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Tip of the Spear
by Dennis Rubin

2 bad behaviors that will kill your fire service career

Not only can harassment and discrimination undermine your leadership, they can land you in court; here's how to protect yourself

By Dennis Rubin

Harassment and discrimination are the worst behaviors that anyone can demonstrate at anytime for any reason. Without question, this is a major career-crushing situation for chiefs and their staff.

Further, demonstrated discrimination and harassment of any kind is illegal. Most likely, when the boss demonstrates or knowingly tolerates this type behavior, they will winding up in a civil courtroom facing judicial scrutiny. This is not pleasant for anyone involved — plaintiff or defendant.

As with most types of administrative mistakes, the preventative measures must include training, education and effective enforcement.

There are always two sides to every story. And the various stories told by both parties are generally missing some facts and details.

A very wise old training lieutenant once pointed out to me when I was the brand new chief of training and safety that disputes between two people breaks down to apples and oranges, with the truth almost always somewhere in the middle — or what he would describe as fruit salad.

Innocence or guilt can be determine with an open, honest and through investigation followed by a rigorous adjudication.

13 Career Crushers

  • Revenge
  • Discrimination, harassment and hazing  
  • Inattention to details of the organization
  • Troubled personal life
  • Actions not in align with departmental goals and values
  • Declining health
  • Ignoring technology
  • Illegal activity
  • Irreconcilable differences with the boss
  • Lying 
  • Political suicide
  • Political ambition
  • Incompetence

Prior knowledge
If the supervisors have allowed these behaviors to exist or worse knew of them and did not work to correct them, in the court's eyes, the boss is as guilt as the members participating in the behavior. Not stopping a behavior is implied consent.

That is right, the boss who knows that these behaviors exist in the department and takes no action is as guilty as the one conveying the acts of discrimination and harassment.

If you are aware of a hostile situation, you must take action to remedy the inappropriate situation. If you are not a supervisor and you are aware of these behaviors, you must report the information to supervisor to bring immediate relieve to the situation.

Federal, state and local laws provide various protections for employees who report discrimination and harassment. There can be no payback against the employees who report a hostile work environment.

Whistle blowers
The laws are very clear and the courts have generally given the benefit of the doubt to whistle blowers.

In many cases, volunteer firefighters are considered employees of the department when it comes to harassment, discrimination and whistle blowing.

It is good to have a written policy that forbids retaliation of any type. Further, suggest that the department have the whistle-blower law written into the policy verbatim for all to see, learn about and behave accordingly.

The last consideration about the whistle blower is to take the complaint very seriously. Provide relief to the situation as soon as it is practical — even if the relief is temporary to stop the alleged harm.

Investigate swiftly and thoroughly using the standard process for such action. With great detail and accuracy document the results of the investigation carefully.

There are cases where the employee claims whistle-blower protection long after the alleged harm occurred. Some employees use these two rules as their catchall protection shields against lawful and proper discipline.

The potential for an employee to use either rule (discrimination or harassment) inappropriately is real. The counter-measures to protect yourself and your agency include a complete, thorough, rapid, transparent, and well-documented investigation of any claim by a disinterested, qualified third party.

Make it policy
As much as we want to avoid lawsuits, never press anyone to drop a legal claim against the agency. This could be considered an additional act of retaliation directed at the whistle blower.

Knowing how to react to these situations is important; knowing how to prevent them can be even more important.

All public and private agencies must have a well-written, well?practiced and aggressively enforced anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policy. This policy should be in the forefront and omnipresent of all activities of the department.

The policy must express zero tolerance for both of these behaviors. And it should be reviewed by a qualified attorney for legal sufficiency and updated as needed, based on any legal or social changes that occur.

Most organizations have such a written policy statement, but if you want to benchmark a good practices example, there are many samples that are available in the public domain.

Train it
The leadership team of all organizations must ensure that everyone is properly trained in all aspects of avoiding, reporting and most importantly not engaging in discriminating and harassing behaviors.

The training doctrine must include initial briefings and comprehension of the policies as well as a mechanism to repeat this critical training at least annually. A great way to package the information and test for comprehension is to use an internal learning management system.

If this program is presented by departmental members, the attendees may not take the training seriously. When the department selects a training firm that does not have fire service experience and expertise, there may be a lack of respect for the trainer.

To avoid this, select a highly reputable firm that has fire service trained and experienced instructors on staff.

Our department used the state training organization to present this important topic. Next, we selected very senior and experienced fire officers to present this training. This approach was very successful.

The fire chief or a very high-ranking officer needs to make opening comments about the training that the members are attending. If possible, attend the same training class and of course, take questions and make closing comments when the training is completed.

The ranking officer's attendance will send a very strong and unmistakable message to the membership of importance of this program.

More outside help
If you need additional information or help implementing a non-discrimination and non-harassment prevention policies, don't go it alone. There is a wide range of help at one's finger tips.

Consider contacting your human resource department, legal department, EEO office, the chief executive's office staff, or the labor relations office within the appropriate government level.

Look to colleagues outside the organization who have had experience or training with these issues for good practice examples.

Don't forget to check in with the various professional associations, perhaps reference professional journal articles and the Learning Resource Center at the National Fire Academy; they hold great information and are ready to help. 

About the author

Dennis L. Rubin is the principal partner in the fire protection consulting firm DL Rubin & Associates. The firm provides training, course development and independent review of policy and procedures for all types of fire and rescue agencies. In his more than 35 years in the fire service, Chief Rubin has served as a company officer, command-level officer and fire chief in several major cities including Dothan, Ala. Chief Rubin holds a bachelor's of science degree in fire administration, an associate's in applied science degree in fire science management, and he graduated from the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officers Program and the Naval Post Graduate School. Rubin has taught at several universities and colleges as well as at the National Fire Academy. He frequently speaks and lecturers at local, state, national and international events. Chief Rubin's textbooks Rube's Rules for Survival and Rube's Rules for Leadership are available at Chief Rubin recently published his third book D.C. Fire. You can follow him on Twitter at @ChiefRubin and contact him at

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Jennifer Rife Jennifer Rife Monday, May 19, 2014 1:29:56 PM very fitting
Jeanne Barnett Power Jeanne Barnett Power Saturday, May 24, 2014 5:32:28 PM This is all well and good...but I was harassed and discriminated against for nearly 15 years... The last 5 being the worst time in my life. I am a woman, a well trained and skilled fire instructor, paramedic. Nothing, not even lawyers could help me. Men had the power and men supported their actions. I was never given a leadership position because these men were threatened and held all the cards. Their careers, and those who chose to support their illegal and immoral ways, skyrocketed to the top. I believed, then hoped, then prayed their actions would be brought to light by the many times I brought it to the attention of human resources, city council, the city manager....but nothing happened. Eventually I had to leave. Slander and liable and the loss of myself and happiness made it impossible to work their. Unfortunately, it is my experience that extremely poor leaders, practicing illegal and immoral management don't crush their careers...they crush the spirit and the
Bobby Eugene Bobby Eugene Saturday, May 24, 2014 7:58:45 PM I think this information is wrong - it seems to bode very well for our current Command Staff.
Stu Cozza Stu Cozza Friday, September 05, 2014 10:40:26 AM I was never sexually harrassed at the FD... probably a good thing. ;)
Nick Nguyen Nick Nguyen Friday, September 05, 2014 1:53:53 PM Do you realize that even though there are laws protecting whistle blowers, departments can still retaliate by different means? As in write-ups, suspensions, terminations, etc..., for "unrelated" incidences? Either way, it will come back to haunt you. Best to talk about it and resolve it at the station/shift level with the capt. and not let it go up any higher.
Peter Noddin Peter Noddin Saturday, September 06, 2014 10:00:55 AM I am a Chief who was fired in 2007 for refusing to fire a female firefighter who had filed a sexual harassment complaint and obtained a restraining order against an officer from a neighboring department. They destroyed her career in Maine. Fortunately she now has a career in a major east coast department. At one point in the crisis, one of their town leaders made a statement that sexual hazing and "pogo qual" were necessary for morale and retention of their firefighters. We extinguished the problems of firefighter arson and EMS theft in Maine by setting clear standards, leadership clearly setting expectations that it will not be tolerated, and training. We could do the same with sexual harassment, sexual hazing etc. IF the chiefs could ever form a cohesive campaign against it.

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