Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series of articles in which Curt Varone will address questions on important fire service legal issues. If you would like to submit a question, please email Shannon Pieper at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Question: My volunteer fire department is old-school: We have a bar attached to the station that brings in needed revenue, plus it serves as a hangout for the members. Should the liability concerns outweigh the income we get and the value of getting folks to hang out?
I can certainly help you better understand your liability concerns, and even offer my opinion on the balancing of interests. From there, the weighing of the interests is not a legal one, understanding that legal concerns should weigh heavily on your final decision.
Liability & Alcohol
First of all, there are serious liability concerns with any establishment that serves alcohol. These concerns have nothing to do with the fire service issues associated with allowing drinking at the firehouse. Businesses that serve alcohol can be held strictly liable for any harm that occurs if a person who is impaired is served more alcohol under what is commonly referred to as Dram Shop laws. Strict liability means exactly that: The entity, and perhaps the server, will be liable if alcohol is provided to someone who is already impaired, and as a result someone is injured. The injured party does not have to prove the business or server was negligent in serving the person or allowing them to drive (or even walk) home.
The Dram Shop issue could be an entire article on its own because there are so many facets to it, but any organization that serves liquor to members or the public needs to be adequately insured. Just as importantly, servers need to be trained and properly supervised to ensure compliance.
Second, there is the issue of firefighters responding to alarms after having consumed alcohol. Obviously, there are important safety concerns, which can in turn lead to liability concerns if the practice is allowed to continue. You openly acknowledge that providing alcohol in the firehouse is a mechanism to induce firefighters to hang out. This suggests the organization is not simply aware that firefighters are hanging around to drink, but that it is consciously part of your decision-making.
“Consciously disregarding a known and substantial risk of harm” is what we refer to as recklessness. Recklessness is a tort that is measurably worse than negligence, for which punitive damages are often available. Beyond the civil liability concerns, recklessness can also give rise to criminal charges of reckless engenderment and/or involuntary manslaughter.
Play that out: A member is “hanging out” at the firehouse bar drinking, becomes impaired, goes on a run and either is killed or does something that kills someone else. Manslaughter charges could be on the table for those who were in a position to put an end to the practice, but who chose instead to allow the practice to continue. “Consciously disregarding a known and substantial risk of harm.”
Optics & Alcohol
Third, there are the optics of having a bar in a firehouse. The message sent to the public is one concern. Let’s face it, what we do as firefighters is extremely difficult under the best of conditions. Anyone who has been firefighter for very long knows it is impossible to be perfect, despite the fact that we strive to be so on each and every response. We make the best decisions we can with what little information we have. Things don’t always go smoothly.
To have the public attribute normal things that can happen (taking longer to arrive than people expect; struggling to gain access to a building that is heavily secured; difficult hose stretches taking longer than expected; equipment malfunctions) to the fact that the firefighters are “probably drunk AGAIN” sets us up for unrealistic scrutiny when things don’t go perfectly through no fault of our own. That in turn may prompt people who might otherwise not be inclined to complain (or sue) to become motivated to do so even when drinking played no role in what occurred. Because they know we have a bar in the firehouse and frequently drink: Optics!
The message sent to the membership is another concern. Maintaining a bar so that members will hang around the firehouse to be available for responses is condoning firefighters drinking and responding. In fact, members may view drinking as a reward for their availability, or worse: an entitlement.
Then there is the message that will inevitably be sent to a jury following virtually any alcohol-related accident that leads to a lawsuit. That message may be so strong that what might otherwise be a winnable case for the department will end up having to be settled.
All Things Considered
So as I said in the beginning, the legal concerns are sobering (pun intended). You must also weigh the alternatives to revenue and alternatives to encouraging folks to hang around the firehouse. Some volunteer fire departments have built fitness centers as a healthier alternative to encouraging folks to spend more time at the station. Probably not a bad idea on several levels.