YUMA COUNTY, Colo. (CBS4) – A volunteer fire department in Yuma County has agreed to remove kegs of beer stocked in its firehouse following concerns raised by two community members who said alcohol in the firehouse was a potential liability problem; and that firefighters had shown up on calls visibly impaired, an assertion many firefighters dispute.

“We believe the mission was accomplished,” said Sue Jarrett, who, with her husband Dean, had vigorously lobbied for the Wauneta Volunteer Fire Department to remove two kegs of beer that were a fixture in the Wauneta fire hall.

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The Jarretts argued that the firehouse beer tarnished the firefighters’ reputation and created a liability issue.

“It really is a no-brainer,” said Dean Jarrett, who was a volunteer firefighter for 28 years with the WVFD. “Why have that liability when something goes wrong? The biggest fear is that a member drinks too much beer and causes an accident.”

The kegs — one called a “kegerator,” and a second backup keg — had been kept on hand in the firehouse for years for the firefighters, but had become a source of friction in recent months creating division in the 24-member fire department and the community.

The firefighters said they would primarily drink a few beers after returning from fire or accident calls. The department says it averages about two calls a month.

Many of the department’s volunteer firefighters supported the idea of having kegs of beer in the firehouse arguing they are on call 24 hours a day, so beer in the firehouse is no different than beer stored at their homes. They also said firefighters would not respond on calls if they had been drinking at the fire hall and were impaired.

“I don’t have a big problem with it,” said Fire Chief Jeff Gallegos. “If we’ve had a few beers we’re not going to jump on the truck and drive it. I don’t think we have that big an issue.”

Gallegos said the controversy had as much to do with personalities as it had to do with alcohol.

“People don’t feel we should be told what we can and can’t do when we’re volunteering our time,” he said.

Gallegos and other fire officials said the kegs were purchased with proceeds from department fundraisers and community donations.

Dean Jarrett acknowledges that in his role as department secretary/treasurer, he was the one who suggested installing the kegs several years ago as firefighters were spending so much on cases of beer. Jarrett said buying kegs would be more cost effective.

Sue Jarrett actually picked up the “kegerator” that was installed at the department firehouse. But Dean Jarrett says his position changed about a year ago when he attended a CPR class at the fire hall and noticed volunteer firefighters in the class drinking from the keg.

“There appears to be no common sense to when it’s drank and not drank anymore,” said Jarrett. “I think it sends the wrong message, it’s not safe.”

Dean Jarrett said he had seen firefighters show up “visibly impaired” to fight fires but he declined to cite specifics. Other firefighters disputed that assessment.

Dean Jarrett acknowledged there had not been an accident or problem attributed to the firehouse kegs, but he contends it’s an issue of being proactive.

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“It’s not a matter of it’s going to happen, it’s a matter of when it’ going to happen,” he said.

Many other residents and volunteer firefighters maintained that the Jarretts seized on the keg issue as a way of settling old scores with adversaries and political enemies in the fire department.

Dozens of Yuma County residents contacted CBS4 about the beer brouhaha, mostly voicing support for the volunteer firefighters and their kegs. Dawn Webster of Wray wrote, “After the hard work that these firefighters do, while not getting a dime in return, the least we can do is let them have a beer at the end of the day.”

State Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, who represents the area, contacted CBS4 to say he had no problem with kegs in the firehouse noting that the nearest liquor stores are in Wray, 15 miles away, making it difficult for firefighters to pick up beers after they’ve been out on a call, especially if its late at night after the liquor stores have closed.

Brophy called Jarrett and his wife “professional cranks” who had alienated the community for years.

Wauneta firefighters (credit: CBS)

Another resident wrote, “They do not just sit around the fire hall drinking beer and going to fires drunk. You are talking about people who work 12 to 14 hours a day six to 7 days a week, 52 weeks of the year. Now when they get the page to a fire, they DO head out to wherever they have to go VOLUNTARILY and put their lives at risk for their community and neighbors. Do they have a keg of beer in the fire hall? Well it looks like they do. Is that all they do is sit around drinking? I think NOT. Do they get drunk and then go fight fires? I think NOT. Do they come back to the hall and after putting equipment away and having trucks ready for next time sit around visiting and have a beer? I would say probably yes.”

Dan Steckman, a volunteer firefighter told CBS4, “With all this responsibility it also seems that we should hold ourselves to a higher standard and I believe we do. As such it is probably time to remove the beer keg, as apparently some people think we all just sit down there and drink. I am one to have a beer now and then or even a couple after a meeting. It is the one time a month that I can get away from home and visit with friends and neighbors, never have I said or heard anyone say, ‘Let’s go to the fire station and drink beer.’ ”

On Monday, May 7, at a packed meeting, the Wauneta Volunteer Fire Department board unanimously agreed to pull the kegs out of the firehouse. Vice Chief John Archer said the issue was consuming too much energy and too many resources.

Several firefighters said the fire district had already spent about $5,000 in legal fees tussling over the beer issue.

“It should save the district a bunch of money and headaches, fighting with lawyers,” said Archer.

Following the vote Sue Jarrett said, “We believe the mission was accomplished as they moved to get the alcohol out except for special events and at the approval of the board for other events.”

But the beer battle has left a lingering bad taste for many Yuma County residents who resent the Jarretts for blowing the whistle on the kegs.

Ron Graton, Executive Director of the Colorado State Fire Fighters Association said, “We feel that having alcohol in the fire station is an issue of local control. We do feel it leads to many issues that complicate the fire fighting aspect.”

Graton said having booze in the firehouse raises many questions: how is it monitored and regulated? Are members under 21 allowed in? And what funds are used to purchase alcohol?

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– Written by Brian Maass for CBSDenver.com