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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Madison Firefighter Arrested for DUI in Firetruck

I'm trying to sort out who's dumber: Madison volunteer fireman Scott Johnson, for getting arrested for driving while intoxicated after responding to a fire call, or Fire Chief Jerry Johnson, for muttering an incoherent and irrelevant defense of fire department policy instead of calling stupid stupid.

KJAM reports that fireman Scott Johnson got a DUI citation from a local cop who saw Scott Johnson at the fire call, suspected he might be drunk, followed as Scott Johnson drove the firetruck back to base, and gave Scott Johnson the breathalyzer.

Strangely, Chief Jerry Johnson offers this defense of fire department policy to require all available personnel to respond to fire calls:

By "available," certainly, uh, people are all volunteers, and, uh, they have, uh, they go out of town, they like to camp, they like to hunt, they like to fish, they go to football games, they go to basketball games, uh, they go out of town to other activities just like everybody. So when I say "available personnel," uh, I mean, uh, uh, you know, available personnel [Madison Fire Chief Jerry Johnson, interviewed on KJAM radio, 2010.09.08].

Now maybe KJAM just picked the wrong clip here. Maybe Chief Jerry Johnson has much more to say about fireman Scott Johnson's arrest and alleged drunkenness.

But Jerry, are you really trying to justify someone showing up drunk for work? Are you really saying intoxication doesn't somehow render someone unavailable for a fire call? Are you really trying to equate camping, hunting, fishing, and attending sporting events with getting drunk?

Oh, wait, this is Madison: maybe camping, hunting, fishing, and sports events really are synonymous with drinking.

It sounds to me as if the Chief Jerry Johnson is excusing irresponsible behavior by saying that our firemen are just volunteers who need to go have fun just like everybody else. And I would agree that firefighters, just like police and doctors and everybody else, do not sacrifice their right to rest and relaxation.

But I would assume that our volunteer firefighters would figure out some rational "on-call" regimen. I would assume that they would accept some responsibility to be totally available at certain times. I would assume they would not leave to hunt or fish or shop out of town without at least telling the chief they're going to leave the department short a man for a day or two.

And I would think someone who volunteers to fight fires and protect public safety would say, "You know what? I agreed to do a job. I can't do that job if I'm too drunk to drive. Ergo, I'd better not get drunk."

I honestly don't know what Chief Jerry Johnson was trying to say. But I hear in his radio clip an inkling of that very Madison attitude that getting drunk is just what we do, and it's no big deal.

Chief Jerry Johnson appears to miss the point that this is a big deal. There is never an excuse, policy or otherwise, for getting drunk... let alone driving our firetruck while so incapacitated. That Chief Jerry Johnson felt the need to say anything else defies common sense.
Update 10:11 CDT: Chief Jerry Johnson tells KELO, "I cannot and will not dictate to our firefighters how they spend their free-time, that is their choice." Bull, Jerry. You can certainly tell your volunteers they need to be ready and able to perform their duties at any time they're on call. You can tell them they can't break the law. You can tell them serving in your department means not endangering public safety by getting drunk and driving drunk.


  1. I think the Chief had more to say to KELO than to me. http://www.keloland.com/NewsDetail6162.cfm?Id=104656 My copy btw is a combo from AP

  2. This is my favorite local blogosphere story of the week. I think that you are not considering all the angles here, Cory. A toasted firefighter might be more resistant to flame, and he carries an extra reservoir of fluid with him into the battle.

  3. During my adult life I have worked in many different disciplines of public safety in both a volunteer and career capacity as a firefighter, a medic, a special deputy with the sheriff’s department, and now as a department head in homeland security/emergency management, so I can look at this from many different perspectives…

    The firefighter… If you’re a volunteer and the tones drop and you’ve been drinking, you don’t respond, plain and simple!!! I don’t care if you’ve only had 1 drink or you’ve had 20 drinks. I have 30 volunteers who currently work for me and here’s MY policy on the subject of alcohol and substance abuse… If any of them show up to an incident scene after they have been drinking, they all know that they will be thanked for their service and then asked to turn in their equipment and leave the agency as their services will no longer be required. The firefighter should have never been allowed on the incident scene, let alone behind the wheel of a piece of fire apparatus!!!

    Now onto the arresting officer… From what I have gathered from KELO and the Daily Leader, it appears the officer had crossed paths with the firefighter earlier in the evening before they both responded to the call and the officer had a suspicion that he could be under the influence… Oh, I have a MAJOR issue with that… If that is true, the officer should be reprimanded for his actions as well!!! Why, do you ask? What if my wife and grandkids were driving down the road and were hit by the fire truck being driven by a drunk firefighter which was being followed by a police officer who had his suspicions on the scene that the firefighter was drunk, but chose to allow said firefighter to get behind the wheel and drive back to the firehouse? I know it’s a lot of woulda, coulda, shoulda, but my point is that if the officer had his suspicions, he should have dealt with the situation at the scene, NOT after allowing him to drive back to the firehouse which had the potential to endanger the lives of the very people they swore an oath to protect!!!

    Now onto the Chief… All I can say about that is if this was one of my volunteers, and I gave statements like that to the media, I can say with the utmost certainty that I would no longer hold the title of Executive Director!!!

    David B.

  4. Ken, I thought alcohol was flammable!

    Dave, I agree, this incident calls for some tough-love management. The only gray area is the arresting officer's action. We don't know yet (and the press hasn't gone after this angle, only the back-channel "won't put my name to it" gossip) what that crossing of paths consisted of, how much drinking the fireman had done, or what actions he committed that might or might not have risen to the level of arrestable action at that point. What is plain from the public statements is that we have some shoddy management at the fire department... or at least an inability to comment intelligently to the press.


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