ROUNDUP—The Roundup Volunteer Fire Department has come under criticism for allowing firefighters to drink alcohol in the city-owned fire station.
The issue was made public by Roundup resident Mark Higgins, who said he was out riding his motorcycle a couple of weeks ago and saw the vehicle of a friend, who is with the local Disaster and Emergency Services, outside the fire station, across the street from City Hall at 33 Third Ave. W.
Higgins said he went inside to talk to his friend, noticed an open door, glanced in the room and saw a foosball table. “Then I saw this whole bar, like a real bar, stocked full,” he said.*
The fire department has 21 volunteers and 10 reserve firefighters who work out of the city-owned building, which also houses the city’s Public Works Department, under two volunteer chiefs, one for the city and one for the county.
Higgins said he talked to both men, county chief Jason Hagstrom and city chief Keith Salthe, and got nowhere. As he said in an open letter to the people of Roundup and Musselshell County, which he posted on his personal Facebook page in mid-July, “they cussed me out, excluded me from attending other meetings and dared me to change the status quo.”
Hagstrom could not be reached for comment. Salthe acknowledged that there is an actual bar in the station, but he said it is not stocked with alcohol and “has been there for 100 years.”
He said firefighters bring alcohol into the station for special events, like the annual banquet saluting retired firefighters, and the room is also used as a gathering spot after the volunteers go out on fire calls or other emergencies.
“It’s just a relaxation deal, when we go out on car wrecks,” he said. The volunteers like to get together afterward to talk about how the incident was handled, he said, and “maybe somebody will bring in a 12-pack or something.”
Mayor Sandra Jones said Salthe assured her no alcohol was kept in the bar area. She said she told Higgins after the council meeting that she would look into whether laws were being broken by allowing alcohol consumption in the station from time to time, and she concluded “there are no legal issues whatsoever.”
However, District Judge Randal Spaulding, who is also a volunteer with the Roundup department, acknowledged that the bar previously was stocked with alcohol.
“Since Mr. Higgins’ complaint, the alcohol has been removed from the bar,” he said. “This was never an issue until Mr. Higgins got a burr under his saddle.”
Salthe also said the issue was being blown out of proportion by Higgins.
“It’s not really a big thing,” Salthe said. “Mr. Higgins is trying to push this thing because he got denied for marijuana.”
Higgins used to be a licensed grower and dispenser of medical marijuana in Billings, and he made no secret of it. He once boasted that his business offered more strains of medical pot than any other dispenser in the state. He was forced out of business in 2011 by changes to state law that basically outlawed commercial growing operations and dispensaries.
He said his crusade against drinking in the fire station has nothing to do with his previous occupation. These days, he said, he owns a rock-chip repair business and is trying to start a company that would develop mobile apps for small businesses. He is also the Disaster Action Team chairman for the Red Cross of Montana in Musselshell and Golden Valley counties.
In the letter he posted on Facebook, Higgins said: “I am not trying to point any one person out, but a problem does exist that could open our entire community up to lawsuits, accidents, possible criminal charges, and the list goes on and on.”
The problem isn’t that firefighters might be drinking a beer or two after responding to an emergency, Higgins said. The problem is that they are drinking on city property and could conceivably be called to another emergency after having a few drinks.
“I checked my calendar today and sure enough it said 2015,” Higgins said in the letter. “Isn’t it time for the good ole’ boys club to disappear, when lives are at stake?”
Mayor Jones said the volunteer firefighters are already on call around the clock and are responsible for deciding themselves if they are able to respond to an emergency.
“They really do a good job of policing themselves,” she said.
Bob Hanson, a firefighter in Glasgow and president of the Montana State Volunteer Firefighters Association, agreed with Higgins that people shouldn’t be drinking in any fire hall.
It used to be common to find bars in volunteer fire halls across Montana, Hanson said, but “over the past eight to 10 years, as an association, we’ve tried really, really hard to get away from that.”
“We don’t have a policy on it, but it’s highly discouraged anymore,” he continued. “Twenty years ago, you’d go out to a range fire or a big fire, somebody always showed up with a cooler and everybody sat around and had a beer. Now, it’s water and Gatorade that shows up.”
He said there used to be “full-fledged, fully operational bars in some of the stations. I truly believe that part’s going away.” If the Roundup department has such a bar, Hanson said, it could open the city and county to “tremendous liability.”
Even if volunteer firefighters are having just one beer after a fire, he said, it might create a bad impression if someone from outside the department sees drinking going on in a fire hall.
“From a public safety standpoint, and a public relations standpoint, having a beer in the fire station, and having someone outside the department stop in—it’s a bad deal. It’s just a bad practice,” Hanson said.
Jones, after being told that Salthe acknowledged that beer was being consumed in the fire hall on occasion, said perhaps a policy prohibiting that was necessary.
“They need to find another venue if they’re going to do it,” she said.
But she also said Higgins, who tried to walk in on a tour of the fire hall that the mayor was getting from both fire chiefs Monday night, in response to Higgins’ complaints, was going overboard.
“He just needs to back off,” she said. “I don’t think I should have to defend the firemen like this.” She said the volunteers put in long, hard hours and ask nothing in return.
“During the 2012 fires, they were beating themselves to death,” she said. “Cut these guys some slack, is my view.”
Higgins, for his part, said he’s talked to other people who want to support him publicly but don’t for fear of retaliation.
“I’m not scared of that,” he said. “Never have been, never will be.”
He said he plans to keep up his criticism until the city bans alcohol in the fire hall.
“Any way you slice that pie, it’s wrong. Some people say, ‘Well, they’re volunteers.’ Well, that doesn’t make it OK,” he said.
*Editor’s note: Higgins’ account of discovering the room was slightly different in the original version of this story. He clarified that his friend was in the station, not outside it, when Higgins spotted his vehicle.