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Fighting Fires and the Right to Drink – Alcohol in Fire Halls

The Debate

Should drinking in the fire halls be permitted? Well according to a recent news article on CTV and Global TV, this is the debate that is raging right now among fire chiefs and mayors in communities across BC. The argument for alcohol in the fire halls is that it is ok for volunteer firefighters, it’s part of the culture and allows the volunteers to unwind after a stressful incident. Those that oppose permitting booze in the fire hall cite safety reasons.

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The divide in the opinion seems to depend on whether the alcohol is being consumed by volunteer firefighters or professional firefighters. In the large municipal areas, there is a zero tolerance policy when it comes to alcohol with professional firefighters. In the smaller communities, often staffed by volunteer firefighters alcohol is permitted. Professional or volunteer, I say alcohol should not be permitted in fire halls due to the dangerous nature of the job and need for safety. A policy will help ensure safety and prevent alcohol abuse on the job.  In fact, I think it is irresponsible for an employer to allow alcohol in the fire hall. When off duty, a firefighter should be able to drink as anyone else in his or her own personal time.

Safety Should Be Based On Job Requirements

No doubt there is a drastic difference between the frequency and kind of calls that a volunteer firefighter would get in a community like Anmore, British Columbia (according to 2006 census, population of a little over 1700) as compared to the calls a professional firefighter would get in Vancouver’s downtown east side. However, at the end of the day are they not both firefighters? Aren’t both groups expected to be able to handle the work that is typical and expected of all firefighters despite location? The argument to ban booze in professional fire halls is based on the need for safety due to the danger inherent of the job. How is the work of a volunteer firefighter any less dangerous than the work on a professional firefighter? If the core job description is the same, then the logic follows that the requirement for safety should be the same. Either allow professional firefighters to drink or disallow volunteer firefighters to have alcohol. Whether or not they get a pay cheque every two weeks is relevant only to the tax man.

Alcohol Manages Job Stress

Those that favour alcohol in fire halls remind us that fire fighting is a highly stressful job. Alcohol should be allowed in the fire hall so that when members unwind they can have a drink should they choose. If this is the case, should we allow paramedics, doctors and nurses to have booze at their workplace? Should we stock their workplace fridge with beer and wine? Excuse the pun but if I were in any of the professions listed above, I would be pissed. Besides, as a civilian, would you want a doctor who has had a few beers to operate on you? I am not disputing the stressful nature of fire fighting but what’s wrong with pool tables, dart boards, fitness equipment, counselors and so forth to help with de-stressing after a critical incident – without booze.

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Drinking Improves Your Judgment

In the Sasamat volunteer fire hall, according to the Fire Chief Scott the policy when the alarm bells sound is for the member to make a self-evaluation based on professional ethics to go or not go to the call. This explanation is illogical since the self-evaluation is made after an individual has been drinking and alcohol is proven to impair judgment.
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If this simple self-assessment relieves the need for a policy on alcohol use in the fire hall, then perhaps we should we ban the laws prohibiting driving under the influence? Instead, we can replace drinking and driving laws with the same self-evaluating methods that Chief Scott employs. Beyond illogical, a self-evaluating approach just won’t work in preventing abuse. To gauge the effectiveness of this approach, just take a look at the number of alcohol related motor vehicle accidents that occur from drivers who have taken the self-evaluative approach .

Alcohol and Fire Fighting, A Fatal Combination

Mixing alcohol and fire fighting can have dangerous consequences. Here is an unfortunate news story from Rhode island where a firefighter died responding to a call and was found to have alcohol in his blood.

If It Ain’t Broke, Why Fix It?

The “old schoolers” would say it’s been like this for years so why change now? Well I suppose that is a good point, “if it ain’t broke why fix it?” And according to the The Municipal Insurers Association of B.C., in Canada which provides liability insurance for 166 municipalities, there has never has never been an alcohol-related claim involving a firefighter. So will firefighters sue an employer for allowing alcohol in the fire hall? To all you Fire Chiefs out there, I would like to bring your attention to two famous cases in Canadian employment law where employers were successfully sued by employees who drank at company functions and then got injured while driving home drunk – the Nike case and the Sutton case. I won’t get into the details but to summarize, both cases involved an employee drinking at a work function who later got into an accident and suffered damages. Both employees sued successfully, the awards were $300,000 for the Sutton case and over $2 million for the Nike case. In both cases, the employees made the decision to drink at the company function, to continue to drink at another bar after the function was over, and to drive their car while drunk. In the Sutton case, the employer even asked the employee if she needed a cab and offered to call her spouse and the employee declined. So while it would seem reasonable to you and me that your employees should take 100% responsibility over their own actions and decisions, the law has given some responsibility to the employer. The Sutton and Nike case are just two of many similar cases. Now whether you agree or disagree with court’s ruling in these cases is not material. What is important is the legal precedence that has been established and what organizations should learn from all of these cases.

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There is little argument that the work that firefighters do whether paid or volunteer is nothing short of heroic. They endure uncomfortable conditions and risk their lives to save the lives of others. Just as their balaclava’s and steel toe boots offer some measure of safety, our heroes deserve policies that protect them from harm. So legal liability and the threat of litigation aside, we should ban alcohol in fire halls to protect those who protect us. I hope that we can agree on that much at least.

Photo by (aka Brent)