FAIRBANKS — Firefighters, not just police officers, will respond to calls about intoxicated people in the city, under a policy launched Tuesday.
The new policy has the support of Fairbanks Police Chief Laren Zager and city Mayor Jerry Cleworth. It’s drawing criticism from rank and file firefighters, who say driving potentially hostile people to the sleep-off facility at Fairbanks Correctional Center falls outside their training and job description.
Broadly speaking, Fairbanks emergency dispatchers get two categories of calls about intoxicated people — calls about unconscious people and calls about people who are heavily under the influence of drugs or alcohol but are nonetheless up and walking around.
Under the old policy, Fairbanks firefighters, who all have emergency medical training, responded to serious medical cases involving intoxicated people who were unconscious or unable to get up. The new policy gives firefighters the added responsibility of being the first responders in situations where walking, talking intoxicated people might need to be transported to the hospital or the Fairbanks Correctional Center sleep-off facility.
The idea came out of a now-abandoned discussion at the Public Safety Commission to combine police and fire departments, Zager said. Two conclusions led to the decision, he said. First an “apples-to-apples” comparison of the 48 1/2-officer police department and the 42-firefighter fire department showed that the fire department’s call load was between 1/5 and 1/4 the police department’s call load, he said. Second, working with intoxicated people seemed to better fit a firefighter’s skill set.
“Intoxication and the effects of alcohol and drugs is vastly more medical than it is a question of law enforcement,” Zager said. “It’s not illegal to be drunk in public, but it’s very dangerous to be drunk.”
Fairbanks Fire Chief Warren Cummings said Friday the new policy has meant an average of five additional calls per day for his department during the first three days of the program. If calls continue at this rate, it will increase the department’s number of callouts by between 40 and 50 percent, he said.
Asked what he thought of the new policy, Cummings said he didn’t think it was appropriate to share his opinion.
Dominic Lozano, a city firefighter and union steward with the Fairbanks Firefighters Association, was more vocal about the policy.
The new duties go beyond what firefighters have training or authority to do, he said.
“When someone says ‘I don’t want to go,’ we don’t have a way to make them,” he said.
Lozano said he found himself in a difficult situation under the new policy Thursday when he responded in a fire department platform truck to a call about an intoxicated woman at the Westmark Hotel. The woman was clearly intoxicated and could have been taken to the jail for protective custody, but she didn’t want to come with him, Lozano said.
Police were called, but it wasn’t really a police matter under the new policy because the woman had left the hotel and was no longer trespassing, he said. The woman ended up walking away.
In addition, Lozano said, the new policy hurts the fire department’s ability to respond to other emergencies.
“We really feel this jeopardizes our safety, the community’s safety,” he said. “It makes us way too busy, stretches us too thin.”
Zager, the police chief, said he’d heard the complaints from firefighters. He said he was disappointed firefighters have not been able to adjust to the new policy without complaining publicly. It’s well within a firefighter’s abilities and authority to take an intoxicated person to the sleep-off facility if the firefighter has the right attitude, he said.
“At the end of the day, it’s ‘We don’t want to do it, and we’re going to make it not work,’” he said.
Contact staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter, @FDNMcrime.