Fairbanks firefighters dealing with more drunks

FAIRBANKS — Firefighters are responding to more calls about intoxicated people in Fairbanks, and they not happy about it.

Previously, firefighters only responded when intoxicated people were unconscious or unable to get up. But a new policy, which took effect Tuesday, gives firefighters the added responsibility of being the first responders in situations where walking, talking drunk people might need to be taken to a hospital or the sleep-off facility at Fairbanks Correctional Center.

Police Chief Laren Zager and Mayor Jerry Cleworth support the shift. But rank-and-file firefighters say driving potentially hostile people to the sleep-off facility falls outside their training and job description.

“We really feel this jeopardizes our safety, the community’s safety,” said Dominic Lozano, a city firefighter and union steward with the Fairbanks Firefighters Association. “It makes us way too busy, stretches us too thin.”

Fire Chief Warren Cummings told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner that 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 that rate, it will increase the department’s number of callouts by 40 to 50 percent, he said.

Zager said two conclusions led to the policy change. The Fire Department gets far fewer calls than the Police Department, and firefighters — who all have emergency medical training — have the skill set to work with intoxicated people.

“Intoxication and the effects of alcohol and drugs is vastly more medical than it is a question of law enforcement,” he said. “It’s not illegal to be drunk in public, but it’s very dangerous to be drunk.”

Zager said he’s disappointed with the firefighters’ public complaints: “At the end of the day, it’s ‘We don’t want to do it, and we’re going to make it not work.’”

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