Fire Apparatus Drunk Driving

BY CHRIS DALY

Several recent incidents have highlighted the issue of impaired driving and emergency vehicles. Although we would like to believe that this issue is nonexistent, history has shown that the impaired driving of an emergency vehicle is more common than we think.

Impaired driving is defined as “driving a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance to a point which renders a person unfit to safely operate a motor vehicle.” Although each state may refer to this crime differently-driving while impaired (DWI), driving while intoxicated (DWI), or driving under the influence (DUI)-the legal limit is the same across the nation. No one may operate a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) greater than 0.08 percent. For those driving a commercial motor vehicle, defined as having a gross vehicle weight rating in excess of 26,001 pounds, the legal limit is 0.04 percent BAC. Keep in mind that most of our fire apparatus are more than 26,001 pounds.

police officer is testing the firefighter to determine if he was driving under the influence
(1) The police officer is testing the firefighter to determine if he was driving under the influence. (Photo by Jason O’Neill.)

Many states also have a “general impairment” clause. In these cases, while the driver’s BAC may not be over the legal limit, if the police can establish that the driver’s alcohol or drug impairment caused a crash or unsafe driving, the driver can still be charged with a DUI.

For individuals under 21 years of age, most states have zero tolerance for drinking and driving. The legal limit to be charged with a DUI (while under 21 years of age) is usually 0.02 percent. However, there are other sanctions or penalties that can be charged if a person under 21 years of age is driving a vehicle with any alcohol in his system (0.001-0.020 percent).

Drunk driving” applies to more than just alcohol. Illegal drugs, prescription medications, and over-the-counter medications can all impair a person’s ability to safely operate a motor vehicle. Should the police stop a driver or should the driver be involved in a crash while impaired by these drugs or medications, the driver can face legal sanctions or arrest. Many people fail to heed the warnings on medication bottles telling them not to operate a vehicle or heavy machinery. These warnings are placed on medication bottles for a reason. The same goes for marijuana, cocaine, and other illegal drugs. If you have drugs in your system, you shouldn’t be behind the wheel.

ALCOHOL AND BLOOD ALCOHOL CONCENTRATION

To discuss drunk driving, we must first understand some important facts about alcohol. For the purpose of our discussion, “one drink” will equate to a 12-ounce beer, a five-ounce glass of wine, or a 1.5-ounce shot of distilled spirits (whiskey, bourbon, and so on).

After consuming “one drink,” the corresponding rise in BAC is dependent on several factors. Gender, weight, body type, and the type of alcohol are just some of the factors that will affect how high your BAC will rise after consuming alcohol. A 100-pound female will see a quicker rise in BAC than a 200-pound male after consuming one drink because of human physiology and the differences in male and female body compositions. Table 1 illustrates the approximate BAC increase based on weight and gender.

table 1

As we consume alcohol, our BAC increases accordingly. However, as we are drinking alcohol, our body is working to “burn off” or metabolize the alcohol we consume. On average, a person “burns off” approximately 0.015 percent BAC per hour. Again, it is important to realize that this “burn off value” of 0.015 percent per hour is an approximation and will depend on body type, age, weight, and other factors.

This concept is extremely important for the following reason. Let’s say you’re out late at a party and don’t get home until 0200 hours. When you finally stumble into bed after a long night of partying, your BAC is 0.25 percent. Unfortunately, you’re scheduled to work the day shift the next day, so you set your alarm for 0700 hours. You “sleep it off,” wake up, and arrive at work right on time. The fire alarm goes off at 0800 hours, and as you drive the apparatus to the fire call, you are involved in a crash. When the investigating police officer speaks to you about the crash, he notices the odor of an alcoholic beverage about your person. Suspecting that something is amiss, he asks you to submit to a blood test. The test results reveal that your BAC is 0.16 percent. “But wait!” you say. “I went home and ‘slept it off.’ ” Sleep does nothing to speed up or slow down the rate at which your body metabolizes alcohol. As such, you were operating your fire engine while under the influence of alcohol, and now you find yourself facing a drunk driving charge six hours after you came home from the party.

Few people realize how long it takes the body to rid itself of alcohol. In fact, if the fire call had come in at 1500 hours, you still would have been over the legal limit to operate a commercial motor vehicle (Table 2).

table 2

Whenever I explain this concept in my classes, many people sit in disbelief: 13 hours after you came home from a late night of partying, you could still be charged with a DUI.

There are many myths surrounding how to “sober up” and reduce the effects of alcohol. Drinking coffee, eating a hamburger, sleep, and taking a cold shower are recommended methods of purging alcohol from your system. In reality, they are just myths. The only thing you can do to remove alcohol from your system is to allow enough time for your body to do its job. Your liver will metabolize the alcohol and eventually remove it from your system. For better or worse, there is nothing you can do to speed this process along. As such, you must ensure that you give yourself enough time to purge all of the alcohol from your system before getting behind the wheel.

PRESCRIPTION AND OVER-THE-COUNTER MEDICATIONS

Although everyone is aware of the ramifications of drinking alcohol or ingesting illegal narcotics prior to driving, many people overlook the issue of prescription or over-the-counter medications. Many of these medications cause side effects such as dizziness and fatigue, which can seriously impact a driver’s ability to safely operate a motor vehicle. Should you be prescribed such medications, it is imperative that you discuss this topic with your primary care physician as well as your station supervisor. It may be in your best interest to take sick leave so as not to endanger yourself or others. Should you be involved in a motor vehicle crash and you’re found to have these drugs or medications in your system, you could face severe legal sanctions. Driving a 30,000-pound fire apparatus while affected by these medications is an extremely unsafe situation for you, your crew, and the public you protect. This is another reason firefighters should avoid prescription sleeping medications while on duty.

SUBSTANCE ABUSE AND THE MOTOR PUMP OPERATOR

I think we can all agree that a motor pump operator who is under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance is a bad situation. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for fellow firefighters to turn a blind eye to a colleague who may be under the influence. When this happens, firefighters feel that they are “looking out for” their fellow firefighters by not reporting them to the appropriate authority. That is the worst thing you can do. A firefighter who shows up to work or to the volunteer firehouse while under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance is in need of assistance. If someone risks his entire livelihood by showing up to the firehouse under the influence, he probably has serious substance abuse issues that need to be addressed. Ignoring this type of behavior will enable this person to continue on a downward spiral and endanger fellow firefighters and the public.

A sad example of this behavior occurred during a water tanker crash in Wyoming on May 22, 2003. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Firefighter Fatality Report F2003-20, the local fire department was dispatched for a report of a brush fire at approximately 2219 hours. The driver of the water tanker had left a local drinking establishment approximately 15 minutes prior to the dispatch. The driver drove his personal vehicle to the firehouse; on his arrival at the station, he asked another firefighter to start the truck for him. This second firefighter was aware that the tanker driver was forbidden to operate emergency vehicles for the department, so he ignored this request.

The tanker driver then started the truck himself. As the driver of the tanker got ready to leave the station, another firefighter got in the truck with him but then changed his mind and got off the truck. A third firefighter then got in the truck to respond to the call. At no point did anyone prevent the driver from operating the tanker, despite knowledge that he was not allowed to drive.

As the tanker was preparing to leave the station, a 16-year old firefighter asked if she could ride in the tanker. The firefighter agreed to give up his seat, and the victim firefighter boarded the rig. The tanker left the station and responded to the call.

While driving along a graded gravel roadway, the tanker driver allegedly swerved to miss an antelope. When the driver swerved, the tanker left the right side of the roadway, causing the driver to overcorrect. The vehicle entered a skid and then rolled over nearly two times before coming to rest 50 feet from the roadway. The victim firefighter was partially ejected and trapped beneath the tanker.

While at the scene of the crash, a highway patrol officer administered a portable breath test to the tanker driver. The portable breath test revealed that the driver’s blood alcohol concentration was nearly twice the legal limit. When blood was drawn 2½ hours later, the driver’s BAC was 0.086 percent. The driver was arrested for DUI.

Sadly, no one prevented the tanker driver from operating the tanker despite the fact that other firefighters at the fire station knew he was barred from operating emergency vehicles. Regardless of whether anyone noticed that the driver was intoxicated or smelled an alcoholic beverage about his person, the simple fact that he was suspended from driving should have caused someone to tell him he was not allowed to drive. In this case, turning a blind eye had tragic results.

A similar fatal crash occurred in Ohio on July 7, 2008 (photo 2) (NIOSH Firefighter Fatality Report F2008-22). In this case, the victim firefighter was the driver of the fire engine involved in the crash. The firefighter was responding to a report of a vehicle fire when he misjudged the clearance of another vehicle that had stopped in the oncoming lane. The fire truck left the roadway; the driver overcorrected in an attempt to regain control, and the vehicle rolled over several times. During the rollover sequence, the victim firefighter (who was not wearing a seat belt) was ejected from the vehicle and sustained fatal injuries. A subsequent investigation revealed that his BAC was 0.08 percent-twice the legal limit for operating a commercial motor vehicle.

fatal crash in Ohio
(2) This fatal crash in Ohio was also the result of a firefighter’s operating a vehicle while over the legal limit for alcohol. (Source: NIOSH Fatality Report 2008-22.)

In a more recent incident at a major urban fire department, a ladder truck driver allegedly drove through a steady red light, striking and seriously injuring a motorcyclist. The other crew members on the apparatus brought the driver to a nearby bar and began giving him water to drink. A subsequent investigation revealed that the driver had nearly four times the legal limit of alcohol in his system at the time of the crash and that the other crew members attempted to conceal the crime of drunk driving. As a result, not only is the driver of the apparatus under investigation but the other crew members on the rig are as well.

NIOSH AND IAFC RECOMMENDATIONS

As a result of the findings in NIOSH Firefighter Fatality Reports 2003-20 and 2008-22, NIOSH has made several recommendations. One specifically addresses the issue of alcohol and emergency vehicle operations. The NIOSH report states that fire departments should do the following:

“Adopt the International Association of Fire Chief’s (IAFC) Zero-Tolerance Policy for Alcohol and Drinking [see sidebar “IAFC Zero Tolerance for Alcohol and Drinking in the Fire and Emergency Service”] to prohibit the use of alcohol by members of any fire or emergency services agency/organization at any time when they may be called upon to act or respond as a member of those departments. Departments should develop written policies and have procedures in place to enforce this policy.”

In addition to the Zero-Tolerance Policy, the IAFC specifically addresses alcohol and emergency vehicle operations in the document “Guide to IAFC Model Policies and Procedures for Emergency Vehicle Safety.” In this document, the IAFC states the following:

  • “Fire department members are not permitted to be on duty, to respond to emergency incidents, to drive or operate fire department vehicles, or to perform any other duty-related functions while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
  • “Fire department members shall not perform any duty-related functions for a minimum of eight (8) hours following the consumption of any alcoholic beverages. A longer waiting period may be required to ensure that the individual is free of impairment. A blood alcohol concentration of 0.02 percent or higher, while on duty, shall create the presumption that the member is under the influence of alcohol.
  • “The driver and the officer in charge of any fire department vehicle that is involved in an accident that causes measurable property damage, injury or death shall be tested for the presence of alcohol or drugs with the least possible delay. In addition, a chief officer may require a member to be tested for the presence of drugs or alcohol at any time, upon reasonable suspicion that the member could be under the influence of such substances.”

Although the IAFC document makes reference to “eight hours following the consumption of any alcoholic beverages,” it is important that fire service members understand how long it can take your body to remove all of the ingested alcohol from your system. If you consumed a large amount of alcohol, it may take considerably longer than eight hours for your BAC to return to 0.00 percent.

NATIONAL STANDARDS

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has set standards that pertain to fire department vehicle operations. These standards directly address important issues related to alcohol and drug testing for emergency vehicle drivers who may be involved in crashes. For example, NFPA 1451, Standard for a Fire and Emergency Service Vehicle Operations Training Program, states the following:

4.1.5 –”The FESO [fire and emergency service organization] shall institute a program of post-crash drug and alcohol testing for the drivers of vehicles involved in crashes.”

A4.1.5 –”The program should include, as a minimum, drug and alcohol testing in any crash involving an injury or fatality. Additional testing criteria should be considered for all incidents where property damage has occurred or when FESO vehicles sustain a set minimum of cost to repair. The department should also consult with risk management resources and consider state law requirements in setting program criteria.”

NFPA 1500, Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, states the following:

10.1.5–”Members who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs shall not participate in any fire department operations or other duties.”

A10.1.5 –”If any member, either career or volunteer, reports for duty under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or any other substance that impairs the member’s mental or physical capacity, this situation cannot be tolerated.

“Evidence of substance abuse could include a combination of various factors such as slurred speech, red eyes, dilated pupils, incoherence, unsteadiness on feet, smell of alcohol or marijuana emanating from the member’s body, inability to carry on a rational conversation, increased carelessness, erratic behavior, inability to perform a job, or other unexplained behavioral changes. The possibility of liability exists if a member who is under the influence of alcohol or drugs is allowed to remain on duty, to operate or drive vehicles or equipment on duty, or to drive a private vehicle from the duty site. A member who is believed to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs cannot be allowed to operate equipment or drive a vehicle, including a private vehicle, until the condition of the member has been determined and verified.”

Although some consider these standards to be “recommendations,” I can assure you that if you find yourself the subject of a lawsuit, you will be held accountable to them. Make sure you have written policies that address the issue of drugs and alcohol within the firehouse, especially as they pertain to vehicle operations. Also make sure you address what to do if someone arrives at work under the influence.

As the standards clearly state, you can’t let a member who is under the influence “get himself home.” Doing so will create an incredible safety risk to the member as well as a liability risk to the supervisor and the department.

SUPERVISOR CONSIDERATIONS

As firefighters, we live and work together as close-knit families. This relationship lends itself to tight bonds that facilitate teamwork and self-sacrifice, but it often also causes issues when it comes time for discipline. One of the most difficult things for a supervisor to do is to discipline a fellow crew member for a policy infraction. Sometimes a supervisor may turn a blind eye so as to protect a firefighter from discipline and a potential career-altering infraction. Although this may seem like the right thing to do, it could lead to disaster.

Should a supervisor notice that a member appears to be under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance, he must act immediately. Failure to address the issue could lead to a life-threatening situation for the member, fellow crew members, and the public. Showing up at the firehouse while under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance is completely unacceptable and must be dealt with at once.

As previously discussed, your department should have policies and procedures in place for this type of event. If your department does not, it is time to start the ball rolling. The potential legal ramifications of these types of situations are numerous, and they must be handled properly.

Remember, a firefighter who shows up to the firehouse while under the influence needs help. Ignoring the situation will only make it worse. Implement the appropriate disciplinary proceedings, and refer the employee to an Employee Assistance Program or a similar substance abuse program that deals with addiction. Only by looking out for each other can we prevent past tragedies from repeating themselves.

Author’s note: Thanks to Chief A.J. McCarthy and the Longwood (PA) Fire Company for assistance with this article.

IAFC Zero Tolerance for Alcohol and Drinking in the Fire and Emergency Service

A Leadership Policy Statement from the International Association of Fire Chiefs (Adopted by the Board of Directors, August 14, 2003)

“This policy statement is most easily described as a ‘zero-tolerance’ standard about the use of alcohol by members of any fire or emergency services agency/organization at any time when they may be called upon to act or respond as a member of those departments.

“Basically, if someone has consumed alcohol within the previous eight (8) hours, or is still noticeably impaired by alcohol consumed previous to the eight (8) hours, they must voluntarily remove themselves from the activities and functions of the fire or emergency services agency/organization, including all emergency operations and training.

“No member of a fire & emergency services agency/organization shall participate in any aspect of the organization and operation of the fire or emergency agency/organization under the influence of alcohol, including but not limited to any fire and emergency operations, fire-police, training, etc.

“No alcohol shall be on the premises of any operational portion of the fire department including, but not limited to, the apparatus, the apparatus floor, the station living areas, etc.

“Fire & emergency services agencies/organizations which raise funds by operating and/or renting social halls must provide a clear and distinct separation of facilities to help ensure the zero-tolerance standard of alcohol consumption by their members who may be called upon to perform official duties.”

CHRIS DALY is a 23-year veteran of the fire service and a full-time police officer who specializes in the reconstruction of serious vehicle crashes and emergency vehicle crashes. He developed the “Drive to Survive” training program (www.drivetosurvive.org) and lectures nationally on the prevention of emergency vehicle crashes. He has been a contributing author to Fire Engineering and a regular presenter at FDIC. He has a master’s degree in safety from Johns Hopkins University.

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