‘Haven’t we ALL responded to a call drunk before?’ Nope. But it’s a real problem.

Even if we haven't done so ourselves, we certainly know someone who has – and yet we ignore this blatantly obvious issue


“Haven't we all slipped up and responded to a call drunk?”

That question was reportedly posed by a chief following an incident in which a firefighter admitted to drinking before driving a fire department vehicle.

While the answer for me is “no,” the truth is that the issue really isn't all that unusual, unfortunately.

Rates of binge drinking in the fire service are much higher than the general population and higher than even other tactical occupations, such as the military.
Rates of binge drinking in the fire service are much higher than the general population and higher than even other tactical occupations, such as the military. (Photo/Getty)

Know the numbers

Mothers Against Drunk Driving provides some powerful stats related to the prevalence of drunk driving in the United States: 

  • Every 2 minutes, someone is injured in a drunk driving crash.
  • Every 51 minutes, someone is killed in a drunk driving crash.
  • 2 out of 3 people will be impacted by a drunk driving crash in their lifetime.
  • 1 in 4 drivers is driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

When we look at those numbers, and when we stop bullshitting ourselves, the reality is this: If we haven't personally responded or driven drunk, we certainly know someone in each of our departments who has – and perhaps that is the issue here: ignoring the blatantly obvious … for a variety of reasons:

  • You do it and are in no position to confront anyone else.
  • It’s not your business or concern.
  • You’re afraid of speaking to the person for fear of a ruined friendship or relationship.
  • You've tried speaking to them before and it's a waste of time.
  • You've spoken to department leadership previously with no changes.

I have been a firefighter since 1973 and have never belonged to a department where we didn't have at least one member with drug or alcohol issues. And while it is definitely a fire service issue, we are a reflection of society at the very least, so therefore what "they" (non-fire service people) deal with, we deal with – but even worse. Rates of binge drinking in the fire service are much higher than the general population and higher than even other tactical occupations, such as the military.

According to Shatterproof, an organization focused on reversing the crisis addiction in this country, over 20 million Americans struggle with addiction, but many don’t get the treatment they need. And in 2018, more than 175,000 deaths in the U.S. were related to alcohol and other drugs. That makes substance use the third-largest cause of death in the nation. Want more proof? According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 19.7 million American adults (aged 12 and older) battled a substance use disorder in 2017, and almost 74% of those adults struggled with an alcohol use disorder.

A personal realization

Let me share a personal story. A close friend has battled with related issues for years. One day he showed up at my house, drunk and obviously a mess, but in need of help. We immediately put him in our bed to “sleep it off” and then I drove him to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting a few hours later. I have never been to an AA meeting because it really is completely off my radar. I have never been a drinker and have never had any addiction issues, thankfully. Perhaps that is because I grew up all around it, I don't know, but to me, it wasn't anything I gave much thought about. Until that evening ….

When I drove my friend to the meeting at a nearby church, its parking lot was packed. Apparently, there were several meetings that day because the need was so great. I was blown away. I asked someone and they confirmed every car there was for meetings. It never even crossed my mind that the problem was so big. And it is big.

Firefighters and alcohol

Alcohol use and alcohol abuse (including binge-drinking) among firefighters has been documented in countless studies. Surveys by the Center for Fire Rescue and EMS Health Research revealed that:

  • 85% of career firefighters reported past-month drinking.
  • Career firefighters reported drinking 10 days a month, or about half of their off-duty days.

And that is just the career members who represent only one-third of North American firefighters, with volunteers and part-time being the balance.

To respond to the initial comment made by that chief who asked, “Haven’t we all responded to a call drunk before?” the fact is that even if we haven't, we certainly know someone who has.

So what do we do?

Initially, this issue must be addressed through policy – very clear policy (no BS vague language) that sets the expectations. If you don't want anyone near the firehouse who has been drinking, then make it very clear what the policy is and what the consequences will be if a member is discovered to have been drinking. I always suggest that your policy be reviewed (or created) by your department's attorney or a firm that develops policy based upon legal expertise.

You may be wondering what the policy might look like? IMO, it would be whatever your state law would define as being able to drive or not drive as a very minimum because you at least have to drive to the firehouse. Additionally, perhaps your policy should state that firefighters should have nothing to drink within 24 hours, again, if it meets the state law. Why 24 hours? because there should be NO QUESTION in anyone’s minds that every member is not under any influence at that point. How about marijuana? Have your department attorney develop your legally sound policy, as they are the most qualified – and they will be the ones having to defend you, the officers and the department when it ends up in court. Bottom line: No one should be, look or smell as if they are anything but completely alcohol and drug free. 

Once you adopt a policy, you must TRAIN your personnel on it. Simply posting the policy online or sending an email is not enough. A discussion in a classroom setting is the first step to get the discussion out there. Train your personnel and ensure everyone understands what is and is not acceptable. 

Then you must ENFORCE the policy – with everyone, on every incident.

One-on-one talks

As far as "one on one,” I am no expert in helping you help someone else, but the American Addiction Centers offers the following advice in the article “How to talk to an alcoholic: Reaching out, connecting and offering help”:

Writing down the main points you want to talk about can help you to formulate and remember your ideas during the conversation. Points you may want to consider when writing your conversation plan include:

  • Focus on your concern about your loved one’s drinking. Remember to use “I” statements that express your feelings and your concerns and the ways that you are impacted by your loved one’s alcohol use. You could say, “I am concerned about your alcohol use. I’ve noticed that I’m increasingly worried when you come home late at night, and I don’t know where you’ve been.”
  • Explain that you’re worried about your loved one’s health. We suggest that you genuinely express your feelings to your loved one by saying something like “I’m concerned that drinking so much every day is harming your health. I’ve noticed that you’re sleeping all day on the weekends.”
  • Avoid using labels like “alcoholic” or “addict.” Instead, focus on the person and their behavior instead of the label. People who are struggling with alcohol addiction can become upset or defensive when they’re referred to by these labels.
  • Be empathic and understanding. Use empathetic, not blaming, statements such as “I know that you’ve been having a hard time at work and you’ve been feeling more pressure” or “I know that you’re feeling more stressed than usual.”
  • Offer options instead of demands. Present options by saying something along the lines of “I was wondering if you would consider seeing a doctor to talk about your alcohol use” instead of “You need to get help.” Even though you think it’s obvious that your loved one should seek help, it’s always up to the person to decide what course of action is best for them. You can suggest they seek help, but you can’t force someone to do something they’re not ready to do.

Now, some “warnings” from a firefighter POV: In the few times that I have spoken to individual fire department brothers and sisters about this issue, I have spoken from the heart and focused on being there to help – not being there as a boss. HOWEVER, A CRITICAL WARNING: I cannot erase the fact that I am a boss and organizational policy must ALWAYS be the priority as far as what to do. 

Find an expert

A simple rule is to ask yourself: Am I qualified to help solve this problem? Think of yourself as a brand new (or old!) engine company officer and you pull up to a real nasty hazmat run. You ARE qualified to size it up, protect those around it, protect exposures, move people and immediately request the hazmat team – the EXPERTS. You are NOT qualified, certified or equipped to do much more, and you shouldn't. You want to help, so help the best you can by stabilizing the problem the best you can based upon your qualifications, certifications and expertise, and immediately bring in (or refer that person) to those who are qualified – highly qualified. 

So, when facing someone who needs help or someone you have identified as needing help, "first respond" to help, but make sure that you use extreme caution about providing your own personal advice vs. stabilizing the issue and then getting an EXPERT to help. That's the best way to help your brother or sister with this very difficult, complex and life-altering situation. 

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