Off-duty courage: Stopping a fellow firefighter from driving drunk

You KNOW they’ve been drinking, so don’t allow the bystander effect to stop you from protecting them – and others

Note: Download a cheat sheet for what to say to stop a firefighter from driving drunk.

Courage is a funny thing. There are few (if any) of you out there who wouldn’t do absolutely whatever it takes, including risking your life, for someone in need. It could be people trapped “in there” or caught in a raging current – whatever we are dispatched to. Send us in, and we'll fix it. We ARE the fixers.

What is courage? Merriam-Webster says it’s, “the mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty." Sounds about right. 

"We know that after 4-5 hours at a “gathering” or in a club, that firefighter is in no shape to drink anymore. We know that. So why don't we do anything? Sure, some do. But most don't," Goldfeder writes. (Photo/Getty Images)

Courage can be applied in the fire service. It can also be called into action when I have seriously done the complete opposite of what my wife asked me to do. Trust me, it takes stupidity to disobey her and a whole lotta courage to face her afterward. Sometimes I fail miserably to properly size up conditions related to “home command.” That's just me. I’m sure you can't possibly relate.

Caution ahead: Off-duty interactions

On our job, there are generally two levels of relationships: on-duty and off-duty. And within those relationships, there are three levels: You’re dealing with a subordinate, a peer or a superior. For the sake of this discussion, we are going to focus on off-duty interactions – a ball game, fishing, hunting, a social event, a promotion party or really any kind of party.

Now before I go any further, and most of you will not like this: Avoid situations where supervisors socialize off duty with subordinates. Yes, there will be situations you can’t avoid, such as for a wedding, a promotion or something formal, so be very careful to maintain an environment where nothing you do can come back to get you or others in trouble. Off-duty behavior absolutely impacts your job. Be there. Have fun. Write a check. Bring your significant other. And before things get too loose, leave. Just leave.

Why do I feel this way? Been there. Done that. Got burned. Some wounds are self-inflicted.

Like it or not, it’s 2021 and the scrutiny of behavior (on or off duty) and its related perception (reality or not) has never been more under the microscope. 

We KNOW who to watch

The fact is, regardless of what I advise, firefighters are social people and do stuff together off duty. And, because we know each other pretty well, we know predictable behaviors. We know who is going to flirt. We know who will do more than flirt. We know who will drink. We know who will do far more than just have one drink. We know who will drink and drink until they become that "other" person. We almost always know.

We know that after 4-5 hours at a “gathering” or in a club, that firefighter is in no shape to drink anymore. We know that. So why don't we do anything? Sure, some do. But most don't. 

It’s a tough conversation to have. We don’t know how to talk about it. We don’t want to get into their business. We assume someone else will speak up if it’s really an issue. But that’s the problem: If everyone assumes someone will speak up, no one speaks up. It's known as the bystander effect.

According to Psychology Today, the bystander effect occurs when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation, against a bully, or during an assault or other crime or a predictable bad event. The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will provide help. People are more likely to take action in a crisis when there are few or no other witnesses present.

Often in the aftermath of horrible incidents, people find out that everyone in the room knew something was wrong, but no one wanted to be the first to speak up. We've all been there, and WE MUST SPEAK UP.

There have been some recent incidents involving firefighters who were drinking – and the brothers and sisters with them knew it. Absolutely knew it. One such incident involved an intoxicated firefighter who drove the wrong way and killed an innocent driver, at least that’s what the indictment says. 

Do we have a drinking problem?

I have loads of opinions, but when I need facts, I reach out to the experts. A friend of mine for over two decades, Dr. Sara Jahnke, Ph.D, is the director and a senior scientist with the Center for Fire, Rescue & EMS Health Research at the National Development & Research Institutes, and a FireRescue1 columnist, too. She has studied firefighter behavioral health issues for over a decade. She’s also looked at drinking on the job.

In a study of funded by the American Heart Association, among the firefighters surveyed, 85% of career and 71% of volunteer firefighters reported drinking alcohol in the past 30 days. Approximately 50% of career and volunteer firefighters reported binge drinking in the past month.

On average, career firefighters reported drinking 10 days per month, which is about half their off-duty days in most departments. Volunteer firefighters reported drinking an average of 12 days a month. Of note, chiefs had a lower prevalence of binge drinking than firefighters.

How does that compare to the general male population in the United States?

According to a 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health survey, 51% of respondents consumed alcohol in the past 30 days – a significantly smaller percentage than fire service personnel.

In 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published data on the effect of binge drinking on men's health. That data shows that 22% of men reported binge drinking, and on average do so five times per month — less than half the rate of binge drinking in the fire service. (Note: Men are almost two times more likely to binge drink than women.)

What do we do about this?

I am not going to attempt to simplify a very serious and complex problem. But what I am trying to do is to get some of our own to actually believe in the brother and sisterhood stuff by paying attention – and doing something.

Telling an alcoholic to stop drinking is like telling a 300-pound person to just not eat so much. Not only is it not particularly easy to accomplish, but it takes a change in the way they live to even start to see a change. It takes time. Lots of time. It’s not gonna happen right now.

The big difference: If a brother or sister firefighter eats too much, there's little immediate damage to themselves and others. However, when you are out with a brother or sister firefighter (EMT, medic, etc.) and they are drunk, buzzed, smashed, sh!tfaced, f*&^% up, hammered, tipsy, trashed, lit or whatever your term for it is, and you almost always know when they are, then it's time to find that courage. 

See, the purpose of this piece is to stop a drunk firefighter from getting behind the wheel and killing someone, themselves or both. That's it. I can't solve the long-term issue, but maybe we can raise our self-proclaimed courage to a level where we can speak up to stop a drunk or stoned firefighter from driving. That's the goal, so here are some ways: 

  • Tell them no – and be firm.
  • Offer a ride.
  • Take their keys.
  • Call for help (family, friends, other firefighters).
  • Know who you are talking to and relate why they don't want to drive drunk.
  • Tell them why you give a damn about them.
  • And if none of the above works, and they head out to drive, call the cops. That may be harsh but everyone reading this has been on some horrific DUI calls. You know the outcome potential. 

Respond as quickly as you would when your tones go off and the dispatcher says, "structure fire," and just STOP THEM. You wouldn't hesitate then, so don't hesitate now. Do something now so they don't do something predictable, regrettable and life-altering or ending.

 Download a cheat sheet for what to say to stop a firefighter from driving drunk.

What to say to stop a firefighter from driving drunk

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