Alcohol allowed in Wisconsin fire station


Copyright 2006, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

By JACQUELINE SEIBEL
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

PALMYRA, Wis. — With only a two-vote difference, voters in this small community let the firefighters have their beer.

But newly re-elected Village Trustee Al Tietz said Wednesday that firefighters shouldn't order a round at the fire station just yet.

"There are no other fire departments around here that have it," he said. "It's a real concern, and it's not right. We know what the consequences are."

In a non-binding referendum during Tuesday's election, voters said it was OK for firefighters to store and consume alcohol at the fire station.

The vote was 233 to 231.

Fire Chief Don Rutkowski did not return a phone call seeking comment Wednesday, but he defended the practice in a letter mailed to residents of the Jefferson County community last week.

Department bylaws prohibit any firefighters from responding to a call if they have been drinking, and no tax dollars are used to pay for alcohol, he wrote.

"It is our opinion that the good we do far outweighs the fear of a potential insurance claim," Rutkowski wrote.

In asking people to vote in the affirmative on the referendum, he wrote, "Your respect and trust are not something we demand or take lightly. It is something your volunteers have earned."

Village President Emil Johnson, who could put the item on a future agenda, did not return a call Wednesday.

Tietz said that while there are trustees who don't want alcohol in the fire station, there were not enough votes in the past to make a change. That may have changed Tuesday with the election of newcomer Donald Beaver, Tietz said.

The Fire Department still will be able to get temporary liquor licenses for fund-raisers and other special events it holds, Tietz said. But firefighters can walk across the street to a bar if they want to drink, he said.

"People are really upset about this," Tietz said, preparing for a fight in the village of nearly 1,800.

Tim McGrath, a former Brookfield fire chief who now is a consultant to fire departments in the Midwest, said the history of allowing alcohol in the fire departments is long, often revolving around the social nature of many volunteer fire departments.

That social aspect is critical in a volunteer department, McGrath said, but the alcohol tradition is out of step.

Liability is the first concern, and the lack of professionalism shown to the community allowing alcohol is another, he said.

"I'm confused as to how you defend it," McGrath said.

Firefighters or fire chiefs organizations throughout the country have stated that they don't support alcohol in fire stations, McGrath said.

The International Association of Fire Chiefs wrote a zero-tolerance policy statement in August 2003. The statement also applies to volunteer departments.

In another referendum Tuesday, voters agreed to maintain the village's full-time Police Department, 277 to 187.

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