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NICHOLAS MERCER: Alcohol and fire departments don't mix

Volunteer fire departments are more like full-time detachments than they realize. They're on call 24 hours a day and are expected to be in the right frame of mind when attending a call. Alcohol should not be a part of anything.
Volunteer fire departments are more like full-time detachments than they realize. They're on call 24 hours a day and are expected to be in the right frame of mind when attending a call. Alcohol should not be a part of anything. - 123RF Stock Photo

Let's call this a hypothetical situation. You arrive home from date night with your significant other only to find emergency vehicles attending to the scene of a fire at your home.

Watching from a distance, you watch anxiously as firefighters tend to the blaze in hopes of saving some part of your home.

It is the worst night of your life.

Nothing could make it more terrible until you overhear a conversation that there was a chance some firefighters had been at a party before getting to the scene.

You don't believe it at first, but what if it's true?

Duane Antle, the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Fire Services Association, says he has a hard time believing such a situation could ever take place in 2019.

It isn't something the association supports or condones as volunteer departments become more professional in how they fight fires and conduct themselves.

In 2019, volunteer fire departments might as well be considered full-time gigs.

The professional firefighters might disagree. (Some I've been in the company of tend to hold themselves to a higher standard than their volunteer contemporaries.) But with the level of training dedicated volunteer firefighters go through, it is hard to distinguish between the two.

Volunteer departments are essentially professional outfits.

There is too much on the line for them not to be.

Frankly, people get hurt when they aren't.

So, when an email came to The Western Star detailing how a department in the region had allowed drinking at the fire hall, it came as a bit of a surprise. What was even more of a shock, according to the letter, was that those same firefighters were allowed to go on a call and help fight a fire. Talk about an exercise in liability.

"Imagine being able to drink at meetings (at work)," the letter stated.

Disclosure: the person who wrote would not talk to us when contacted, and we are not able to verify if the contents of the email are indeed true.

"There are a few people on the department of religious faith who would not wish to be associated with any consumption of alcohol at meetings and are forced to decide between it or never attend," the letter stated. "These meetings are official and not social events."

This prompted me to check with all of the volunteer fire departments in the region on just what practices they have for such a thing.

Antle, fire chief in Come by Chance, said most volunteer departments have strict policies regarding alcohol use.

"You could not justify the use of it — that is our message," he said. "If you've had a couple of drinks, don't dare come to the fire hall."

I tracked groups from Rocky Harbour to Bay St. George and spoke with most all of the fire chiefs in-between.

The only exception was the Deer Lake Volunteer Fire Department. Chief Earl Tansley was not interested in talking. I made multiple attempts through phone calls and emails, but my messages were not returned.

I asked Mayor Dean Ball if he could facilitate a response by acting as an intermediary between myself and the chief. However, the chief again declined to answer the questions I had.

It turns out most of the departments have no-alcohol policies when it comes to drinking during official department business. That means during nights designated for training and meetings, the firefighters are not allowed to drink.

A lot of them do not have any specific policies in writing, however. These are just common-sense unwritten rules that the firefighters abide by.

Departments like Steady Brook-Little Rapids are in the process of adopting a substance abuse policy similar to what the Town of Steady Brook has. It also includes marijuana.

Pasadena has recently adopted the town's alcohol policy. It is currently being amended to include marijuana.

"Alcohol has no part in any official department business," said Pasadena Fire Chief Darren Gardner.

Pasadena is a peculiar case. Of the baker's dozen of departments that I spoke with, they are the only one with a liquor licence at the fire hall. It is a recent development, having only been in place since early January, and was done so at the behest of town council.

"The town made a decision to look at getting a licence for liability purposes," said Pasadena Mayor Gary Bishop. "We asked for a legal opinion and decided to get one at the fire hall."

While it still isn't clear why a fire hall would need a liquor licence, Gardner said alcohol is never available at the hall during fire department business.

It is always kept behind a pair of locked doors and there are only three people with access to keys.

Do they drink at the hall after meetings? Admittedly, I left that question on the table. Gardner told me there wasn't any drinking at Pasadena's fire hall during official department business, but I didn’t ask him a necessary followup about whether there was any consumption happening after regular business had concluded. My messages to chat afterwards were unreturned.

It falls in line with what Antle said regarding departments who have a liquor licence at their building: The alcohol isn't for the firefighters themselves and is more likely to be sold or used during a social event with the purpose of fundraising for the department.

Another anomaly comes from Lark Harbour-York Harbour. The fire department there installed a new fridge in the fire hall in the last couple of years and there is some beer kept there, according to chief Paul MacDonald.

The department doesn't allow drinking during official meetings or training nights, and MacDonald said it is a very rare occurrence that there is drinking thereafter.

Right reasons

Most firefighters are there for the right reasons. They are there to have a positive impact on the lives of others in their community, to provide a service, and can be considered a role model for younger people.

Others, unfortunately, have been unable to leave their high school selves in the past and use the fire department as a way to extend the shelf life of their more popular selves. In this sense, maybe it isn't all that surprising that you'd hear stories of a volunteer firefighter being intoxicated. That behaviour is a complete show of disrespect for the position and the people you're trying to help.

Now, it might seem that I am making a rather wide and all-encompassing swipe at volunteer firefighters. I am, and I'm not.

No. 1, they're not untouchable just because they're volunteer firefighters. The word volunteer doesn't give the ones who are acting a fool an out for being an idiot or making a stupid decision. You're allowed to question volunteers about their actions, especially if they endanger other people.

"Most fire departments have worked very hard to make sure their organizations are professional," said Antle. "We have the same responsibilities as paid employees."

And, No. 2, just try showing up to your job drunk and see what happens.

I know if I arrived at the office with a good load tied on, I would be sent home and reprimanded for my actions. The consequences I face would be unemployment.

I'm not saying they can't enjoy a beer or a drink of rum in the leisure of their own home. I'm not even saying they can't enjoy the same after a meeting or training night. I'm OK with a beer or two at the conclusion of a meeting.

I am really not OK with the thought of pushing that consumption to levels above having a casual drink. That is when things get dangerous and, frankly, things cross a line that you can never come back from if something happens.

Small-town fire halls can't be old-boys' clubs anymore, which is what some of them turn out to be.

"There is too much on the line for someone to be drinking," said Antle. "There is zero tolerance for it."

These firefighters are as close to professionals as they can be without being part of a full-time and paid department.

Many have the equivalent training and with that comes the same level of responsibility.

They are constantly on shift.

There are no off days and their phone can ring at any time.

With that schedule, there should be no time for drinking on the job.

Nicholas Mercer is the online editor with The Western Star. He lives in Corner Brook and can be reached at Nicholas.mercer@thewesternstar.com.

Departments with no liquor licence:

• York Harbour

• Steady Brook-Little Rapids

• Massey Drive

• Hughes Brook-Irishtown-Summerside

• Mount Moriah

• Meadows

• Woody Point

• Rockey Harbour

• McIvers

• Kippens

• Trout River

• Humber Arm South

• Stephenville

No consumption during meetings or training nights:

• York Harbour

• Steady Brook-Little Rapids

• Massey Drive

• Hughes Brook-Irishtown-Summerside

• Mount Moriah

• Meadows

• Woody Point

• Rockey Harbour

• McIvers

• Kippens

• Trout River

• Humber Arm South

• Stephenville

• Pasadena

Towns with a liquor licence at fire hall:

• Pasadena

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