Dangerous mixture Secaucus looks at alcohol consumption in its volunteer firehouses
by : Al Sullivan Reporter senior staff writer
Jan 19, 2001 | 1938 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
It's 4 p.m. on a weekday, and local workers, fresh from their jobs, sidle up to the bar, grin at the familiar face behind it and order a cold, wet glass of beer. But these workers aren't sitting in a smoke-filled tavern - instead, they're at one of the five firehouses in Secaucus, sipping beer in a building owned by the town and insured by the town.

If an alarm should go off in mid sip, these volunteer firefighters could leave the bars that are installed in several firehouses here and rush out to a fire, not certain whether or not they have reached the limit of legal intoxication.

While town employees are subject to random drug and alcohol tests as dictated by their union contracts with the town, volunteer firefighters are not, making it possible for a volunteer to respond to an emergency situation in an unacceptable condition.

According to one fire captain, slightly less than half the 100 firefighters in Secaucus participate regularly in the social ritual of firehouse drinking. Many of the firefighters who do not drink are reluctant to speak out against the practice, sources say, partly because the department relies on people volunteering and they fear that criticism or banning of alcohol use could reduce the number of people seeking to belong to the fire companies. (Recruitment has been a problem in the past.)

Other firefighters - according to officials interviewed for this account - seem to feel that it is wrong to criticize or complain about fellow firefighters. Some public officials, in private comments, claimed firefighters make up a significant voting block and many of them are the hardest workers during political campaigns.

But at least one firefighter has been on a campaign to "shut off the tap," in order to prevent a future tragedy he has claimed would spoil the reputation of the Secaucus Volunteer Fire Department.

Although each of the town's five firehouses have different regulations regarding how accessible alcohol is, at least two of the firehouses have pretty much an open bar - becoming centers for afternoon gatherings as well as fairly frequent parties to which non-firefighters are invited, sources said.

The question of risk to life and potential liability was raised last week when two fire officials requested a legal opinion as to whether or not fire firefighters are violating the law by consuming alcohol in public buildings, and whether or not officers in charge of those companies could be held responsible if someone should get hurt as a result.

"We have received a request from two fire company commanders to look into whether it is legal for firefighters to drink in the firehouses," said Town Administrator Anthony Iacono, who is also a volunteer firefighter in Secaucus, last week. "They have been told that if someone should get hurt as a result of someone drinking at a firehouse, the commanders could be held legally responsible."

Iacono said the issue is going to be reviewed by the town attorney and could result in a new policy being put into place that would "close the tap" on firehouse drinking.

"It is a very gray area," Iacono said. "Firehouses are public buildings, and in other public buildings, alcohol use is not allowed."

Engine Company No. 1, in the Plaza Section - which has some of the tightest control over use of alcohol already - asked for the ruling, and Iacono said the town will be issuing a report on its findings. "We going to have a meeting with fire department officers to discuss the issue," Iacono said. "We would like to know if fire officers can be held liable if an incident occurs resulting from alcohol consumption in the firehouse."

"We are looking at the situation and trying to determine how to address it," Mayor Dennis Elwell said. "We already had a meeting with the fire chiefs on the matter."

Volunteer firefighters in Secaucus are not paid, but they can receive a stipend based on the percentage of fires they respond to. They receive $200 per month if they respond to 35 percent or more of the fire calls. (Those who are town employees receive the amount only if they respond to 40 percent or more.) Firefighters can earn as much as $2,400 per year.

Part of the social scene

The issue has been a problem in communities across the country because of the nature of volunteer fire departments - which also serve as social gatherings for many of the members.

Former 3rd Ward Councilman Sal Manente, when still councilman during the 1990s, routinely voted against giving permission to firefighters to drink in public outdoors after the once-every-two year Fire Chief's Inspection Parade. Manente stated that he felt the permission to use alcohol - which is banned in public places by town ordinance - set a bad example to residents in the community.

George Heflich, a fire captain, said last week that alcohol use is a prominent feature in some firehouses. Other firefighters note that different houses have different policies as to alcohol use on premise. According to firefighters, the North End Firehouse - which has a younger population - tends to allow easier access to alcohol than the Plaza Firehouse, which has an older population that does most of its drinking during football games on Sunday afternoons.

There is a fear, according so one firefighter, that inebriated firefighters, unaware of their condition, might respond to a fire, putting themselves or others at risk.

Deputy Mayor John Reilly, who serves as liaison to the fire department and has been a volunteer firefighter for more than 29 years, said the fire department's officers are vigilant and would not allow someone obvious inebriated onto the fire scene.

"Our fire department has zero tolerance for anyone drinking and responding to a fire," Reilly said. "The department does police itself in these matters."

Problem across the nation

The problems facing Secaucus volunteer fire department are not new. Apparently, small towns across the country that use volunteer fire departments also face potential problems of this kind. In Patteville, Wisc., there was a controversy in town when town officials claimed several firemen and the chief had been intoxicated while on duty. They tried to impose a moratorium on drinking in the firehouses, but the firefighters fought it. And in Troy, Mich., city officials lectured their volunteer fire department against responding to fires during social get-togethers if excess alcohol had been consumed. There six of the three station houses there banned alcoholic beverages on the premises.

Regulations in Detroit call for any firefighter suspected of alcoholic use to be relieved from duty. In St. Petersburg, Fla., city officials instituted a similar policy, calling for on-scene testing of any firefighter suspected of alcohol consumption.

Even several professional paid staffs have come under scrutiny. Two years ago, the Chicago Fire Department found itself under a cloud of suspicion. Chicago and Patteville have both adopted zero-tolerance policies. A nearby community of Stefer Village went as far as to call for random drug and alcohol testing.

Christ Tzakais, a former police detective and hostage negotiator and the author of the book "A Guide to Drug and Alcohol Awareness," said last week that this is not an uncommon problem. Tzakais lectures various public bodies on the dangers of drug and alcohol use and what can be done to prevent problems. Besides shutting off the tap, he said, the town can adopt measures to assure firefighters are sober when responding to fires.

"I have been involved in SWAT calls where SWAT members were taken off a situation because they had been drinking," Tzakais said in an interview last week. Tzakais said that when emergency services personnel respond to a dangerous situation, "issues like wanting to serve and protect ... are superceded and clouded by alcohol consumption."

Of the SWAT team, Tzakais said, "Now, anyone who goes into a critical incident asked if they were drinking and they have to submit to a PBT [Preliminary Breath Test]. If the person has alcohol in their bloodstream, they cannot participate."

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