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South Dakota department's policy forbids drunk firefighting

PIERRE (AP) — A firefighter who died battling a house fire in Brandon when he was legally drunk responded to the emergency, even though the department has a policy against going out on a call while intoxicated, Valley Springs Fire and Rescue Chief Don Johnson said Tuesday.

Johnson said volunteer firefighter Steven Ackerman, 38, didn't drive to the scene of the fire, which also killed 47-year-old homeowner David Smith. A recent toxicology report showed Ackerman had a blood alcohol level of nearly 0.19, but Johnson said Ackerman must not have felt impaired.

South Dakota Firefighters Association President Charlie Kludt said Ackerman's case will likely prompt departments to better police intoxicated firefighting.

Johnson said the fire, not the alcohol killed Ackerman, who warned two of his comrades to get out of the burning house.

"Had we understood how that monster was burning inside that house, we would have never sent him in the first place," Johnson said.

State Fire Marshal Paul Merriman has said there's no uniform policy governing alcohol use in departments across the state and has said his office doesn't have authority over daily operations at individual departments. So far, lawmakers and department officials don't appear to support statewide regulations for intoxication among firefighters when they're responding to emergency calls.

Concerns include enforcement difficulties and manpower issues at small departments. At the Valley Springs department, Johnson said firefighters are supposed to self-assess and not respond if they're impaired.

"I'm sure that the departments around the state are going to be discussing it," Kludt said, adding that there's a gathering of firefighters in Pierre next week where it will likely come up.

Ackerman, a 14-year volunteer with Valley Springs Fire and Rescue, died April 12 while fighting the fire in Brandon. The blaze 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.

"I hope it never ever happens again," Johnson said. "It's too tough on an old man."