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Zero-Tolerance Policy Sought for On-Duty Wisconsin firefighters, EMTs

MILWAUKEE, Wis. -- After an incident this month in which police administered an alcohol breath test to an on-duty Palmyra (Wis.) Fire Department emergency responder the village president is calling on the department to bar personnel from being under the influence.

The debate comes in a community that two years ago, by a two-vote margin, endorsed allowing the Fire Department to keep alcohol in the fire station. Despite the vote, the department changed its policy and no longer allows beer or other alcohol in the fire station.

Now, one of the department's emergency medical technician's has complained to the Village Board that Fire Chief Ryan Meyers allows firefighters and EMTs to respond to an emergency call if they have been drinking, as long as they are not legally intoxicated.

Meyers did not return calls seeking comment.

"I laid my pager down and asked him if he was willing to do his job to ensure our safety and the safety of the community," Ninette Neitzell said. The EMT was not punished for driving under the influence, she said.

Three days later, Meyers called Neitzell and told her to come to the department and pick up her pager, she said. He didn't offer an explanation on a zero-tolerance policy, but she returned to her paid-on call EMT position.

Village President Tim Gorsegner said Neitzell addressed the Village Board on Monday and has the support of trustees to push for a zero-tolerance policy on alcohol consumption before going on duty.

"The fire department provides a good service, and I'm sure many of us appreciate it, but there's got to be some level of professionalism," he said. "If we have to enforce it, we will."

Gorsegner said the village is looking at ways to persuade the department, which is a private company, to adopt a zero-tolerance stance on alcohol. The village could withhold funds or require the department to provide its own insurance, he said. Since the municipality holds the Hed to the department's vehicles, the village could also prohibit anyone from driving those vehicles while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

The village's insurance carrier has told officials that they don't require a zero-tolerance policy, but it is "highly recommended," Gorsegner said.

Gorsegner said Meyers had called a special meeting of the Palmyra Fire Protection District board for Tuesday night but he did not know the purpose of the meeting. Gorsegner is the village representative on the board.

Citing patient privacy, Neitzell declined to give details of the incident that sparked the debate.

According to a statement from the Palmyra Police Department, fire Lt. Larry Houk asked that an officer go to the fire department to defuse a situation at 1:45 p.m. Jan. 12. The officer asked if it was an emergency, and Houk said no.

The officer couldn't respond immediately because he was handling another situation in the police station. Houk said he needed the officer to give two employees a breath test for alcohol. The officer said Houk should bring the two to the Police Department, and that they could use the back door. They arrived two minutes later.

The same officer had responded to the earlier medical call and recognized the EMTs as having been there. The officer told Houk that he wasn't close enough to the EMTs at the medical call to smell alcohol. The officer, however, said he could smell "stale intoxicants emanating" from one or both of the EMTs while they were in the Police Department, the statement says.

The officer administered preliminary breath tests, and one EMT registered 0.008, well below the level of 0.08 considered evidence of intoxication in Wisconsin courts, and the other had a zero reading. The officer said the EMT was not impaired but he could smell alcohol. He told the EMTs a good parameter is to not drove for at least 12 hours after drinking, the statement says.

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