The State Worker

Is firefighter binge-drinking at heart of Cal Fire problems?

Firefighters battle a Northern California blaze in 2012.
Firefighters battle a Northern California blaze in 2012. AP/CalFire

Peel away the allegations of prostitution hookups, graphic sex photos, sexual assaults on women and lying, and here’s the less-salacious thread running through the recent scandal at Cal Fire’s Ione academy: booze.

Alcohol surfaces time and again in the 172 pages of Cal Fire disciplinary appeal records released to The Sacramento Bee by the State Personnel Board. Some sanitized examples from the documents:

A cadet got so smashed that his colleagues tossed him, unconscious, in the back of a truck until his mom could get him. A group of cadets was too bombed to drive back to the academy, so a supervisor improperly deployed a state van to pick them up. A firefighter drinking at a bar grabbed a woman from behind, ground his groin into her and grabbed himself through his unzipped pants.

Six of the seven firefighters whose cases have become public allegedly drank on the job, condoned drinking by cadets, or both on several occasions from 2012 to 2014, according to the records.

Perhaps none of it would have come to light if a May 1 homicide hadn’t led to a California Highway Patrol investigation of allegations that a sex tape was filmed at the Ione facility. CHP didn’t find credible evidence of a tape, but so many alleged improprieties surfaced that two people were fired, one resigned and 13 others were disciplined in January.

Does this point to a larger issue within the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection?

Department spokeswoman Janet Upton said, “We don’t believe the problem is systemic. We believe in the case of the Ione matter, the employees did not think the department would enforce our zero-tolerance policy” for drinking on the job.

“Clearly, we did,” she said.

Mike Lopez, president of the state firefighters union, also called Ione an “isolated issue.”

Still, firefighters and firewater share ties that go back to when stations routinely featured bars, said psychologist Sara A. Jahnke, who studies firefighter health issues.

She co-authored a report last year that found firefighters tend to binge-drink more than the general public but don’t believe they do. Nearly 6 in 10 firefighters reported binge-drinking – defined as five drinks or more at one time – within the past 30 days, three times the general-population rate.

“It’s the norm among firefighters,” Jahnke said.

While most of us avoid trauma, death and destruction, firefighters rush to it. The career involves long hours away from home. The job puts them in harm’s way.

“So they use alcohol to decompress,” Jahnke said, while the firefighter tradition extols a work-hard play-hard lifestyle that bonds with brews.

On-the-job drinking may not be the most sensational aspect of the Ione reports, but it’s the most pervasive. And how much credit does Cal Fire deserve for acting when its zero-tolerance policy was apparently ignored in Ione for years?

Call Jon Ortiz, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1043. For more columns, go to sacbee.com/stateworker. Sign up for State Worker alerts at www.sacbee.com/site-services/newsletters.

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