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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Madison Fireman DUI Exposes Community Misunderstanding of Duty

The DUI arrest of an on-duty Madison fireman has generated a lot of conversation among my neighbors. It has also brought to the surface some ugly attitudes.

I have spoken with the Madison Police Department. (Note: none of the officers I have spoken with this summer appear to have been drinking.) Their official position on this matter: no comment. The matter is under adjudication, and it is not the police department's place to be arguing the case in public. Their duty binds them to stay out of the public fracas and not respond to the rumors and insults being flung their way.

Madison police have noticed some residents giving them a distinct cold shoulder since the fireman's DUI made the news. The men in blue have seen neighbors they've helped in the past year now decline to wave when they pass on the street.

Folks, in case you've forgotten, the police and the firemen are on the same team. They're all the folks who come save our skins when we're in trouble. They're all good people who make a commitment to sacrifice their time and leisure to protect us. And whether they are paid or not, they have a duty to remain fit for service, to obey the law, and, as public servants, to set a good example for our kids and the community. Men and women in either uniform are expected to uphold those clear standards. Men and women unwilling to do so need not apply.

No small contingent of my neighbors apparently disagree. The only public comment I've seen so far are two letters to the editor taking the fire department's side. The first comes from one of my favorite neighbors, Richard Wiedenman:

The Madison Fire Department is one of the most efficient departments in the state. Being a volunteer unit on call day or night, one shouldn't be critical of their off-duty activities. Mistakes can be made.

Let's hope they keep up the good work, as they have in the past, thanks to the volunteers.

— R.V. Wiedenman, Letter to the Editor, Madison Daily Leader, 2010.09.09, p. 3

Wiedenman is also to be praised for an efficient letter. My only response: Fireman Scott Johnson wasn't arrested for his off-duty activities. His citation happened while he was on duty. If you're too drunk to drive, you're too drunk to run firefighting equipment, and showing up for duty in that state warrants criticism.

(Of course, teetotaler that I am, I'll contend that we have every right to be critical of drinking to excess. There is no excuse for such irresponsibility, on duty or off. But that's a separate argument from the legitimacy of giving a fireman a DUI.)

Henry Hauck writes a bit more, and more bitingly:

The problem of volunteer firemen having alcohol on their breath is simple: Request the people with a fire to call in 24 hours prior to the volunteers coming. That would allow the volunteers to better schedule their life in order to volunteer.

We could also consider giving them a raise so they would no longer be a volunteer. Then we could demand specific behavior.

No, I do not condone drinking and driving at any time, but to allow a volunteer to drive to a fire after a few drinks and then allowing him to drive back so he could be given a ticket is not right.

I hope that the police person does not have a house fire because maybe all the volunteer fire persons may go to the hospital for a blood alcohol test prior to responding. I suggest that.

Folks, if I have a fire, please come as you are!

—Henry Hauck, Letter to the Editor, Madison Daily Leader, 2010.09.10, p. 3

Hauck's letter gets ugly. He goes beyond Wiedenman's simple request that we stay out of people's personal lives and respect the work they do for the community. Hauck starts threatening police officers with retribution. Hauck's is the sort of illogical snideness that makes our community look bad.

Hauck says he doesn't condone drinking and driving at any time. Unfortunately, he proves he's just saying that as a rhetorical ploy. He shows he doesn't really believe that by urging firefighters to drive drunk to his house if there's a fire. Sure, great idea, Mr. Hauck: and perhaps as they weave their way to save your house, they can kill a few innocent motorists or pedestrians along the way?

By the way, just to be clear: firemen, police, EMTs, Search & Rescue, if I have an emergency, don't drive drunk to get here. Better yet, don't get drunk in the first place. Thank you.

Hauck also fails to understand the idea of duty. Hauck apparently believes a petty personal grudge, based on resentment at another public servant performing his duty, warrants not carrying out one's own duty.

But who cares about law or duty or personal responsibility, right? We're Madison firefighters! We win trophies! We deserve to get drunk whenever we want, right? And if you torque us off, we don't have to come put out your fire! (Oops: my fire insurance premium just doubled.)

I don't hear any firemen saying that, but Hauck's letter exhibits the ugly entitlement mentality I'm hearing from too many of my neighbors. There appears to be a sense that since the firemen volunteer for this work, they are entitled to drink and do whatever else they want without criticism or accountability... and that they are entitled to pick and choose which members of the public they serve.

Hauck and too many other Madisonites appear to miss the point. Volunteering to fight fires or serve the public in any other capacity does not entitle you to special treatment. It actually binds you to a higher standard of conduct. you have to stay fit, physically and mentally. You have to be ready to serve (and serve anyone) at a moment's notice. No one forces you to be a firefighter. Public service is your choice... and choices have consequences. Choose to serve, and you accept a duty. Choose to drink and drive, and you accept the judgment of the law when you're caught. It's that simple.
Update 17:10 CDT: And in other news, Governor M. Michael Rounds has declared September Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month in South Dakota.


  1. In a small community like Madison, we need to remember that we are all part of a larger team. Rumors are floating as to whether the officer who arrested Mr. Johnson had an earlier verbal altercation with Johnson while doing walk-thru at the bars. If so, and if the officer noticed Johnson was intoxicated at that time, was it really entrapment to arrest him after responding to a fire call as others have suggested? Driving drunk is driving drunk...if you really are drunk. State law says if your blood alcohol content is less than .08%, you are not legally drunk, although a person could be impaired. It will be interesting to learn the true blood alcohol content and how this case plays out.

  2. It will also be healthy to know what specific directives (or lack of) came from the Fire Chief to the volunteers prior to this. His response after the fact was muddled, which raises the question. Without clear directives, I could imagine volunteers still feeling a sense of obligation. They need to know when not to come. That should be openly communicated and part of the culture.

  3. The attitude that you point out in this post is one of the reasons why I left Madison, and don't really miss it.

    I have noticed on some Facebook postings personal attacks on the officer for making the arrest. On the same posts I have also seen attacks on his tactics for this incident from people who have no clue what happened that night.

    It is a sad state of affairs when people rally behind the drunk driver of a firetruck, and the fire chief kinda defending the behavior in a round about way.

    In my 12 years as a police officer in Madison, I can say with a good amount of certainty that if I drove my squad car with ANY amount of alcohol, I would have been fired, humilitaed in public, and I sure as hell know that Chuck Pulford would not have defended my actions in the media.

    And lastly, if some fire fighters are upset becuase of this incident and want to quit because they can't drink and fight fires anymore, I say good. We'll find some sober replacements.

  4. But it's not quite fair to compare a paid position with a volunteer one. We reasonably expect police officers to be ready for duty when scheduled. Volunteer firefighters don't know when they will have to respond. When someone is serving the community for free and at personal risk, it's hard not to have mixed feelings. In future, expectations should simply be very clear. No doubt that will happen now which is something positive.

  5. John, maybe the comparison is fair. Consider: Madison policemen and firemen both choose to take on certain duties. They both know the risks and the compensation offered. They both know the working conditions. Does not getting paid for a job you agreed to do for no pay really excuse failing to fail the basic requirements of that job?

    I do agree that if they didn't have a clear on-call system previously, they should. If the firefighters really are on call 24-7, that's nuts... but again, if that's the duty you volunteer for, then you have to fulfill your promise.

    Mark: Thank you for your forthrightness. Is it really too much to ask that firefighters show up sober... or that Madisonites in general recognize and teach their kids that getting drunk, under any circumstance, is irresponsible?

  6. John,

    It is more than fair to make the comparison.

    For example, Sheriff's deputies in many counties are on call when their normal scheduled shift ends. While they are not being paid while on call, is it permissible for them to get intoxicated while on call and respond if needed?

    I can think of two times during my time in Madison that I got called into work on my day off after I had indulged in an adult beverage. I declined both times, why? Because I had been drinking. Knowing the ramifications of me responding to an emergency after drinking would be more harmful than good.

    Any first responder who arrives for duty in any capacity, paid or volunteer under the influence of alcohol or drugs is not only putting the public safety at risk, but fellow responders.

    But heck, what do I know. I chose to move away from Madison so who cares what I think. I live in a town now where the fire department holds fund raisers with soda pop and coffee on Saturday afternoons. Which by the way, are much more heavily attended in a town half the size than Madison.

  7. The situation of that early Saturday morning fire call may have been better-served if the officer had pulled over the allegedly intoxicated firefighter, notified the Fire Chief by radio that another driver was needed and asked the chief to drive his volunteer fireman home.

    Am I suggesting "special treatment" for this volunteer responder? Perhaps. Why? Because our emergency response volunteers risk their lives for us, whether it is fighting fires or search and rescue. If nothing else, we wouldn't have had TV stations giving Madison a public black eye.

    Obviously, if someone had been hurt or killed at the hands of this potentially impaired fire truck driver, we would all have a much stronger opinion.

  8. This situation is ridiculous. I sure wouldn't show up to any of my volunteer duties drunk, but I'm like Cory when it comes to the so-called adult beverages.

    I wouldn't drive kids in the church van drunk, I wouldn't pick up a hammer on a Habitat for Humanity work site drunk, I wouldn't tutor immigrants in the ESL program drunk.

    I would hope the people who organize those efforts would send home drunks. They would be critical of off-duty activity and so should a volunteer fire department!

  9. The League of Minnesota Cities has dealt with issues of alcohol abuse within small community fire departments head on. They have a sample policy that they required all cities to adopt in order to be covered under the League's liability insurance. It is basically a zero tolerance policy. Including no beer in the fire hall! If any volunteer fire fighter has consumed alcohol within four hours of a call and they respond. They are required to immediately inform their superior of their situation. They will then be assigned to duties as the superior sees fit. They will not be allowed to operate any machinery, enter a structure fire, give emergency medical attention, etc... Seems like this would be a good time for the Madison Volunteer Fire Department to begin discussion on such a policy. The circumstances of that night have no bearing on the facts of the case. Verbal altercations aside, this individual had alcohol in his system and was operating the taxpayers equipment. The "what if" scenarios in this case are never ending. This type of behavior should never be tolerated or defended.

  10. Rod,

    TV stations didn't give Madison a black eye, a drunk driver driving a firetruck did.

    You are right, this incident is giving Madison a black eye. A community who rallies behind a drunk operator of a firetruck looks real bad.

    So, you are now saying firefighters are above the law. Did you just discover that Scott is one of your clients and you are now whining to the cops becuase his insurance premiums are going to go up like you have done in the past?

  11. Mark, your comment..."Did you just discover that Scott is one of your clients and you are now whining to the cops becuase his insurance premiums are going to go up like you have done in the past"...was unnecessary, unprofessional and is beneath you.

    I have no idea who handles the fireman's insurance.

    We have a good team of local firemen and police officers, and unfortunately, this incident is straining those relationships. The real question is, "How do we move beyond this" and continue the cooperation we've enjoyed so many years?

  12. I think step one in "getting over it" would have been for the fire department to cut its letter to the editor in last night's paper in half: just apologize, leave out the excuses and the blame-shifting to the P.D.

  13. Cori,
    Been waiting to be able to disagree with you on something but you and I agree on this situation(hope for you yet :).

    The old soldier would however like to clarify the term duty. "On duty" and "off duty" have nothing to do with duty, they are merely terms used to define status for pay purposes.

    Duty is an acceptance that there are things greater than oneself and a committment to put those things before ones own personal desires or goals, 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Duty is not an on again off again thing, it is how you live your life.

    True public servants, whether paid or volunteer, appointed or elected should always put the public first and if they can not do this then should not become public servants, paid or volunteer.

    JohnSD is correct. The failure in this instance may well be more the institutions failure rather than the fireman's failure. If it has been standard policy for fireman to report to a fire after consuming alcohol then the fireman was merely doing what was expected of him and the institution should also be held accountable.

    The legal system will play out as the legal system always does, the real question is what action will the city commission take to change institutional values.

    Joseph G Thompson

  14. [Justin: please publicize that profile so I know which Justin you are!]

    Joseph: Your understanding of the term "duty" is spot-on. maybe you can get through to folks in ways I can't. And yes, the real question at the bottom of all this is what the city will do to help us change institutinoal values, not just in the fire department, but throughout the community.


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