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Every department should have the ‘drug and alcohol’ talk

The news from West, Texas reaffirms that firefighters make mistakes like everybody else, and that we need to discuss these issues to reduce those mistakes

It’s terrible to hear this news, compounding the pain that continues to be felt across the community of West, Texas, and by everyone else affected in this tragic event.

We know that drug and alcohol use is an issue that our entire society is constantly working to address. We also know that members of the fire and emergency services are, despite their commitment and devotion to duty, at base just “ordinary” people who are often called to do extraordinary things.

I wonder if we all know someone in our service who has been able to do the job in a condition we can probably agree is not ideal. We’ve all seen the stories and reports of firefighters, and others, involved in both on- and off-duty injuries or fatalities where drugs or alcohol were a contributing factor.

Of all people, we know the perils of trying to do things where a high degree of attention and cognitive function is needed, when you’re at less than peak mental and physical condition.

Perhaps, in addition to the other lessons we’ll identify (and hopefully learn) from the sacrifices of our brothers in West, Texas, we can take this opportunity to have a real discussion about drugs and alcohol in our fire departments.

Stay safe.

Adam K. Thiel is the fire commissioner and director of the Office of Emergency Management in the city of Philadelphia. Thiel previously served as a fire chief in the National Capital Region and as a state fire director for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Thiel’s operational experience includes serving with distinction in four states as a chief officer, incident commander, company officer, hazardous materials team leader, paramedic, technical rescuer, structural/wildland firefighter and rescue diver. He also directly participated in response and recovery efforts for several major disasters, including the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Tropical Storm Gaston and Hurricane Isabel.