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Disciplining fire officers

Like fires, the best discipline outcomes are those that never happen in the first place; here's how to ward off discipline-worthy behavior and what to do when those efforts fail


This feature is part of our Fire Chief Digital Edition, a quarterly supplement to FireChief.com that brings a sharpened focus to some of the most challenging topics facing fire chiefs and fire service leaders everywhere. To read all of the articles included in the Winter 2016 issue, click here.

By Linda Willing

A company officer repeatedly makes inappropriate postings to social media. Another gets into a physical altercation with a firefighter at the station. Yet another actively supports hazing of new firefighters. And another is arrested after getting into an argument with a police officer after a traffic stop.

All of these situations demand a response. But what is a fire chief to do?

Sometimes the decision is straightforward. All fire departments and the jurisdictions they report to have policies and regulations in place that define specific incidents that will lead to termination from the organization. These "point of no return" offenses may vary among organizations, but policies that are clearly defined need to be as clearly and consistently enforced.

More difficult for any fire service leader are the gray areas. What if inappropriate conduct at a lower level persists despite intervention? What if an officer does something at an emergency scene that endangers others? What if there are negative and worrisome changes in the behavior of a longstanding officer with an otherwise good reputation?

Build alliances

For fire chiefs to be effective with these challenges, several conditions must be met. First, chiefs must be aware what is going on. Second, they and other leaders in the department must have the skills to communicate and enforce appropriate standards. And finally, there must be an organizational culture in place that supports professional standards for everyone on the department.

The first condition is sometimes the hardest. Fire chiefs have a lot on their plates, and it is often difficult to be aware of everything that is happening at the station level. Chiefs must build alliances with other officers in the department, and those alliances must be based on an assumption of trust.

Years ago, a serious assault took place between two firefighters in a fire station of a large fire department. One of the firefighters was critically injured. Instead of notifying the chain of command about the occurrence and calling an ambulance, the company officers present chose to handle the incident themselves — driving the injured firefighter to the hospital in a private vehicle and lying about what had actually happened. When the truth came out, all involved were disciplined, including forced retirements, demotions and reassignments.

Why would company officers do such a thing? When I ask this question in classes using this case study, the answer is always quick and consistent. They were protecting their own and trying to keep things in-house.

The officers involved knew they had enabled the situation and thus were complicit in its escalation. Among other things, alcohol consumption was a factor in the incident. As a result, they ended up making more than one bad decision.

  • They stood by while alcohol was consumed by on-duty firefighters.
  • They did not intervene to stop the escalating conflict that resulted.
  • Once the conflict reached crisis levels, they tried to cover it up.

Company officers have an obligation to inform their battalion chiefs about important incidents they experience or witness. Certainly there are many lower-level problems that can and should be handled at the station level. But actions that clearly violate law or policy, escalating conflict, a pattern of inappropriate behavior, incidents of harassment or intimidation — these things must be reported up the chain of command.

However, company officers will only do such reporting if they feel safe in doing so. They must feel that their supervising chiefs have the skills and will to support them in solving problems. If they feel they will be used as a scapegoat, ridiculed or ignored, they will always try to deal with problems "in-house," even if it is clearly inappropriate to do so.

Promote open communication

The inability to give effective feedback is an issue that plagues many fire officers at all levels of the organization. Company officers may want to be one of the guys and avoid addressing unprofessional conduct. Battalion chiefs may be out of touch or unwilling to engage with an officer who is clearly heading in a bad direction. And there may be pressure at all levels to go along to get along.

The book "Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High" underscores the importance of safety in communication. The authors point out that, "When it's safe, you can say anything." This means that anyone can speak up about their concerns in any situation and feel confident that they will be heard. In the aforementioned assault, many firefighters knew alcohol was being consumed and witnessed the escalating tension between the two men. But no one spoke up or tried to defuse the situation in any way.

The authors go on to write that, "When it's unsafe, you start to go blind." People who are primarily worried about their own personal status or safety in any situation tend to not see the bigger picture and have no stake in intervening if doing so will endanger their own position. This outcome can apply as much to experienced officers as it can to the newest firefighter.

If chief officers want their company officers to tell them the truth, they have to make it safe to do so. This relationship of trust must be built long before it is put to the test.

Culture matters

Organizational culture plays a large role in how effectively company officers will manage their crews and make good decisions. As Edgar Schein points out in his book "Organizational Culture and Leadership," culture is strongly linked to identity at both the individual and group levels.

This is particularly true for organizations with strong, interdependent teams such as the fire service. When people believe that a cultural change threatens their identity, they will resist that change in action, even as they may acknowledge it in words.

The incident described above took place in 2003 — long past the time when any firefighter would believe it was acceptable to consume alcohol while on duty at the fire station. But this department had a cultural history that included alcohol, and that sense of identity overrode the official prohibition.

In another incident on a department with a long history of hazing new recruits, a company officer facilitated an elaborate and dangerous prank involving two rookie firefighters. At the time, hazing was officially prohibited, yet the pull of the old organizational culture enabled the crew to do something clearly inappropriate. They didn't even feel they were doing anything wrong, as demonstrated by the fact that they all put their names on the resulting video.

This leads to the final question. At what point does a fire chief say enough is enough and move toward firing someone?

Termination issues

One of the most difficult decisions a fire chief has to make is if and when to terminate a member of the department. Whether a firefighter has two years or 20 with the organization, the department has an investment in that person's success, and coming to the conclusion that there is no way forward for that person within the department is always agonizing.

In some cases, an acute situation forces the decision. The fire chief has no choice. But in cases where progressive discipline has been attempted and failed to modify the behavior, the decision is much harder.

All factors must be considered. If an officer has a sudden change in behavior, such changes must be recognized and addressed. Perhaps help is needed in the area of behavioral health. Maybe there is another type of medical issue. Support and aid must be offered, but the welfare of all members of the department must also be prioritized.

Most problems with department members are not acute. They are chronic. They are situations that develop over months or years, a seemingly endless slippery slope that finally leads to the edge of a cliff. In the case of the fire station assault, two of the three officers implicated had prior histories of serious infractions, both on and off the job. In both cases, the men were promoted to officer subsequent to significant disciplinary actions involving harassment, assault and alcohol abuse.

In their book "Leadership on the Line: How to Stay Alive Through the Dangers of Leading," authors Heifitz and Linsky talk about how adaptive changes within an organization will often lead to some casualties. When culture changes significantly, as has happened in many fire departments in the past decades, the organization can benefit even as individuals may feel that they have been betrayed. Most will find a way to adapt to some degree or another. But those who cannot change may be left behind.

A leader’s duty

Fire chiefs have a responsibility to lead an organizational culture that is professional, inclusive and responsive to the service community. Company officers are the critical pivot point where this culture translates from words to action on a day-to-day basis.

Chiefs must support their officers and develop a relationship of trust and transparency that works in both directions. They must develop skills in their officers so they are vigilant about noticing and addressing problems at the lowest possible level.

Chiefs must be ready to intervene and take action. And ultimately, in rare cases, they must be willing to be the bad guy and move toward removing a member when that member cannot adapt to a changing culture and professional expectations. 

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