Chemical Abuse—Unfit for Fire Duty

Chemical Abuse—Unfit for Fire Duty


Volunteers Corner

Acurrent television commercial extolling the virtues of a master brewer’s art shows weary firefighters enjoying some of the product as a reward for a job well done. What these images do not show is that based on national statistics for the overall population, which, in general, would be typical of a volunteer fire company, one firefighter of this eight-man crew is an alcohol abuser and two use illicit drugs on a regular basis.

While the statistics on drugs such as marijuana, hashish, stimulants, halucinogens, and narcotics are somewhat vague, much is known about the most frequently abused drug of all—alcohol. Fully 50% of all traffic deaths are alcohol related according to the National Safety Council, and, in the FIRE PROTECTION HANDBOOK, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) notes that a five-year Maryland sampling showed that 35% of civilians killed in fires had a blood-alcohol level exceeding that of the state’s legal limit of 0.10 for drivers. Certainly, there’s not a firefighter alive who has not seen the grievous results of either too much alcohol or drugs.

Six percent of the nation is estimated to be alcohol abusers, another 4% are considered alcoholic. About 20% of the public over age 18 is estimated to use marijuana once a month. There is no reason to believe that firefighters as a group are any less a part of this national tragedy. On the contrary, it would seem that the stress, occasional horror, and macho image of the firefighters’ profession would increase the possibility for the presumed escape by the use of alcohol or drugs. This means that someone that you depend upon for your life may be impaired by drugs or alcohol. Can your company tolerate this member?

The effects of alcohol/drugs on the human system are many, and could have critical ramifications in an emergency situation. Depending on the amounts ingested, and the metabolism and weight of the individual, several sensory functions will be effected. Motor coordination, color perception, contrast, detail, and peripheral vision will be changed by as little as two ounces of alcohol or those two casual beers.

Perhaps more important are the effects of alcohol/drugs on the most critical faculty that the firefighter possesses—rational judgment. Scientific experiments and clinical studies have proven that the perception of persons under the influence of alcohol/drugs is altered. This blemished rationale may result in impaired firefighters who honestly believe that their performance has not been effected by “a couple of beers.” Injuries and fatalities can result from firefighters who cannot objectively evaluate either their own abilities or the circumstances at hand. Reaction times are severely effected by any of the central nervous system depressants. Coffee, cold showers, and other home remedies will not return an impaired firefighter to duty status. Only time, about one hour per ounce of alcohol, will permit the liver and other organs to process the alcohol.

All departments’ policies should be rigid in regards to drinking, drugs, and the response of imbibers. No person who has consumed alcohol should be permitted to respond to or remain at emergencies unless an appropriate interval of non-drinking time has passed. Any intoxicated responders should be sent home with an escort for their own safety. It’s understandable that a firefighter might, once, forget in the heat of the moment that emergencies and alcohol do not mix. However, repeated incidents of this nature could result not only in mistrust among company members, but also in severe adverse public reaction.

What can be done to help our comrades who are already afflicted, and what can be done to avoid falling into the trap of alcohol/drug abuse? First, alcohol/drug abuse must be recognized for what it is, an illness. Alcoholism/ addiction is not a sign of weak will or faulty morals any more than are heart disease or cancer. It is a serious and progressive sickness. Once recognized, there are several avenues that may be taken to recover a valuable team member, such as counseling, support groups, etc.

Most important, the organization’s bylaws, rules, and regulations must clearly state that alcohol/drug impairment is unacceptable behavior. Part of every new member’s indoctrination should include the procedures for evaluating intoxication and the penalties for being so effected. Local law enforcement authorities may be helpful in illustrating the seriousness of this type of offense by developing and delivering programs detailing the firefighters’ legal responsibilities and the consequences of a failure to comply with the law.

Second, members must be made to understand the gravity of the alcohol/ drug problem, and that little tolerance can be permitted. Abusers must be made to accept responsibility for their actions. Co-workers must not enable the abuser to continue to misbehave by covering-up. The best course may be that of “tough love”; the abuser is made to understand clearly the consequences of the undesirable behavior, and that discipline will be swift and final. Of course, efforts of the addict to recover should receive the understanding and cooperation of the company.

It might seem that the pitfalls of alcohol/drug abuse could be easily avoided by simply not drinking to excess and by not taking drugs. However, once affected, abusers are rarely able to recover on their own. There are a multitude of resources available to assist the abuser in recovering. Positive support groups such as family members, a personal physician, spiritual advisor, friends, co-workers, and recovery groups can all be an important and beneficial influence. The stigma once attached to diseases of this type is rapidly fading in light of recent medical findings. Organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous facilitate recovery and help promote responsible alcohol use. Many of these “sensible use” organizations receive support from wine, beer, and liquor industries.

In view of the terrible costs associated with this disease, loss of health, sanity, family, friends, job, finances, and a future in the fire service, wouldn’t an ounce of prevention now be worth many pounds of anguish later?

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