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Media Catching Heck for Reporting Hero-Firefighter Died Drunk

Valley Springs volunteer fireman Steve Ackerman died fighting a house fire on April 12, 2015. Thousands of friends, firefighters, and well-wishers attended his funeral. Citizens created a memorial fund in Ackerman’s name for his fiancée and two children.

Two months after Ackerman was deemed a hero, investigators say that the fireman died with a blood alcohol content of of .189, more than twice the level at which he could have been charged with driving while intoxicated.

The online comments under KDLT’s story evince the outrage provoked when one punctures the popular mythos of uniformed heroism:

Dawn Renae Ackerman · Works at Hillside Consultants Inc.: KDLT you should be ashamed of yourselves! How does this information in any way, shape or form help the public?! This man died trying to save a life and should be remembered for his 14 year service to his community. You dishonor him as well as his entire family. I am astounded at your callous actions and this article should be retracted at once.

Conni Mayo: So him having a .189 made the floor collapse how? I would just like everyone to know right now…if my house is on fire please please help put it out. I don’t care if you have been drinking just help!

Ken Crystal Hatlewick: Why even bring this up?

Carol Lease: WHY,WHY,WHY?????? he was trying to save lives!

Mike Eisma · Unity Christian High School: The article is on more than just this website Ktiv and Kcau also have it on their website as well. Right, wrong, or otherwise the news is reported or should be reported on an unbiased basis. Volunteer fire fighters are just that volunteers. I did not know this man, he felt compelled to help, he didn’t know that sitting home that day or wherever he was going to “get the call”. I can assume that in most every small town that has a volunteer fire department, there just might be a fire fighter that has had a few beers grilling and chilling before they “got the call”. Remember the individual for who he was, the compelling need to help, and his 14 years of service and not the article itself.

Kim Otterness · Works at State of South Dakota: this information should have been completely left out of the report out of respect for his family and friends. Has nothing what so ever on what caused the fire! KDLT, you just lost me as viewer….

Ditto at KSFY:

Kristy McManus: Yeah, media..he was drunk when he died..but “don’t forget that he has a grieving family”! Why weren’t those words said when my brother died??? You made sure to broadcast his death and BAC many times, but I never heard those words! It’s a tragic loss…for ALL! But apparently, because this life was lost in the line of duty, his past won’t be dug up nor will any flaws that he had…because I guess the flesh on his bones and the heart in his chest were better than my little brothers. My family was ATTACKED by the press, our name was drug down all because my brother made a mistake, all happening before we were even able to choose a casket for him! That statement just makes my blood boil!!! My heart goes out to the family of the firefighter and my sympathy is with them. I just want to know how one is better than the other…My brother had a job and a family to. I don’t know why I’m wasting my time writing this…media will do anything for a story.

linda Hasvold: I think this station has handle this new information the wrong way. Yes the news need to be out there but not every commercial of the show I was watching that was at least 4 time in an hour., He died doing a noble act, State the fact and leave it alone. It will only [hurt] your rating in my mind.

Paul Maurer: He is and will always be someone who lost his life in the line of duty. What better definition of a hero can there be? Let’s respect him for that fact.

Lanny Stricherz: “The president of the Minnehaha County Fire Chiefs Association said since Ackerman died in the line of duty, they’ve been dealing with his loss in their own ways, and that the release of the state fire marshal report is another step in that healing process.” I say horsepucky. The State fire marshall’s office and the Sioux Falls media is so irresponsible that it is incredible. The owner of the house died prior to the firefighters going into the house. The local media doesn’t ask the question of why the firefighters were then sent into a death trap. Instead they come out two months after the fact and besmirch the name of a hero, with a story that should have been kept out of the news. To what purpose????

To what purpose, friend of the blog Lanny Stricherz asks. To remind firefighters, and perhaps all South Dakotans, that when they have important work to do, they shouldn’t drink so darn much:

Volunteer firefighters in Tea have a zero-tolerance policy for alcohol and are instructed not to respond to an emergency if they’ve had even one alcoholic drink.

…Tea Fire Chief Jeff Stahlecker… said, “If you have one, you’ve had one too many for our group.”

…Stahlecker and First Assistant Fire Chief Steven Oberle want to ensure Tea firefighters understand protocol when it comes to alcohol.

While Oberle is always eager to respond to calls he receives on his pager, he knows that if he’s had even just one drink at a local establishment or party, he can’t respond to that call.

…Oberle says [the news about Ackerman is] making him think even more about watching what he does out in public [Caiti Blase, “‘If You Have One, You’ve Had One Too Many’,” KDLT-TV, 2015.06.05].

The public outrage at the report that Ackerman showed up drunk to a fire echoes the local conversation that took place in September 2010 when Madison police arrested a firefighter for DUI as he drove a fire truck back to the station from a late-night call. We heard defensiveness and excuses from regular citizens and the Madison Volunteer Fire Department itself. We heard praise for firefighters capable of heroism paired with bitter blame-shifting against policemen who are equally capable of heroism. We heard confused calls of “Duty!” that ignored the duty of sobriety and self-control.

Ackerman risked his life to save property and lives. That spirit and action deserve admiration. At the same time, Ackerman drank more alcohol than is justifiable under any circumstance, then put his life and others’ at risk by reporting to a fire in an impaired state. That irresponsible behavior deserves attention and discouragement.

The press commits no foul in reporting a hero’s error. The press properly warns us to avoid such errors in judgment.



  1. mike from iowa 2015-06-06 10:02

    Nearly two and a half times the legal limit(.08) in every state. That is a given. As to whether volunteers should be able to drink and then respond to emergencies,I’d guess no,but I don’t make the rules. OTOH, if they are drug tested eating sesame seeds can give a false positive for cocaine use.

  2. Roger Elgersma 2015-06-06 10:46

    How does in help the public, kids learn that if you want to be a hero, both you and someone else might die if you are a drunk hero.

  3. Todd Epp 2015-06-06 11:10

    I’m not speaking on behalf of the Civil Air Patrol, but if someone showed up for one of our missions in such a condition, they would be sent home (or driven home) immediately. And what we do isn’t nearly as dangerous as what volunteer firefighters do. Emergencies call for the responders’ faculties to be unimpeded by drugs, alcohol or even severe emotions or lack of rest.

    No one is criticizing the dead firefighter’s courage or desire to help others. This was a failure of the system that should have kept him off the truck and out of the burning house. This put him, his fellow firefighters’ and the public at risk. I hope this is a wake-up call to volunteer fire departments.

    Also, local departments, from what I understand, are having recruitment problems, as small towns die and people have no time for the VFD because they’re already working three jobs or they simply don’t feel a part of their communities.

  4. Donald Pay 2015-06-06 11:16

    Cory, isn’t your headline a bit a bit overblown. It must be a slow news day there in South Dakota. The media reported the facts, and a few folks commented on media websites. I don’t view that as “catching heck,” nor is it much different than happens all the time, as you know from the Bosworth caper. Report the facts, and there will be people who want to spout off about them, deny them or question why you reported them. That’s just a typical day in the media.

    So, should the media have reported these facts. Absolutely. A discussion can now begin about whether policies need to change. Keep things hidden, and you stop the discussion.

  5. Donald Pay 2015-06-06 11:18

    It looks like I lost a few “?” I hope I find them soon.

  6. Don Coyote 2015-06-06 11:23

    “Ackerman drank more alcohol than is justifiable under any circumstance”. Pretty arbitrary statement Cory A Nation since gender, weight, food consumption and how long a person has been drinking all contribute to BAC. Of course in the temperance world, one drink couldn’t be justified.

    BAC tables show that a 180 lb man could reach .189 level in 4 hours, drinking approx 3 drinks per hour while .08 is reached in about 2 drinks per hour over 4 hours. You could easily see those levels of drinking at a softball kegger or a backyard bbq.

    That said, a fireman that intoxicated not only puts himself at risk but also his fellow firemen.

  7. mike from iowa 2015-06-06 11:30

    Might be some of us would need a shot of courage to enter a building on fire. Adrenaline might or might not be enough. But then I don’t drink.

  8. MD 2015-06-06 11:56

    While we must sympathize with the family and honor the sacrifice, we cannot ignore the fact that this death highlights an underlying problem within volunteer fire departments across the state. There seems to be a culture of recklessness within many volunteer fire departments. In many communities, the local fire department is the town’s fraternity. A bunch of people that get together once a week, have a meeting, drink beer, and go start things on fire (and put them out). When their pagers go off, they drop everything (including their half consumed beer) hop into their cars and go tearing through town to the fire department. From their, they hop into large fire trucks and proceed to drive faster back through town to the fire call. Oftentimes they drive in heavy excess of the speed limit and take risks that would likely get them a reckless driving charge had they not been under their lights and sirens.
    Now, add alcohol to that equation, does that really make sense? It is an accident waiting to happen.
    Bringing it back to Mr. Ackerman, we could be having a very different conversation had circumstances fallen differently. He could have been on his way to the fire department and gotten into an accident while under the influence, he could have done the same if he were operating one of the fire trucks, finally he could have led his fellow firefighters into an unsafe situation while in the house leading to their deaths as well.
    I hope that this situation can be a teachable moment for fire departments (and other emergency responders) across the area. We need to hold volunteer fire fighters accountable for their actions because of the immense amount of trust and power we place with them. While working as a volunteer EMT, I was held to that standard and when I worked as a paramedic in a professional/volunteer agency, I held my colleagues to the same standard.

  9. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-06-06 12:06

    “Coyote”: “pretty arbitrary statement”? I don’t think that will get the cops not to give you a breathalyzer if they smell booze on your breath. Recognizing that you agree with my assessment of this situation, given your last sentence, please offer an example of any situation in which drinking enough to raise one’s blood alcohol level to 0.189 is justifiable.

  10. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-06-06 12:07

    Mr. Pay, every Saturday is a slow news day. ; – )

  11. Porter Lansing 2015-06-06 12:12

    Who’s now liable to get sued over an intoxicated firefighter? Just followin’ the money…..

  12. Porter Lansing 2015-06-06 12:16

    OR, what insurance company is now NOT liable because of an intoxicated firefighter?

  13. leslie 2015-06-06 14:08

    society uses intoxication as moral grounds to deny medical insurance coverage and many other circumstances in a “right to work” state. yet addiction appears to be a medical condition.

    authorities like custer county commissioners are still in 1855 thinking the indians must be taught a lesson, opposing renaming harney peak because their families took it and then got to like all the perks it came with.

    democrats dont think this way in either circumstance

  14. scott 2015-06-06 16:01

    perhaps the man’s family should’ve went to marty jackley and asked that the autopsy report been kept secret. i would guess they were informed of this before it was released to the media.

  15. mike from iowa 2015-06-06 16:21

    Is the city liable for an intoxed volunteer firefighter?

  16. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-06-06 17:20

    “The press commits no foul in reporting a hero’s error. The press properly warns us to avoid such errors in judgment.”

    I agree with Cory’s statement here. His family needs to find a way to accept the fact that he was very intoxicated, and know that is not all of who he was. They certainly know more about his drinking habits than any of us do.

  17. Roger Cornelius 2015-06-06 18:26

    Friends don’t let friends drive drunk and firefighters shouldn’t let other firefighters fight fires drunk

  18. Nick Nemec 2015-06-06 18:52

    Exactly Roger. Who was the firefighter in command at the fire? Someone was in charge and should have known some of the crew was very, very drunk. Is there some state agency in charge of training and discipline of volunteer fire departments?

  19. happy camper 2015-06-06 18:56

    From Jerry’s link: “Some fire chiefs say the alcohol is an important tool for recruitment and builds camaraderie.” A few years back before our current fire chief a friend wanted to make a donation to our local volunteer group and he was asked to buy alcohol for them. He wasn’t comfortable with that and just gave them some money. I’m not trying to be judgmental, but they need a clear head in these situations and put other people at risk besides themselves.

  20. Douglas Wiken 2015-06-06 18:59

    Holy crap, I agree with Roger C.

    Before people do really stupid things, they should realize that modern media of all kinds will have their stupidity all over. Not the best reason for not doing stupid things, but should be good enough for even the slowest among us.

  21. happy camper 2015-06-06 19:14

    Yes, all this agreement is quite amazing. I’m sure we could all get along if we didn’t talk about Annette Bosworth, Trace O’Connell, ….. All those things Cory loves to talk about. How boring that would be.

  22. Roger Cornelius 2015-06-06 19:23

    happy camper,

    Cory posts 2 to 3 threads a day, more than other political blog in the state.

    If you read the blogs on education, healthcare, etc. you will that many of us often agree, just as we are doing here.

  23. happy camper 2015-06-06 19:51

    This is the only SD blog I read other than less so DWC. Somebody has to work.

  24. leslie 2015-06-06 20:04

    we could argue some more whether boz is worthy of a suspended imp for her mental illness conviction for TWELVE (12), yes a dozen felony counts of election fraud;

    or whether the Allen 47 (or 57) perp, hoisted on his own single petard, conceivably and bravely taking the bullet for the 14-15 other privileged box seat holders who “don’t know nothing, didn’t see nothing, did not get charged with nothing”- is unworthy of name recognition, and a suspended imp for his multi dozens of counts-oh wait, it is only one count of a class II misdemeanor for a hate crime characterized as disorderly conduct toward an entire cadray of Lakota children and threats to their chaperones, some of whom may have an infamous surname “Means”.

    Ah, the camaraderie. At least one Philip commenter does not like the idea of uppity Indians trying to change the name of their tallest (apparently??) sacred peak in “OUR BLACK HILLS” (C) KOTATV :)

  25. happy camper 2015-06-06 21:00

    Don’t exaggerate. Don’t prejudge.

  26. Gayle 2015-06-06 22:53

    The truth is not always pleasant. The news should report the facts and truth, which does not always happen in SD because we do not have a lot of actual investigative reporters… and we all know what that is.

  27. mike from iowa 2015-06-07 06:55

    DFP is like a drive on a city street where traffic flows both ways. Wary drivers know to keep an eye on opposing traffic,but also knows that in their own lane there could easily be incidences of tension which lead to serious confrontations.Keep your head on a swivel and take care of your own driving,HC. That is about all you can control. Cory,at least,allows opposing views.

  28. c 2015-06-07 07:31

    Could it be that we are not enraged at the news for reporting that our hero, the firefighter, was impaired? Could it be that we are enraged because the image we have built up in our mind has been tarnished? Could it be that we are wrestling with the fact that, as much as their work places them in almost “super hero” positions, they are human? They are as human as I am writing this response. He is/was every bit human, liable to lapses in judgment, to make mistakes on the job and off, and every bit prone to be imperfect.
    Maybe that is the key. Do we expect our “super heroes” to be perfect? Do we expect them to be the strong, fearless and courageous men and women who sweep in and save the day? Maybe we do. Maybe that image is too hard to let go. Maybe unconsciously we have placed many of our serving and sacrifice positions too high on a pedestal, that when something causes it to wobble, it does more than that. It comes crashing down at our feet and we are left looking at the pieces in shambles, wondering how we will piece it together. And it won’t ever be pieced back together like the original. We will always be able to see cracks that still exist no matter how much super glue we use. The easiest route to dealing with that anger and our insecurity is to lash out at the source; the news that reported it. Is that where the blame and anger belongs? Maybe not.
    Tragic? You bet. In so many ways.
    Does that warrant a barrage of comments berating the news stations who reported the findings? I’m not sure it does.
    What is information good for if not to present facts (as far from opinion as possible) and invite us to wrestle with the tough questions like this one does?
    A difficult finding most definitely, an invitation to walk through the muck and find a new normal with closer magnification on policies and procedures? I hope so.

  29. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-06-07 10:09

    Douglas, I agree that avoiding bad behavior just because others will find out is not the most moral reason, but I won’t stand in the way if it works. I preach it in my classroom all the time: “If doing what you want to do depends on no one finding out, don’t do it.”

    I am intrigued by what Jerry and Happy mention about alcohol in fire department culture. It’s strange how central a mind-altering drug becomes in a culture that depends in mental and physical faculties operating at their fullest.

  30. W R Old Guy 2015-06-07 11:17

    I disagree with the statements that alcohol is a problem with the volunteer fire service in general. There may be some departments that are living in the past but the majority of the departments in SD have some very specific rules involving responding to a call after the use of any drug that can impair performance and judgment. Drug use (including alcohol) is also a problem with individuals in paid departments. Members of public safety organizations are usually made up of people with many different backgrounds and beliefs. You can expect to find a small percentage of them with a problem just as you find in the general population.

    I knew of a number of departments west river that met the stereotype 20 years ago. Things changed as the old timers who were more interested in the poker game and booze on meeting nights retired or were forced out by younger members. Insurance rates, public opinion, and mandated training requirements along with some nationally publicized incidents pretty much got rid of the booze and poker meetings. I personally attended this young lady’s funeral. The driver got 20 years if I recall. .

    The incident commander in this case may not have known Ackerman’s condition as things happens fast and some chaotic when there are reports of a person trapped. Assignments are often given by radio rather than meeting face to face.

    I don’t disagree with the reporting of the alcohol use. It does create a problem on the award of the “Home town Heroes ” death benefit ( Currently over $300,000.00) to the family. A review board has to determine if his alcohol impairment contributed to his death. It could be the basis for denying the claim.

  31. scott 2015-06-07 11:49

    The Media, certain groups and individual are obsessed with alcohol.

    Most fire and ambulance departments struggle to find volunteers. Most departments operate understaffed and underfunded. On top of volunteering to serve, these volunteers give of there time and resources to raise funds so they have the equipment to serve as a volunteer firefighter or EMT.

    Even if you live in a community that has paid full time firefighters and paramedics, think about when you are driving and traveling with your family. Very few areas in this state or for that matter our surrounding states have full time emergency responders waiting to answer your 911 call.

    Reporting the firefighter was under the influence was not necessary and in my opinion will just lead to increased difficulties finding and operating volunteer departments.

  32. Douglas Wiken 2015-06-07 18:15

    Let’s not have a report of a drunken firefighter so that fire departments can recruit more drunks. That does not sound like a recipe for public safety or good sense.

  33. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-06-07 21:11

    WR Old Guy, I wouldn’t want to be serving on that death benefits panel.

    Scott, I agree that pretty much every civic group has a hard time finding volunteers. I’m still looking for petition circulators! But if folks show up to a petition planning meeting intoxicated, I’m not going to send them out to collect signatures. I’m going to send them home. Getting another hundred signatures isn’t important enough to risk public safety on circulators who have been drinking.

    Does reporting that this one firefighter showed up drunk for a fire really deter anyone from signing up for his/her local volunteer fire department? Tell me if I’m reading this wrong, Scott, but I’m imagining the potential volunteer who would be deterred by this reportage has to say to himself, “Oh man, I was gonna sign up to fight fires, but if I can’t show up at a fire drunk without the media getting all snarky, forget it!” That kind of deterrent might be useful.

  34. W R Old Guy 2015-06-08 10:22

    CAH, The review panel is not without it’s own problems. It is administered under the US Dept. of Justice and has had multiple accusations of favoring Law Enforcement death awards while denying other public safety personnel death claims. It’s not an easy job.

    Public safety personnel are held to a higher standard than the general public by the media. If John Doe, who works at the big box store, is drunk and hits a minivan with a family of five causing serious injury, The headline is normally “Alleged DUI driver causes serious injury to five” with no mention of his employment or volunteer service.
    If John Doe is a Volunteer Firefighter, EMT, or Reserve Police Officer, the headline becomes “Alleged DUI Firefighter (or EMT or RPO) causes serious injury to family of five.

  35. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-06-08 10:27

    Public servants of all stripes face that higher scrutiny (see also my teaching career and adventures in media!). But a guy who isn’t afraid of running into a burning building shouldn’t be afraid of heightened media scrutiny. (Or are we saying that being roasted in the media is worse than being burned alive?)

  36. leslie 2015-06-08 11:20

    hc-go back to work :)

  37. leslie 2015-06-08 11:27

    my point, hc, was these are pretty darn important issues to be talking about.

    1. election fraud

    2. cultural trauma (genocide)

    3. addiction vs. super-patriotism

    these, and EB5 are not things cory loves to talk about, they are things republicans in a red state cover-up.

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