In response to the upsetting news that idolized Valley Springs firefighter Steven Ackerman died fighting a Brandon house fire last April with a 0.189 blood alcohol content, Governor Dennis Daugaard and House Majority Leader Brian Gosch are saying we don’t need a statewide drinking policy for firefighters:
Kelsey Pritchard, a spokeswoman for Daugaard, said in an email that a statewide alcohol policy for departments would be difficult to enforce. [State Fire Marshal Paul] Merriman said that voluntary state certification training teaches trainees about impairment while responding to emergencies, and he has said that many departments do have policies governing intoxication in place.
…House Majority Leader Brian Gosch said he wouldn’t push for a change, though he said he doesn’t think firefighters should respond while intoxicated [James Nord, “Push for State Policy Unlikely on Impaired Firefighting,” AP via that Sioux Falls paper, 2015.06.08].
My local paper says the Governor is full of “baloney”:
It’s only as difficult to enforce as any other alcohol law. Any oversight could be a deterrent or stop a firefighter from making a deadly mistake.
Many departments likely have alcohol policies to govern their volunteers, who could be called into service at any time. But a statewide standard would set a bar that would get conversations happening at the local levels.
A concern some fire departments would have is the limited resources available. If guidelines were too strict, it would make already small departments even smaller at times when they need firefighters most.
With some regulation, those departments would have to have serious talks about how best to maintain a full volunteer crew at all hours, and under what conditions those volunteers could respond [editorial, “State Guidelines Would Protect Firefighters,” Aberdeen American News, 2015.06.10].
I agree that the enforcement issue is a dodge. I’ll even go farther than the AAN and say it’s a dodge to fret that strict guidelines may drive recruits away from firefighting. It’s firefighting; we need strict guidelines for jobs that involve saving lives. People who say they want to be firefighters but can’t keep off the sauce shouldn’t be handed the hose.
However, I’m not sure I agree with the AAN’s call for a state policy. Rep. Gosch, the state fire training curriculum, the policies of many fire departments, and pretty much everyone else other than a few online shouters blinded by hagiography agree that firefighting under the influence is unwise. The media spotlight has led fire chiefs to consistently say on the record that reporting for duty drunk is not acceptable. The official culture, if not the public chatter, seems to recognize that alcohol and fire don’t mix. Two documented incidents in South Dakota in five years (Ackerman this year; Scott Johnson going DUI in a Madison firetruck in 2010) suggest that for the most part, local departments have a grip on the drinking/duty situation.
Either that, or they are covering FUI up really, really well.
p.s.: Valley Springs fire and rescue chief Don Johnson tells the press Ackerman did not drive himself to the scene of the April 12 fire that took his life.