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 hi 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. So this study doesn’t surprise 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