Why firefighter alcohol abuse puts us all at risk

It’s time to have a courageous conversation about drug and alcohol abuse in the fire service

By Darryl Kerley, FireRescue1 Contributor

Recently, I, like many of you, received a message from Billy Goldfeder at FirefighterCloseCalls announcing that a firefighter was struck and killed by another firefighter who was driving intoxicated on Nov. 10, 2017.

We spend millions of dollars each year on some of the best and most expensive safety equipment in the world to protect our firefighters. We devote energy and resources to mental health, combatting issues affecting the firefighters like post-traumatic stress disorder. However, I have been a part of fire and emergency services for four decades and during the entire 40-year span, drinking in the fire service has been acceptable, promoted and in some cases, expected.

It breaks my heart to see my friends lose their jobs or be demoted because of substance abuse.
It breaks my heart to see my friends lose their jobs or be demoted because of substance abuse. (Photo/Pixabay)

Well, you may stop reading at this point and many folks will be offended by my concern, but I believe it is time we talk courageously about the acceptance of alcohol abuse in the fire service culture. I’m at the end of my career, and if this article makes me an outcast in the fire service, I offer no apologies.

Since becoming fire chief with my current organization on Sept. 11, 2011, three firefighters I know have either been stopped while driving intoxicated or failed their department's random alcohol screening. In that same time period, I have had to terminate three other firefighters, my friends, for failing their random workplace drug screen. Six employees out of 68 fire suppression personnel is 8.8 percent of my department involved in substance abuse. And those are just the ones who have been detected through random screening.

How can chief officers lecture on how to be a mentor one minute and then hours later be vomiting in their buddy’s truck from drinking too much? Mentoring is leading by example and, in most cases, the senior leadership of the national fire service is excellent. But when it comes to alcohol, we are failing.

It's not just my department. A few years ago, I heard a firefighter give a talk on how drinking almost destroyed his life. He had reached rock bottom and almost lost his career. At the end of his presentation, he concluded with, “well I need to wrap this up, because it is about time to get this party started.” What that meant, was to open the bar and start the music.

Even the first responders in the fire rescue shows on television all meet at the bar at the end of the shift to have a drink.

Mentoring and guidance needed from fire leaders

Well, by now, I suppose you believe I am against drinking. That is not the case at all; however, drinking and driving – I am totally against. Drinking until you vomit in our friend’s car or home, or the motel elevator – I am totally against. Drinking until you cannot properly function, including walk – I am against.

I am by no means a saint, but we respond to motor vehicle accidents every day that involve drinking and driving. Many of these are fatal accidents, as in the case of the firefighter who lost his life in Indiana. So many times, we see the innocent person die and the drunk driver survive.

If you want to be a mentor and teach mentoring to your firefighters, then teach responsible drinking also:

  • Chief officers should not drink with the firefighters on a regular basis or encourage drinking, especially while traveling for a conference or training. Special events where social drinking is appropriate are acceptable, but not to the point of drunkenness.
  • Drink in moderation, but don’t exceed the recommended limits of five drinks for males and four drinks for females.
  • Stop drinking 12 hours before reporting for duty or training – where your department is investing money in your professional development. Show up for class!
  • If you are a volunteer or paid on call, do not respond if you have been drinking.

Moderation – ask yourself how much alcohol is acceptable in the blood stream for your airline pilot, neurosurgeon or heart transplant doctor just before they provide service to you or your family member. That is the level of service we owe the public.   

I know that I have several firefighters within my organization who drink on a regular basis. That is not a problem at all; however, reporting to work under the influence or operating any type of equipment, vehicles, four wheelers, motorcycles; swimming; or shooting fire arms is unacceptable. You are placing yourself in harm’s way, but more importantly, you are placing innocent people in harm’s way – the same people that we, as public servants, took an oath to serve and protect.

Let’s make drug and alcohol abuse in the fire service a top priority. It breaks my heart to see my friends lose their jobs or be demoted because of substance abuse. Help is available through your department's employee assistance program, religious organizations and social services.

My department offers assistance for alcohol abuse treatment, but has a zero tolerance policy for a positive drug test. Our city will provide assistance if an employee asks for help with drug abuse, but if an employee is caught in a random test, it results in termination.

Mentoring means more than encouraging firefighters to become educated and certified. If you know your friend or co-worker who you believe has a problem, then try to help them if at all possible. You may save the life of a friend or even a stranger.

About the author
Chief Kerley, CFO, MIFireE, is a 40-year veteran of emergency services. He served as chief and on the Board of Directors of the Seymour Volunteer Fire Department. Chief Kerley also served five years with the Knoxville Volunteer Emergency Rescue Squad, where he was trained as a rescue diver and rescue specialist. In 2003, he became the fire chief for the U.S. Department of Energy at the K-25 Uranium Enrichment Site in Oak Ridge, Tenn. and in 2011, he became the fire chief for the City of Oak Ridge Fire Department. He served as an adjunct instructor for the Tennessee Fire Service and Codes Academy and in 2014, was appointed by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam to a six-year term as a Commissioner for the Tennessee Commission on Fire Fighter Standards and Education.

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