- Associated Press - Monday, June 8, 2015

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - Key state lawmakers and Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s administration don’t plan to push for a statewide measure to regulate intoxication among firefighters when they’re responding to emergency calls, officials said Monday.

An autopsy last week found a volunteer firefighter for Valley Springs Fire and Rescue who died fighting a house fire in Brandon had a high blood-alcohol level when he responded. State Fire Marshal Paul Merriman said there’s no uniform policy governing alcohol use in departments across the state and said his office doesn’t have authority over daily operations at individual departments.

It’s unclear if there’s a policy on intoxication at Valley Springs, which is one of South Dakota’s 337 fire departments that all have their own policies governing conduct. Don Johnson, chief of the volunteer fire department, didn’t respond to messages seeking comment Friday and Monday.

Kelsey Pritchard, a spokeswoman for Daugaard, said in an email that a statewide alcohol policy for departments would be difficult to enforce. Merriman said that voluntary state certification training teaches trainees about impairment while responding to emergencies, and he has said that many departments do have policies governing intoxication in place.

“It really comes down to being personally responsible when you respond … for your own well-being as well as your fellow firefighters and those around you,” Merriman said.

House Majority Leader Brian Gosch said he wouldn’t push for a change, though he said he doesn’t think firefighters should respond while intoxicated. Incoming Senate Majority Leader Corey Brown said the Republican caucus leading the Senate wouldn’t start discussing legislative priorities for the 2016 session until the fall.

The autopsy released last week determined that Steven Ackerman, 38, had a blood alcohol level of nearly 0.19, more than twice the legal limit for driving. The 14-year volunteer with Valley Springs Fire and Rescue died April 12, and investigators determined he likely fell through the floor in the burning home in Brandon.

The fire, which also killed 47-year-old David Smith, started in a first-floor vent pipe enclosure that served a basement furnace and water heater. The blaze has been ruled accidental, authorities have said. It was never considered suspicious, and both Ackerman and Smith died of smoke inhalation.

Monte Albertson, a member and past chief of the Split Rock Volunteer Fire Department, said the department has an unwritten policy that firefighters don’t respond to an emergency if they’ve been drinking. Albertson said he wouldn’t support a statewide policy since some departments are understaffed and noted that there are laws against driving while intoxicated that apply to firefighters.

He said his department relies on common-sense expectations.

“You don’t go to a call with alcohol in your bloodstream,” he said.

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