You probably expect that firefighters and paramedics are not allowed to come to work under the influence of alcohol.
But NBC 7 Investigates found that's not always the case: Some first responder contracts allow employees to work with a blood alcohol level (BAC) as high as .04.
Fighting fires is hard and heroic work, especially in fire-prone San Diego County. Some people even consider firefighting America's most dangerous profession.
“What we deal with in the fire department is life or death for many people,” Chula Vista Fire Chief Dave Hanneman said.
It is also a job which Hanneman said no one should do under the influence of alcohol. There is a zero tolerance policy for alcohol and drugs in Chula Vista, the county's second largest fire district.
“When someone comes to work they have to be able to perform at the highest level of their position and the only way to do that is to have a zero tolerance for it,” he said. “We need to assure our patients we are professional and efficient as much as possible.”
But NBC 7 found some local fire departments have language in its union or city employee contracts which allows firefighters to start their shifts with alcohol in their bloodstreams.
The Vista Fire Department has set its maximum allowable blood alcohol level at .02. And it escalates to .04 for City of San Diego firefighters.
Michael McGhee is Director of Labor for San Diego Local 145, the county's largest fire district.
“The fire department management is comfortable with that number, the mayor and the city council have passed and approved these contracts with all the information about the .04,” he said.
John Woodward has been a toxicologist since 1944 and said intoxication levels vary greatly depending on a person's gender, weight, and other factors.
So what does a .04 mean?
“In a normal, average adult male of 150 pounds a ‘.02’ would be equivalent to a 12 ounce glass or bottle of over the counter beer, at ‘.04’ its equivalent to two 12 ounce quantities of beer.” Woodward said. “The average social drinker might feel a little more relaxed, depending on the situation, jovial.”
McGhee with San Diego Local 145 says there are times when an off-duty firefighter is called in for an emergency, like during large wildfires or if someone calls in sick.
He says having that .04 BAC maximum allowable level takes into consideration the residual effect from drinks consumed before duty.
“I think if somebody goes out the night before and is expected to have zero in their system the next morning, is probably not reasonable.”
McGhee said they would send employees home if any alcohol was detected.
“If someone is above the .04 limit, that limit will be identified,” he said. “That person will have a mandatory referral to the employee assistance program and the department looks at what other disciplinary measures might be appropriate.”
McGhee says their policy on drug and alcohol abuse is reviewed every few years and that firefighters are randomly drug tested twice every 18 months.
Chief Hanneman with Chula Vista says if one of his firefighters is called into work unexpectedly, they have the right to say "no" if they've been drinking, no matter the amount.
He's sticking to his district's zero tolerance policy.
“I don't know why they would do that,” he said. “I can’t surmise why they would have that, I just know why ours is the way it is. We don't want them to have any of it on board.”
In the city of San Diego, the majority of the city's paramedics are firefighters, with a paramedic specialty, so they fall under the same contract.
NBC 7 San Diego reached out to the city of San Diego over the past few months, including Mayor Bob Filner's office for a comment. But e-mails and calls from were not returned.