she is in is just fine and may not always want out. And if you enter that "room," their room, the response could be and has been "Who do you think you are, entering my room to rescue me?" Tough stuff.

Good fire officers and appropriate drug testing that recognizes everyone's rights are often the only way this problem can be addressed. Everyone's rights means those of the victim, the firefighters who have to work with the victim, all the families and the public. For a variety of reasons, the firefighter with the problem cannot be counted on to take responsibility for getting help on his or her own before a crisis occurs. Good fire officers working with other good fire officers, firefighters, union or association officials, and counseling professionals to save a career and a life is a system that must be in place. But even before that can happen, we need a process that helps determine who can and should be a boss — and who shouldn't. Some fire departments have that in place, some don't.

A white hat and a gold badge can be put on anyone with a pulse. Leading the "brothers" and "sisters" at — and into — a fire takes good fire officers; that means officers with years and years of experience and training so that we have a good shot at succeeding, whatever the emergency. With being a good officer also comes the ability, training and qualifications to take on the internal cultures that can hide and cover up these difficult dependency and personnel issues. It is far from easy.

We would never ignore the signs of flashover or a structural collapse. We would take immediate action to protect our firefighters. But yet when it comes to alcohol and drugs in the firehouse, we often intentionally take no action and hope that it will take care of itself, or that "someone else" will take immediate action. And sometimes it flashes over, impacting numerous victims.

Many in our business were angry when the coroner's report was leaked to the media regarding the conditions of the two Boston firefighters. Firefighters should have been more than angry. It is disgusting that the information was used the way it was without it first being officially released. The families — who had only started the grief process — had to deal with the way it was handled and what was published by the Boston media. Family members learning about the coroner's report from the media? Horrible, unfair and inappropriate. But it did happen and the information got out. Some in our business were angry at the fire service media for relaying what the Boston media had published, but since it was fire-related news and it was out, the fire media reported it.

Let's look past that while praying for the Payne and Cahill families. The real issue at this point is what can be done to prevent this from happening again in any fire department. I am not talking about the decision to leak a coroner's report; it happened and now firefighters have no control over it. What I am talking about is what was leaked in the coroner's report and what alcohol and the drugs can do to firefighters — individually, to a group or company, to our families and to us personally. Much can be done to prevent it from happening again. We just have to want it by being interested in training, watching for and avoiding a personnel "flashover." "Brotherhood"? Sometimes, I think that's just another word.

WILLIAM GOLDFEDER, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 32-year veteran of the fire service. He is a deputy chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief officer since 1982, has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, and is a past commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is an active writer, speaker and instructor on fire service operational issues. Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and noncommercial firefighter safety and survival website www.FirefighterCloseCalls.com. Goldfeder may be contacted at [email protected].

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