Drinking at Volunteer Firehouses Beginning to Dry Up

Some volunteer firehouses have a bar in the basement. Others have a ban on booze.

But regardless of their official stance on alcohol, fire officials across New Jersey say that the practice of drinking at firehouses – once considered vital to the culture of many local departments – is starting to dry up.

In part, that is due to several high-profile incidents in the past couple of years that have focused attention on the issue.

On April 13 in Elmwood Park, a fire captain whom authorities accused of being intoxicated struck two utility poles with a ladder truck while driving back from a call. The truck sustained $250,000 in damage and was unavailable the day after the crash, when borough firefighters responded to a four-alarm fire at the Red Carpet Inn on Route 46. Garfield’s ladder truck was used that day.

In the aftermath, Elmwood Park officials suspended alcohol use at the borough’s firehouses and said they would discuss a permanent prohibition – mirroring the reaction that followed a similar incident in River Edge two years ago.

But even volunteer departments that haven’t had such public contretemps have limited or eliminated firehouse alcohol consumption, many echoing the strict no-tolerance policies at career departments, where firefighters are salaried and work on schedules.

And officials in those volunteer departments that still have liquor bottles in their cabinets said they aren’t cracked open as often as they used to be.

“I’m willing to bet we serve more soda than alcohol,” Hillsdale Mayor Max Arnowitz told The Record. He’s a longtime member of his town’s department, where there is a bar that members call the “Ready Room.”

“Back in the day, you’d see people doing shots and beers, just drinking,” Arnowitz said. In the last 15 or 20 years, it just doesn’t happen as much anymore.”

Some departments are concerned about liability or public safety. Some have had legal disputes involving members who had been drinking. And some said members don’t have the time to hang out and drink at the firehouse the way they used to.

The cultural shift has not come without controversy. The Elmwood Park crash generated such a heated discussion on a Bergen County Facebook forum devoted to emergency responders, called Northern New Jersey All Incidents, that administrator James Bohen shut down the discussion and deleted all the posts.

“These types of incidents tend to stir great debate, from all sides,” Bohen wrote on the site. “Those debates will NOT be heard in this forum.”

Bohen, a Rochelle Park firefighter, declined to comment on the content of the deleted posts and referred questions about his department to its chief. But he said he deleted the posts because, “that’s not what my site was set up to do.”

He was one of several firefighters who declined to talk about their department’s drinking practices for this story. Most said the issue is too sensitive.

Indeed, recent discussions of revisions of firehouse drinking rules in some towns have resulted in public outcry.

When the Lodi Council introduced an ordinance in 2012 restricting alcoholic beverages in firehouses, the borough’s fire chief, Darren Yuhas, accused the council of not appreciating firefighters’ service to the borough and said the proposed changes were, “uncalled for.” The town was concerned about liability involving firefighters, some of whom were teenagers.

The borough later met with firefighters and revised the restriction to increase the number of firehouse events at which alcohol could be served and decreasing the amount of notice that must be given before such a function.

Yuhas did not return a cellphone message requesting a comment for this story.

And in Hillsdale, a councilman resigned in 2012 after he was lambasted for joking at a council meeting that firefighters had been doing, “a lot of training and a lot of drinking.”

Hillsdale Chief Jason Durie declined to discuss the councilman’s comments, but said such incidents create a false impression of the fire department culture.

“Just because situations arise from time to time, the volunteer fire service should not be labeled as a problematic group,” he said.

Durie said it is a fire department and borough policy not to allow members to drive fire vehicles if they have had anything to drink. Crews are assigned to abstain during social functions at the firehouse. And all fire calls are referred to neighboring departments during department-wide functions, such as the yearly awards dinner.

He declined to comment on the firehouse drinking policy.

“I don’t want to open that can of worms,” Durie said.

But Arnowitz, the mayor, said members keep beer, wine and liquor in a room with bar stools and a counter.

“We don’t call it a bar,” he said. “But any sane person who looks at it would say it’s a bar.”

He said he didn’t see a reason to restrict drinking because there had never been any problems with it – during his 24 years he had only had to tell three members they shouldn’t be on a call because they smelled like they had been drinking, he said.

Arnowitz added that the bar is usually empty these days except for after Monday-night meetings or directly after volunteers return from a fire, and one of the most popular drinks is the root beer on tap. There is no tapped beer. Volunteers have too many family, work and departmental training obligations to spend as much time socializing as they used to, he said.

But unwinding with fellow members over a drink is still an important part of the club culture that helps attract and retain members, he said.

“It’s part of the mystique of being a volunteer,” Arnowitz said. “It’s just a little perk we allow them as long as they don’t abuse it.”

Fair Lawn Mayor John Cosgrove, a longtime member of his borough’s department, said the outlook on drinking there is similar. Although the firehouses don’t have bars, members often drink at gatherings like softball games and St. Patrick’s Day parties. Leaders watch members’ drinking and make sure that crews are assigned to stay sober in case of calls.

“It’s part of a volunteer fire department,” Cosgrove said. “Part of it is social interaction. The guys don’t get paid for it. Part of the nice part about it is it’s a social life also. That’s how years ago they got members, through social gathering. There’s a long tradition.”

Such lax attitudes toward firehouse drinking have traditionally been more common in the Northeast, where there’s a stronger culture of volunteer departments and firehouses often have sentimental attachments to their bars, said Peter Matthews, editor in chief of the national publication Firehouse.com. The bar in the Long Island firehouse where Matthews was a longtime volunteer was named in honor of a member who had spent a lot of time there after that member died, he said.

But the issue has been controversial everywhere in recent years, and firehouse drinking is becoming increasingly rare, he said.

“Policies are changing,” Matthews said. “There are so many websites and social media outlets that will instantly embarrass you.”

Such was the case in Secaucus, where officials banned all firehouse drinking after a gay couple sued the borough, claiming they were ritually and viciously harassed by volunteer firefighters for more than two years when they were living next door to a firehouse. That couple was awarded $2.8 million in 2008.

Longtime firefighter George Heflich, who was not assigned to the firehouse in question, said people were “up in arms” in the beginning, but resistance to the ban has since been forgotten.

“It’s a way of life now,” Heflich said. “No liquor in firehouses, just like no smoking. It was the best thing they ever did.”

In Little Falls, Chief Jack Sweezy Jr. – who said he hasn’t had a drink in 20 years – instituted a no-alcohol policy eight years ago. He said the members understood.

“You can’t function when you are under the influence of any alcohol or foreign substance,” Sweezy said.

On a recent evening, after members had spent the day battling a blaze that had destroyed a two-story home and left a firefighter with a minor leg injury, there was no sign of anyone unwinding with any kind of alcoholic beverage at the firehouse. Hours after the afternoon fire, firefighters were busy unloading and checking the trucks in the bay area.

A lieutenant with soot smudges under his eyes who declined to give his name looked incredulous when he was asked if anyone planned to stay around for a drink, saying simply, “We don’t do that here.”