03/28/2013 01:43 pm ET Updated Mar 28, 2013

Shots And Lagers, Chutes And Ladders

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This story is courtesy of the Better Government Association:

Many municipalities allow firefighters and paramedics to work with a substantial amount of alcohol in their systems – a dangerous mix that puts public-safety employees, and the public, at risk.

Having a few cool drafts before battling a searing "back draft" is allowed in some Chicago-area fire departments.

A Better Government Association/NBC 5 analysis found nearly 20 firefighting agencies have language in their union contracts allowing firefighters and paramedics to start shifts with alcohol in their bloodstream. The amount in some cases is just below 0.08, the state's legal definition of "drunk" when it comes to drivers.

This sobering discovery follows another BGA investigation that found numerous police departments in the region have the same lax attitude toward liquor.

Some communities, including northwest suburban Arlington Heights, allow their fire employees to come to work with a blood-alcohol content of just below 0.02. Others, including Chicago, allow just below 0.04. Oak Park and the Orland Fire Protection District – on paper at least – allow up to 0.079, although officials at both agencies insist they maintain a "zero tolerance" policy.

That’s disputed by some union and fire officials, who contend the 0.079 is the law of their land.

Schaumburg and Palatine both have 0.00 policies, officials said.

Illinois law prohibits driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 or above. Motorists found at or above 0.08 can be charged with a crime and have driving privileges revoked.

Experts consulted for this latest story said allowing public-safety workers to have any amount of booze in their system during work hours is ridiculous and dangerous.

"We have the safety and well-being of others in our hands," said Jack Snook, a former Portland-area fire chief who now runs an Oregon-based consulting firm called Emergency Services Consulting International, which helps fire departments with good management practices. "It’s just common sense we don’t want to have impaired judgment."

Alan Brunacini, a former fire chief in Phoenix, Ariz., who now does fire department consulting, was more blunt.

"That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard," Brunacini said when told that some Chicago-area departments allow their employees to come to work with alcohol in their system. "It seems to me that this is just a no-brainer."

The average 200-pound person hits 0.08 after consuming five alcoholic drinks (each drink generally equates to a shot of hard liquor, three ounces of wine or 12 ounces of beer) in a single hour, according to the Illinois State Police and other sources. Drinking an additional beverage each hour maintains that level.

Medical experts say impairment can begin after one drink, gradually impacting judgment, vision and coordination.

Officials in municipalities with union contracts that allow firefighters to show up with alcohol in their system told the BGA they’d send people home, or give them desk duty, if they showed up with any whiff of booze.

But that begs the question of why those communities allow union contracts to have such permissive language at all.

John Swan, president of the Illinois Firefighter’s Association and chief of the Colona, Ill., fire department near the Quad Cities, said he supports zero tolerance but wonders what would happen if short-staffed departments need help from off-duty personnel who might have been home sipping a beer.

"There’s no clean answer," said Swan, whose trade group represents the interests of firefighters across the state. "We support zero tolerance but those [off-duty] firefighters and police that get called in on emergency times [might have some alcohol in their system.]"

Pat Devaney, president of the Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois, a union, was asked why the alcohol-permissive language was in fire contracts.

"What you’ll often find is that [the] language has been in place for many many years," said Devaney, also a firefighter in Champaign. "It’s likely that these articles were boilerplate language."

The BGA did not find any recent instances of mistakes or injuries caused by or otherwise involving an impaired firefighter or paramedic.

Either way, following a previous BGA/NBC report about cops being allowed to work with alcohol in their system, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White announced plans to introduce legislation that would impose a zero tolerance policy on police and possibly other first responders.

This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Patrick Rehkamp. To contact him, email or call (312) 386-9201. Rehkamp’s Twitter handle is @patrickrehkamp.

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