Chapter Four: Shutting the tap
Firefighters are working out the details of a plan that could eliminate casual alcohol use in the town=s five firehouses.
In a closed session of the council on April 9, fire chiefs presented a plan that would ban casual alcohol use in the firehouses. This would expand zero-tolerance in municipal-owned buildings to volunteer firehouses, by banning casual alcohol use without a permit.
Town Administrator Anthony Iacono said the plan calls for disconnecting all beer taps in firehouses and for the removal of alcohol from the premises.
AIf a party is being held, they can bring the alcohol in, but when the party is over, they have to remove it again,@ Iacono said.
Firehouses, which were sometimes previously used as after-work hangouts, will only be permitted to serve alcohol when a permit is issued for a private party or other social event. Firefighters who attend such events and consume alcohol will not be permitted to respond to fires if an alarm sounds. (The town=s volunteer firefighters are able to earn a stipend depending on the percentage of fires they respond to.)
AWhen the fire alarm goes off, we want to be in a position to make a judgement,@ Iacono said. AWe don=t want any questions asked later when it is too late to avert a disaster. This is for our own protection as firefighters, and other people=s protection B people who might have to rely upon us. If a firefighter has been drinking, he has to not respond to that call.@
The rules were devised by Fire Chief Robert J. Cordes in response to concerns over the sobriety of firefighters on the scene. In January, a story in the Secaucus Reporter showed that no firm safeguards existed for determining whether or not a firefighter was sober on the scene of a fire.
The use of firehouses as taverns had dropped significantly over the last few years, said some firefighters wishing to remain unnamed, but several firehouses had maintained a tavern-like atmosphere that raised concerns about safety. The issue has been a problem in communities across the country because of the nature of volunteer fire departments B which also serve as social organizations for many of the members.
While town employees are subject to random drug and alcohol tests as dictated by their union contracts with the town, volunteer firefighters are not, making it possible for a volunteer to respond to an emergency situation in an unacceptable condition.
Several firefighters said that less than half the 100 firefighters in Secaucus participate regularly in the social ritual of firehouse drinking. But at least one firefighter had been on a campaign to Ashut off the tap,@ in order to prevent a future tragedy he has claimed would spoil the reputation of the Secaucus Volunteer Fire Department.
The new rules would void the need for the fire department to provide on-the-scene sobriety tests, something that have been used in other municipalities in the nation where alcohol is an issue within volunteer firehouses.
Now that members of the Town Council have agreed to the firechiefs= plan, it is up to the chiefs at the individual firehouses to implement them.
According to the plan set up by the fire chiefs, all firefighters would receive drug and alcohol awareness training.
Town Administrator Anthony Iacono said firefighters would receive training from Intervention Strategies, a Secaucus-based firm which was recently hired to handle employee personal problems, and which has performed drug seminars as part of the Municipal Drug Alliance program in Secaucus.
AWhen we met with the fire chiefs for second time [on April 9] they presented the council with the plan,@ Iacono said. AChief [Robert] Cordes has made it a priority of his term as chief to make sure the department gets this training.@
Iacono said that during the first week in May, the officers from each firehouse will meet with representatives from Intervention Strategies to begin training. Other firefighters will begin their training later.
AThere is nothing wrong with going out to a party, and nothing wrong with drinking socially,@ Iacono said. ABut we can=t respond to a fire when we do.@
Iacono described the new policy as Afair@ and one that provides firefighters with an awareness of the effects of alcohol.
AWe want our people to make responsible decisions,@ he said. AWe do not want a few firefighters who may have made poor decision or bad judgement in the past to risk lives or ruin the good reputation of our fire department.@
He said the mayor and council have committed large amounts of money for the upgrade of equipment in order to make it a department worth being proud of.
AWe trust our firefighters to handle those pieces of equipment,@ Iacono said.
Chief Cordes said some of the details of the plan are still being worked out, and those meetings have been scheduled with members from the various firehouses. He said he hoped to have the new regulations in place by the summer.
ASome of the firefighters don=t want to lose the rights they have right now,@ he said.
A toga party was held at the North End firehouse on the day an article about the plan appeared in a local newspaper, making it appear that the firehouse violated the rules B and fueling rumors that a rebellion was underway.
Chief Cordes works with the North End Firehouse, and officials said if he can=t get the plan accepted there, no one will likely follow it.
Councilman John Bueckner expressed concern about a possible impact of the firehouse=s refusal, saying that a plan worked out by the fire chiefs to gain control over alcohol use in the firehouses could be in jeopardy.
AIf this is true, and I=m not saying it is, then our agreement might not hold water,@ Bueckner said. AYou can=t have four firehouses doing things one way and one firehouse doing it another. Things have to be uniform.@
Cordes, however, said the firehouse had not violated any order, since the plan was not in place at the time of the party. He said under the current rules, firehouses need permits only for private parties by people other than firefighters.
AIf the firefighters in that firehouse are holding a party, they don=t need a permit now,@ he said.
The rule change, when it takes place, will require firefighters to seek permits and then to excuse themselves from responding to a fire if they drink.