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Regional board examines alcohol ban for fire halls

The regional district is considering a ban on alcohol in fire halls.

The issue of alcohol storage and consumption at Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen fire halls was discussed at the recent Protective Services Committee meeting. The move would result in the prohibition of alcohol in department meeting room refrigerators, something that has been available to fire department members during social and recreational events at the respective halls. Liability issues surrounding the consumption and storage of alcohol on RDOS property were cornerstones of regional district staff’s argument that alcohol in fire halls be universally banned, except under special permit.

Oliver director Pat Hampson asked staff and counsel about potential liability issues surrounding a firefighter’s alcohol consumption at home prior to a call, noting that it was unlikely that the RDOS could ever completely escape liability.

“How much of a problem have you had?” he asked staff. “Statistically, how many incidents have occurred? It’s pretty limited, compared to other things that happen day in and day out.”

Area C director Allan Patton told the board that he had discussed the matter with the Willowbrook fire chief, who was “dead set against restrictions.”

“Willowbrook is a rural department, a long distance from a licensed pub,” Patton said, “It’s something pleasant to have, after a hot practice or a fire — they are not interested in losing that.”

CAO Bill Newell noted public perception of alcohol use in fire departments was also at issue. Oliver firefighters came under attack after a May 2010 fire at the Mesa Hotel where firefighters removed several kegs of beer from the scene of the blaze, tapped two of them at the fire hall and consumed beer from one of them. The firefighters issued a public apology, had to remove all unlicensed alcohol from the fire hall property and received two-week suspensions.

Area E director Tom Chapman said the simplest policy would be to not allow alcohol.

“The downside is they are volunteers who save us a lot of money. There are two camps in Naramata — one strongly in favour (of alcohol in the department) and one who isn’t. The issue is deeper and it has nothing to do with alcohol. The RDOS no alcohol policy is fine for the regional buildings that aren’t staffed by volunteers — we  have to find a way to do this without firefighters being made to feel like they are being treated like children.”

Summerland director Ken Roberge noted that Summerland had outlawed alcohol in the fire hall in the late 1990s, and had “never looked back since.” He recalled some immediate fallout over the issue at the time.

Lawyer Richard Thompson said while banning alcohol could leave volunteer firefighters feeling that they’re not trusted to act responsibly, the potential risk is too great to ignore.

“Once you introduce alcohol into the room it affects individual members. It affects their training,” said Thompson.

“By allowing alcohol you introduce the element of risk — the possibility of a catastrophic event, that could come back to the RDOS allowing alcohol in the hall. Why do you think that everyone else is (banning alcohol)?”

Patton noted that he was aware of the reality of liability, adding that the instance of a member coming to the hall under the influence would still involve liability, as it was a supervisory role of officers to ensure that no one conducted fire department affairs while impaired.

“The success of our fire departments is not dependent on beer in the fridge. If we thought that this policy would jeopardize the success of our departments we wouldn’t have brought it forward. Research shows that halls are stronger as a result,” said Newell.

It was moved that the policy be brought forward to the regional board for consideration. Staff will be advising the regional district’s seven departments about the policy so that fire halls can provide feedback to elected officials prior to the matter coming before the board at the director’s meeting on Thursday.

 

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