Fire chief: Decision to respond when drinking up to firefighters

Chief Don Johnson said there was no indication that firefighter Steve Ackerman was too intoxicated to do his job

VALLEY SPRINGS, S.D. — A volunteer fire department reportedly leaves it up to firefighters on whether or not to respond to a call after they have consumed alcohol.

The Argus Leader reported that an autopsy released last week revealed firefighter Steve Ackerman, a Valley Springs firefighter who died in an April 12 house fire, had a blood-alcohol level more than twice the legal limit to drive.

Fire Chief Don Johnson said Ackerman didn’t drive a fire truck to the scene — he rode in the truck with other firefighters. This raised a question after officials released their final report on the blaze.

Chief Don Johnson said the department policy for drinking is: "if you are not functional, don't show up."

The decision whether to respond is solely up the firefighter, Johnson said. Discussions about amending the policy have taken place, but nothing has come from it, according to the report.

"If you had one beer and you're going to a fire or a grass fire, it's no big deal," Johnson said. "I like to enjoy a beer with my pizza too."

At no point, Johnson said, was there any indication that fallen firefighter Steve Ackerman was too intoxicated to do his job. He credited Ackerman's judgment in evacuating the home, according to the report.

"He was the one to yell at the other two to get out," Johnson said. "He was the one who saw something go south."

The International Association of Fire Chiefs encourages all fire and EMS agencies to develop written policies and procedures concerning firefighters responding while under the influence of alcohol.

If a member has consumed alcohol within the previous eight hours, or is still impaired previous to the eight hours, they should voluntarily remove themselves from any activities and functions of the fire organization, according to IAFC.

The Federal Aviation Administration also enforces the eight-hour rule, although many airlines have a more stringent 12-hour time limit. There is also a 0.04 BAC maximum for pilots as a fail safe for those who waited the eight hours, but drank so much that the alcohol has not fully left their bloodstream in that time.

Many fire and police departments across the nation that are represented by unions have a specific BAC percentage written into their contracts that triggers discipline. Those can range from 0.0 to 0.08 percent, with many falling somewhere in between. That means firefighters and police can show up to work with alcohol in their system so long as it does not exceed what's stated in the contract.

We want to know: does your department have a set number of hours before you can respond, set a maximum BAC percentage or is it zero-tolerance? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

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