Tuesday, June 18, 2002

Firehouses in N.Ky. going dry

Concerns over liability trigger changes in policy

By Cindy Schroeder, cschroeder@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Northern Kentucky firehouses, once social gathering — and drinking — spots, are going increasingly dry.

        From the 1940s through the '70s, members of many Northern Kentucky volunteer fire departments thought nothing about tapping a keg or pulling a beer from a cooler or vending machine after a drill or a fire run, local fire officials say.

        But starting in the 1980s, as society began to take a sterner view of problem drinkers and the public became quicker to file lawsuits, fire departments adopted increasingly tough stances against alcohol use, local fire officials say.

        Drinking in firehouses has been in the spotlight since nine former volunteer firefighters complained to city officials in March that some members of the Crescent Springs Volunteer Fire Department had consumed alcoholic beverages before going on runs.

        An Enquirer examination of the policies of Northern Kentucky fire departments shows that regionwide, drinking at the firehouse is no longer the norm.

        Citing liability concerns and social changes, officials at more than 30 Northern Kentucky volunteer or mostly volunteer fire departments say they have removed all alcoholic beverages and/or beer vending machines from their firehouses within the past decade.

        “I've been a firefighter since 1968,” said Tom Pelle, chief of Campbell County Fire District No. 1 covering Silver Grove, Camp Springs and eastern Campbell County. “When I started, if you had any kind of a business meeting at the firehouse, everyone would be sitting around drinking beer. If you have a meeting now, everyone's drinking Coke or water.”

        Chiefs in a couple of departments, the Elsmere and Independence fire districts, said their departments removed all beer from firehouses more than 20 years ago. Most Boone County volunteer fire departments never allowed alcohol to begin with.

        Still others, such as Edgewood Fire and EMS in Kenton County, removed beer machines years ago but still allow volunteers to drink at the firehouse while off-duty.

        “If an off-duty member who's not involved in a training session or department meeting wanted to bring a beer into the firehouse, that's permitted, as long as it stays in the rec room,” said Joe Messmer, chief of Edgewood Fire and EMS.

        “We don't tolerate drinking alcohol and making fire and EMS runs. But at the same time, we try to maintain a bit of a social club atmosphere. That's what keeps the volunteers here.”

        The Crescent Springs Volunteer Fire Department, which serves the Kenton County cities of Crescent Springs and Villa Hills, is now considering zero-tolerance policies for alcohol and illegal or misused prescription or over-the-counter drugs.

        While the mayors of Crescent Springs and Villa Hills have expressed confidence in their firefighters, officials in both cities have called for a zero-tolerance policy on alcohol at the firehouse because of liability concerns.
       “It's not as if we're trying to be the alcohol police,” said Rick Wessels, chairman of the Crescent-Villa Fire Authority Board.

        “We want to maintain the relationship between the cities and the fire department, but we're saying, "Let's look at reality.' In today's climate, we have to have a reasonable and responsible alcohol policy in place.”

        Steve Martin, the attorney for the Crescent-Villa Fire Authority Board, met last week with Michelle Keller, the fire department's lawyer, to devise stricter policies for addressing alcohol and substance abuse. Although the two lawyers have yet to agree on a final proposal to present to the fire department — a separate entity funded by the two cities through an interlocal agreement — both say they are hopeful they will soon do so.

        “Really we're just talking about tweaking some basic ideas into a format to meet our needs,” Ms. Keller said. She added that any policy adopted also should address issues, such as the availability of beer at fire department social events and fund raisers.

        In the wake of publicity about the situation in Crescent Springs, the Ludlow Volunteer Fire Department, which removed its beer machine in 1989, is adding alcohol to its bylaws that currently prohibit the use of any controlled substance while on duty under penalty of expulsion.

        The Piner-Fiskburg Ambulance Service in southern Kenton County also voted June 4 to adopt a zero-tolerance policy on alcohol use by on-duty personnel and those attending events under the ambulance service.

        “We had considered changing our policy in the past, but it just kept getting pushed off,” said DeWayne Durr, assistant squad captain of the Piner-Fiskburg Ambulance Service. “Because of everything that's happened recently, we decided to go ahead and change it.”


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