Fire officers: Don't get burned by what you write

Training for the crucial job of documentation is often lacking; here are ways to make sure what you write is accurate and doesn't come back to burn you

If you've ever doubted the power of the written word, consider the bizarre case that was recently decided in an Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals regarding benefits paid to the family of a man who died during firefighting training.

The strange story began years earlier when a friend of the chief of a volunteer fire department in Oklahoma asked the chief to write a letter of recommendation for a third party whom the chief did not know. The chief complied, constructing a glowing letter of recommendation including reference to years of service by the young man on the volunteer fire department as well as certifications earned.

In fact, the man being recommended had never worked for that or any other fire department. In 2008 that same man gained entrance to a live fire training class at the state fire school, claiming he was a member of the volunteer fire department that had given him the letter of recommendation years earlier.

Tragically, during that training class the young man died. Subsequently, his widow was paid both the federal firefighter's death benefit as well as worker's compensation, totaling over half a million dollars.

Later, it came to light in testimony by the fire chief and others that this man had never worked as a firefighter in any capacity. Based on that testimony, the worker's comp court denied benefits.

However, on appeal that decision was reversed. Basically the court had to decide which to believe: what the chief had written or what he had said. They chose to believe the written word.

If it isn't written
This should come as no surprise. We've all heard the old saying that it didn't happen if you didn't write it down. The corollary to that is if you did write it down, then it did happen. Therefore, you must be careful with what you write and how you write it.

The first rule, of course, is never to officially write something down that did not in fact happen. The things that fire officers write in the course of their work are in large part legal documents; if you falsify such a document, it can be a criminal offense.

Few fire officers would be tempted to write a job recommendation for someone they had never met, but more than one have exercised similarly bad judgment: signing off on training that was never done or filing paperwork for expenses that were not actually incurred.

But even when honest documentation takes place, there can be problems. Many fire officers have little or no training in writing skills prior to promotion.

Untrained pen
Without training and guidance, it is easy to get caught in the trap of writing based on perceptions and conclusions rather than facts. Writing in that way can be dangerous for an officer and damaging to individuals who are associated with that person.

For example, when writing a performance evaluation, to say that someone is not a team player is a conclusion, not a fact, and must be backed up with actions and events that support that conclusion.

  • What exactly does that person do that leads you to that conclusion?
  • Does he fail to volunteer for work assignments?
  • Has she refused to help a newer firefighter with training?
  • Was he freelancing on the last fire scene?

These are specific actions and events that can be documented, and which may or may not lead to the conclusion "not a team player." In fact, there may be other valid reasons why these actions were taken, and those alternate explanations should be explored through conversation and coaching before any definitive conclusion is drawn about them.

Never guess
It is equally important to stick to the facts when writing reports from emergency calls. Don't guess when writing how fast a vehicle might have been going before a collision, or what the driver might have seen or thought. Just report accurately on what you saw, what you heard, using direct quotes and avoiding drawing conclusions of your own.

The ability to do good documentation is a skill that can be learned and practiced. Good professional writing should be grounded in ethical principles of truth and fairness, and must always begin with just the facts.

Never forget that when you write something down in an official capacity, you are putting your reputation and the reputation of your organization on the line that whatever you write is the truth.

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