The adult conversation about firefighter drinking

Alcohol and other substance abuse is a serious issue that requires root-cause investigation and correction to have any meaningful impact

Earlier this month the Austin, Texas fire union boss threw down a challenge to the city's fire chief: join him in a commitment to not touch one drop of alcohol for one year.

It was said to be a symbolic gesture to draw attention to excessive drinking among firefighters.

I applaud Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr for refusing the challenge. If there were departmental politics at play here, that's Austin's concern.

The larger concern is that symbolic gestures are often nothing more than … well, symbolic. I can't imagine that firefighters with serious or borderline drinking problems would be swayed away from the sauce one iota because the chief and union head are abstaining.

You don't have to look far to find stories of firefighters getting themselves into trouble with booze. The same holds true for cops, medics and combat veterans. We all know that these are high-stress jobs and alcohol is an easy, albeit misguided, go-to for stress relief.

The real, adult discussion we need to have about firefighter drinking should center on the root cause and eliminating the problems that can lead to drinking, drug use or other risky behaviors.

Municipal and fire department leaders are responsible for the safety and well-being of their firefighters. This doesn't give firefighters a free pass from bad decisions.

But we as an industry have our heads in the sand if we believe strong disciplinary policies alone will deter firefighter substance abuse. Drinking to the point of criminal activity is more than likely the symptom of a larger disease rather than the disease itself.

Ask yourself, just how far down the path from healthy mental well-being to suicide is chronic drinking? If fire service leaders are serious about protecting their firefighters from harm, then substance abuse needs to be looked at in this manner.

Catching and correcting mental health issues early will go much further to reducing the incidents of substance abuse in the fire service than will heavy-handed policies or empty, symbolic gestures. 

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