Just today I read an article about a firefighter on a career fire department who has filed a complaint with the EEOC for racial and sexual harassment. According to the article, this firefighter was the target of racial slurs, and on more than one occasion was the victim of inappropriate sexual contact by another firefighter.
Incidents like these hurt more than just those directly involved. Other department members are distracted and discredited by the accusations. Large sums of money are spent in tight economic times. The department's public image suffers. Trained employees are lost.
If all this is true (and the fact that the city made a six-figure settlement offer does lend some credence to the claims), many question arise. But the first one in my mind is always: What was the company officer doing when all this was going on?
There are really only two possibilities for the company officer's role in these types of ongoing patterns of behavior. Either the officer was tolerating, enabling or participating, or the officer was hiding out and avoiding. Both scenarios are bad for credible leadership.
In the latter case, officers are out of touch, either deliberately or circumstantially. They hide out in their offices, and create distance between themselves and their crews.
They don't know what is going on, and they don't want to know. These officers often lack the trust of their crews that comes from good relationships and engaged leadership.
Officers like this can be managers, but they will never be leaders. Those who want to lead understand that they need to be involved with their crews, and they need to know what is going on in all aspects of station life. It is part of the job of being the company officer.
One of the guys
Officers who actively participate or more passively enable unprofessional conduct are a serious problem on the fire department. How could a company officer justify fraudulently signing off for training that was never done, or joining in with crews as they drank alcohol on duty, or hiring strippers to come to fire stations to perform?
Looking at it objectively, just about every firefighter would say that such behavior is inappropriate. Yet these things and others like them have really happened, and in every case, company officers were active participants.
Professionalism is about much more than getting paid. It is about upholding standards of conduct that bring credibility and honor to the service and to fellow firefighters. Company officers play the most critical role in making sure that professional standards are upheld.
Two key duties
Company officers create and enforce professional standards in two significant ways. First, they must clearly establish standards of conduct and deal immediately with those who do not meet these standards.
These standards will come from department policies, but also from basic ethics and moral codes. Just because there is not a specific policy against something in the SOP manual does not necessarily mean it is okay.
Second, officers must be role models for the conduct they are asking for from others. An officer who takes a "do as I say, not as I do" approach will have no credibility and trouble is inevitable, sooner or later.
In the case above, the officer who worked with these two firefighters knew or should have known what was going on. This was not an isolated incident, but a pattern of behavior. At the first knowledge of inappropriate behavior, the officer should have investigated and set clear standards for conduct from that point forward.
So why don't officers step up to this responsibility? Why are avoiding and enabling among officers so common?
There are several possible reasons. Officers might lack the skills and confidence to confront inappropriate behavior. They might be fearful that if they do make a stand, they will not be supported by their supervisors or department administration.
There may be a culture of avoidance on the department where officers just transfer problems away as soon as possible. And officers' identities might be so tied into being one of the guys that they cannot risk losing that acceptance, even if it means not doing their job.
Training can help officers do better, specifically in the areas of communication and conflict management. But the most important way to get officers to really do their jobs is to be crystal clear about what that job is, and what clear expectations go with it. Officers need to be held accountable, but they also need to be empowered in their roles to be effective.
About the author
Linda F. Willing worked for more than 20 years in the emergency services, including 18 as a career firefighter and fire officer. For more than 15 years, she has provided support for fire and emergency services and other organizations through her company, RealWorld Training and Consulting. Linda's work focuses on developing customized solutions in the areas of leadership development, conflict resolution, diversity management, team building, communications and decision making. She is the author of "On the Line: Women Firefighters Tell Their Stories." Linda is also an adjunct instructor and curriculum advisor for the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program. She has a B.A. in American Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, an M.S. from Regis University in Denver in Organization Development, and is a certified mediator. To contact Linda, e-mail Linda.Willing@FireRescue1.com.
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