Tag Archives: volunteer fire department

Alcohol and The Fire Service: A Long Tradition

Drinking alcohol and being a firefighter seem to go hand and hand. When I grew up at the firehouse it was an every weekend occurrence. Even before I was a member, I would hang out there on the weekends with my dad. Every Friday night after a few hours of bingo it was time for the “boys” to crack open the beers and get the hall set up. All the members would huddle around the bar in the back of the hall and tell all the stories of the big fires throughout their careers. 

Attending the conferences it seems the tradition lives on. You can almost bet there will be a major alcohol sponsor and a block party waiting. All the parades and the major events seem to hold the same precedence, Alcohol and lots of it. Does the Fire service have higher rates of alcoholism than the general population? Is it time for the leaders of the major events to take a look and see if there is need of change?

A recent Study by JSciMedCentral says it does. They questioned 112 firefighters from the northeast and they said that 58% of the firefighters reported binge-drinking behavior in the last 30 days. The study questioned both volunteer and paid firefighters and the numbers were staggering across the board. They ask the firefighters why they believe the alcohol use was so high and they said “tradition” as one of the factors among other things.

I personally work on helping firefighters who are struggling with alcoholism and drug abuse. I talk to guys every week whose lives have been destroyed by alcohol. The very traditions that firefighters follow are causing some to lose everything and hit rock bottom. Thus the results of this study aren’t surprising to me at all.

The JSciMedCentral study clearly shows that cultural issues are contributing to the fact that drinking, and overdrinking, are more prevalent in the profession. First of all, when questioned the firefighters didn’t believe their profession was any worse than any other profession. So we’re looking at a culture that has normalized behavior that is actually excessive.

Many departments expressed having zero tolerance policies about drinking on the job. These policies are acceptable because they are consistent with the culture. The overarching trope is that firefighting is a serious, tough, demanding business after which one has to unwind. The JSciMedCentral study quotes responses that use the word “unwinding” as a common view the respondents had about after-hour drinking activities. So much so that the study showed hangovers – that is, having been drunk the night before reporting for duty with perhaps too few hours to sleep it – were tolerated to a greater extent than drinking on the job. This is in keeping with the culture – the idea of toughing it out and getting one’s act together for the serious work at hand.

I have been saying over the last few years that something needs to change. Promotion of alcohol at fire service events should be cut back. Drinking alcohol and stepping foot into a volunteer fire department should be an absolute no. I can’t believe that in 2015 we still allow individuals who are under the influence inside of a fire department. The amount of cameras on you today will destroy an individual for one simple mistake. It will disgrace a firefighter and the department.

Perhaps it would only take a slight change in culture to pave the way for policies reflecting less tolerance of after-hours drinking. Reporting how firefighters viewed their colleagues’ drinking habits, the study writers put the word “unwinding” in quotes. It’s a significant notation singling out of a pivotal word that holds the drinking culture together. The concept of “unwinding” fits with the idea that alcohol consumption is earned, by a hard, stressful job completed. This wording positions alcohol as a tool, if not an ally, against stress, exhaustion, risk, and sacrifice. In the most extreme mythos, it is conferred on someone who has measured up to manhood (roughly 80 – 90% of respondents were male) – which could seem like a lot of psycho-babble, except that issues with alcoholism, according to the study, seem to decrease with age.

The good news cited by the study is that 50% of responders reported that after the Oklahoma City bombing they sought out friends as their “coping strategy,” while only 19% reported turning to alcohol. This suggests that community, friendship, and responder-brotherhood can be leveraged in the struggle against alcoholism. Connecting socially in non-alcoholic events might help reduce the firefighter perception that alcohol is a tool for handling stress. Efforts going on across the country have hit on this idea and are beginning to leverage the sense of community in creative ways as they develop systems to keep firefighters safe and mentally healthy. A successful change in culture will take time, dedication, ever more awareness and eventually wider standardization.

References: JSCI MedCentral Study



Mark Lamplugh Jr. is a fourth generation firefighter and former captain with the Lower Chichester (PA) Fire Company. He is now the Chief Executive Officer of 360 Wellness. . 360 Wellness has access to the best treatment centers and clinicians across the country. Let our experienced wellness specialists match you
with a treatment center or clinician that meets your needs and gets you on the road to full recovery as soon as possible. We make sure to get you the best possible help available. Call our wellness hotline and speak with a wellness specialist to help you find the best help possible: (800)901-1640

Mark W Lamplugh Jr
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Cell: 561-762-9729


Combination Department Problems?

Combination Department Problems? Perhaps it’s time for some: Creative Professional Development.
     The situation presented before us is not an uncommon one. Many combination departments today are struggling with recruitment, resources, and training. Each department, no matter its circumstances, needs to begin with an honest evaluation of where they currently are: their strengths, weaknesses, deficiencies and where do they want to be in the future. This is the strategic planning in its basic form. In this case, the department would be focusing on the area of training.
     First, a plan must be established, one that is expandable and that is feasible for the department to sustain. After conducting an assessment of the department; areas that would be identified could be:
Current number of members who are certified vs. proficient members
Current members who are not attending or not maintaining their hours. 
The Fire Department  leadership should meet with them and assess whether or not they will continue as active members or consider another role within the department. This seems harsh but is a necessary burden of leadership in order to maintain the services that the community depends upon.
Fire Department Leadership should also consider the current department resources for training such as: budget, members who have outside resources such as access to construction materials etc., and grant opportunities for training.
     Consider the example of a two station combination volunteer department who are struggling to get their members to attend training:
    In a combination department, the training must be offered where all members can attend (paid and volunteer). Thus the standard Monday night training schedule may not be adequate for the organization. A recommendation that may be helpful would be to develop the training curriculum and a training calendar. For example, Station 1 training would be offered on the 1rst Monday of each month during the day and night and Station 2 training would be offered on the 2nd Monday of each month day and night. 
     This calendar would give the company officers a monthly topic that they must focus on. The topic will have clear outline and objectives. Every quarter the two stations will have a special training that allows them to perform the past three consecutive skill sets in an incident based training format. For example if the preceding three months were on hose, ground ladders, and SCBA. The incident based training could be a VEIS scenario or a room and contents fire while simultaneous vertical ventilation efforts are being conducted. 
    This format allows for flexibility but the quarterly training would be the most critical as it serves as a quality assurance standard. The organizational leadership would review their performance and thus would show if the company officers have been doing their job. If individuals fail to meet the objectives, a meeting with the leadership is conducted, and the members are given the same training again with additional help by leadership to insure their success. These hours and training sessions are documented and assist in maintaining the required training hours by the state of NC (36 hours per member). During the course of these quarterly assessments, the department’s leadership could use this as an opportunity to identify potential future leaders and document their performance as criteria for selection. This helps prevent the election bias that is prevalent in many combination departments. In short, the organization would be choosing the most qualified rather than the most liked member.
     Certain fire service training is often deemed cost prohibitive but in reality “if we have a fire station and a fire truck we have all we need to train.” (Billy Goldfedder). The fundamentals of firefighting are based upon each member’s ability to execute them flawlessly. The training curriculum and drills are only limited by the imagination of the training officer. With the tremendous amount of free resources on-line, a training officer can easily come up with drills lasting as short as five minutes up to eight hours or more. 
     As the department implements the schedule, conducts quarterly reviews, a fire department representative should be looking into grants to assist with purchasing and building training props. A simple outbuilding can house a forcible entry prop, a Pittsburg drill, a Denver drill, and more. Our station had a custom made forcible entry prop for $1200 by a firefighter who is a welder. 
     These training sessions do not have to interfere with minimum staffing and can actually enhance staffing. For example, if the Monday night training sessions are not well attended and now due to the popularity and enjoyment of the training the department has 50% of its members their on Monday night let us consider how much better the response to the community will be because of this initiative.
Organizational Buy-In:
If we build it, doesn’t necessarily mean they will come. As the department plans out their training calendar these points should be considered:
Firefighters need to be given more than one opportunity to attend training per month. Volunteer firefighters have families and full-time jobs thus their time is limited.  A Monday night and a daylight training session should be offered to allow training opportunities for both paid and volunteers. As previously mentioned, if it is split between the two stations there could be four different opportunities for training each month. As studies have shown, that most paid firefighters for combination departments do not live in the response area.
Make it worth their time: One might stop reading this and say “All training is worth their time! Heresy! Burn this guy at the fire department stake!” But stay with me for a moment, every department is different but we all have the same problems. We suffer from a lack of time to complete everything on our list and if we have the time we don’t have the financial resources. Consider what you do have: Internet connection, Big Screen TV, fire trucks, and a bay? A simple training facility was just described based on what this department already has. The department’s leadership should consider making the training fun, applicable to their department, and to the point. Many firefighters know other firefighters who are top notch instructors and many of those same instructors are willing to teach such organizations or develop training curriculum for free if we would but ask them. 
Enlist the support of the youth: Firefighters today are young and they are smart. Many of them know how to do things with technology that we couldn’t imagine. For example, for $50 dollars one can plug an I-phone into a flat screen TV and use a fire simulator app to conduct Fire ground simulations with photos taken from your own response area. Find the firefighter who loves technology and encourage them. A leader would be wise to collectively analyze the strengths and expertise of its members and use them accordingly. Consider making training videos and sharing them with the membership to encourage them. There are movie apps available on smart phones and I have personally made training videos in as quickly as an hour.
Other resources: Many combination fire departments have Fire auxiliaries. A primary reason for volunteers failing to attend training is the prohibitive nature of removing them from their families. If the membership embraces the auxiliary concept, becomes organized, they could feasibly provide a covered dish meal each Monday night training session. These members could provide child care and thereby allowing the membership to grow and become what the fire service truly is: a family!
In conclusion, the combination fire departments face many challenges today but the creative minds of today can offer many solutions to these challenges. Each department has a wealth of knowledge under their roof. The department leadership should ‘get to know’ each member and conduct an assessment of their hobbies, likes, expertise, and any special skills. They should know about their family, their work schedules, and what their member’s priorities are. For example if 50 percent of your membership is devout Catholic then scheduling training on a night when Mass is normally held is a bad idea. Our departments are comprised of people who have lives outside of the fire service. If a combination department, or any department for that matter, wants to be truly successful they have to care enough to know their people. In this way, the relationships are strengthen and as a leader one would know who to select, when to schedule an event, and how to do it because they know their people.
Instructor Andy Starnes
Copyright 2014