7 Action News Investigation exposes Detroit firefighters' dirty little secret; drinking on the job

DETROIT (WXYZ) - The 7 Action News Investigators are exposing a battle brewing in the Detroit fire department; a battle over the bottle.

We're talking about firefighters drinking on the job inside fire houses.

There's a new boss in town trying to put a stop to it, but he's running into resistance.

It's hard to say how many Detroit firefighters drink on duty. It's largely unknown to the public, but a well-documented, decades-old tradition. You might be surprised to hear there's actually a certain level of tolerance for it. But like a cold bottle of beer being poured into a tall glass, the bottle battle is rapidly coming to a head.

I've heard stories about drinking in Detroit fire houses for 30 years. Many firefighters and EMS technicians have complained about it, but none have been willing to talk about it on the record.  One retired fire department employee did agree to break the unwritten code of silence for this story under the condition that we not reveal his identity.

I asked the ex-employee how widespread the drinking is.

"I would say pretty much city wide," the source said.

"All the firehouses?" I asked.

"The ones I worked at, yes," he replied. "They usually drank out of plastic tumblers and you knew where they kept their stash," the source said.

"Do the bosses know this is going on?" I asked.

"Oh yes," he said with a chuckle.

"Why don't they put a stop to it?" I asked.

"Because they (the bosses) used to drink with them," he said.

"Seriously?" I asked.

"Yes, seriously," he replied.

But the days of throwing back beers in the firehouse, without serious repercussions, could be coming to an end.  Fire Commissioner Donald Austin is vowing to put a stop to it.

"My biggest concern though, Scott, is that there's an air of acceptance where this is the way it's always been," Austin told 7 Action News.

Austin grew up in Detroit, but spent much of his life in the fire service in Los Angeles. When he was recruited by Mayor Dave Bing to come home a year ago, he already knew about the drinking issue in fire houses.

He recalls the story his brother told him when he was a rookie firefighter back in the early 70's.

"That a Stroh Brewery truck pulled across the apron and made its daily delivery to the fire station.  And it quite astounded him," Austin said.

And Austin himself was surprised just two months ago over something his deputy, Fred Wheeler, stumbled upon while giving a tour of a firehouse on Fort Street in southwest Detroit. It was a very embarrassing moment that I'll detail for you in a minute.

First, more about the new commissioner's efforts to put a lid on boozing and the resistance he's run into.

"Shortly after I got here I put out a policy saying there was a zero tolerance for alcohol use on the job. I got pushed back when I found out it wasn't a zero-tolerance," Austin said.

He found out it wasn't zero tolerance when he got a phone call from Dan McNamara, president of the Detroit Firefighters Association.

"I called him, I said obviously someone hasn't informed you that we do have a substance abuse policy and that if you do want to change it, all we've got to do is sit down and negotiate over it," McNamara said.

I asked Commissioner Austin what his reaction was when he looked at that policy.

"I was quite blown away, honestly," Austin replied.

Austin discovered there is a certain level of tolerance for drinking in the union contract.

If a firefighter is caught drinking on the job with a blood alcohol level of .02 or below, first offense, the contract calls for a three-day suspension and the firefighter is referred to counseling. At .04 or higher, the contract calls for termination. 

But the department has discretion to offer a last change agreement allowing the firefighter to keep their job and start over with a clean slate if they don't get caught drinking again for five years.

In the past, nearly every firefighter eligible for a last chance agreement has gotten one.

When Austin read the policy in the firefighter's contract, he issued a second bulletin saying last chance agreements "will no longer be available in the same manner as in the past".

"So basically, I'm putting everyone on notice, that if you get found out on my watch, I'm going to do everything I can to terminate you," said Austin.

Austin told 7 Action News that ultimately he will be pushing to change to a zero-tolerance policy, meaning any firefighter caught drinking on duty would be terminated with no second chance.

7 Action News asked McNamara if he would accept that policy.

"Caught drinking to what level?" McNamara asked. "Drinking at all?"

"At all," I replied.

"I don't know," McNamara said.

"Would you at least talk about it?" I asked.

"Absolutely," McNamara firmly replied.

McNamara said it was the union that first asked for a substance abuse policy and it was the city that established the blood alcohol guidelines in back in 1999.

But we depend of firefighters to save our lives and property. How can the union president justify any drinking on the job at all?

"For example, I was laid off three times," McNamara said. "When I got off of work in the morning, the guys gave me a beer as a toast. Good luck,kid. I was leaving the firehouse. I had a beer at work."

The union boss and the fire commissioner do agree on a couple of things; both think only a small fraction of Detroit's firefighters drink on the job, and they agree that drinking should not be tolerated.  What's in dispute is how it should be dealt with when someone is caught.

The fire commissioner worries about a firefighter having a few beers, getting behind the wheel and having an accident.

"Then if you put on top of that the fact that this is kind of something that is accepted at some level in the organization…that, I think, would expose the city to great liability," said Austin.

McNamara said every firefighter who gets in an accident or is injured on the job is automatically tested.

"It's a life and death job we do," said McNamara. "None of any firefighters that have been injured or killed on this job have ever tested positive for any drug, none."

Yet both men agree some drinking goes on in the firehouses.

Remember the deputy commissioner giving the tour of the firehouse I referred to earlier in this story?  He stumbled across a cooler with five beers on ice in a closet and, nearby, a garbage bag with 51 empty beer cans. Every firefighter on duty was tested for alcohol and drugs and they all came back negative.

"But with that quantity of alcoholic containers something's going on. I think, you know, we have two shifts here, a unit one and a unit two and I think we hit it on the wrong day," Austin said.

Just recently the city lost an arbitration case involving a firefighter who blew a .13 on duty.

He was fired, but the arbitrator said he should have gotten a last chance agreement as most others have in the past. He ordered that the firefighter be re-hired with full back pay.

Austin said he was stunned and disappointed by the arbitrator's ruling. 

Austin also said he expects to sit down with the union within the next few weeks to start talking about his demand for a true zero-tolerance policy.


Smola Arb Award

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