Many Area First Responders Allowed to Drink, Work

An NBC Chicago / Better Government Association Investigation

Many safety experts consider firefighting America's most dangerous profession. Running into a burning building is a job which requires physical stamina, unique knowledge, and a ton of bravery.

Often, firefighters are asked to put their own lives on the line as they search for and rescue others. It is heroic work, for which citizens cannot offer adequate thanks.

It is also a job which experts say no one should do under the influence of alcohol.

But many Chicago-area communities have language in their union contracts allowing firefighters and paramedics to start their shifts with significant amounts of alcohol in their bloodstreams, an NBC5 Investigates / Better Government Association investigation has found. In some cases, that amount is just below .08, the Illinois definition of legally drunk.

Previously, NBC Chicago and the BGA reported that numerous police departments in the Chicagoland area have similar provisions in their contracts. After those findings were published, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White proposed legislation, which would set a mandatory zero-tolerance for police departments statewide.

But the new findings reveal that other emergency responders enjoy similar alcohol permissions in their contracts. Arlington Heights, Aurora, and Evanston have set the level at .02. But it escalates, to .04, in communities like Chicago, Elmhurst, Waukegan and Winnetka, and up to .08 in Oak Park and the Orland Protection District.

Schaumburg and Palatine both have set their maximum permissible levels at zero.

"We have an obligation to make sure everybody can perform their job at the highest level," said Palatine Village Manager Reid Otteson. "For those who are out performing the job, none of them want to be with someone who might be under the influence."

"I can't imagine wanting to work in that kind of environment," he said. "I think it sends the message that there's a tolerance level. And right now, your job is to come and protect and be a hundred percent, and be the best when you do it."

Indeed, many public safety experts said they found the idea of any allowable level of alcohol outrageous and dangerous.

"That's the stupidest thing I ever heard," said Alan Brunacini, the former fire chief of Phoenix, Ariz., who is now an industry consultant. "It seems to me that this is just a no-brainer."

"We have the safety and well-being of others in our hands," said Jack Snook, a former Portland-area fire chief who now runs the firm Emergency Services Consulting International. "It's just common sense we don't want to have impaired judgment."

Advocates of policies that allow for some level of alcohol insist the policy is needed to allow for residual effects from drinks taken before duty, or the possible scenario where an off-duty firefighter is called in for an emergency. Officials in municipalities with contracts which allow firefighters to show up with alcohol in their systems told the BGA they would send employees home or give them desk duty if any alcohol was detected.

"There's no clean answer," said John Swan, the president of the Illinois Firefighters' Association and the chief of the Colona, Ill., fire department in the Quad Cities area. He said he wonders what would happen if short-staffed departments needed help from off-duty personnel who might have been enjoying a beer at home.

"We support zero-tolerance," he said. "But those [off-duty] firefighters and police that get called in on emergency times [might have some alcohol in their system]."

Pat Devaney, president of the Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois, suggested the policies may be decades old.

"What you'll often find is that the language has been in place for many years," he said. "It's likely that these articles were boilerplate language."

Secretary of State White's office, which is in the process of drafting legislation setting a zero-tolerance policy for all police departments across the state, said that in light of the new findings it would expand that language to cover all emergency responders statewide

For more, visit the Better Government Association and read Shots and Lagers, Chutes and Ladders. 

Chart provided by the Better Government Association // Click for full-size graph
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