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‘Designated adult’: The life of a company officer

When the crew starts to get a little crazy, it’s the company officer’s job to shut it down and redirect that energy

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“The officer is the designated grownup in the room. If others in the crew starts to get crazy (‘You know what would be really funny?’), it’s the officer’s job to say ‘No.’ Shut it down. Redirect that energy,” writes Willing.

Photo/John Odegard

The San Jose (California) Fire Department has had a problem for the past 10 months – and it’s just not going away.

An investigative report was recently released detailing the events of Oct. 5, 2022, when a San Jose fire crew gave a ride on the fire truck to a bikini-clad strip club employee outside her place of employment. The incident took place after 2100 hours and was recorded and posted publicly by a witness on the street.

Two days later, the department issued a statement that read, in part, “The City has taken appropriate disciplinary action and now considers this matter closed.”

But it wasn’t closed.

A subsequent investigation led to an official report that is 100 pages long. Major news outlets were still reporting on the incident and follow up as recently as mid-August, including coverage of the mayor’s public remarks on the incident.

Consider how much time, energy and money has gone into the follow-up from this one incident.

When I first heard the story, I immediately flashed back to a different scandal from nearly 20 years ago, when a fire crew from another large department took the apparatus to an event called “The Porn Star Costume Ball.” The investigation of that incident began when a woman reported that she was sexually assaulted by an on-duty firefighter inside a fire engine the evening of the event.

I’ve used this latter incident as a case study in leadership training, specifically asking this question: What was the company officer doing when all of this was happening?

You don’t have to know any details about either incident to know the answer. The officer was approving and facilitating the actions taken, either actively or passively. You know this for a fact because of the simple truth that the fire truck cannot go anywhere without the officer’s approval and participation.

Incidents like these do not occur in a vacuum. There is always context. In the case of “Costume Ball,” days before the incident, a letter arrived at fire department headquarters reporting several firefighters had been picking up women outside downtown bars and giving them rides in fire equipment. In the San Jose case, the officer had already approved giving a ride on the rig to a different unauthorized civilian before the video was taken.

Sociologists call this slippery slope “normalization of deviance,” the process in which variance from correct or proper behavior or rule becomes culturally normalized. It can happen in any context, but is especially problematic in tight-knit, insulated groups. It’s always a gradual process. There are incremental steps which lead to the ultimate action seeming normal. In San Jose, the fire crew had already given one unauthorized person a ride that evening. Doing it again maybe didn’t seem like that big a deal.

But that’s one reason why one person is designated as the officer.

The officer is the designated grownup in the room. If others in the crew starts to get crazy (“You know what would be really funny?”), it’s the officer’s job to say “No.” Shut it down. Redirect that energy.

In the San Jose incident, the only person disciplined for the actions taken was the captain. During the investigation, the captain acknowledged his responsibility, saying, “I made a poor decision that night.”

People do sometimes make bad decisions, including those who are in charge. It’s unfortunate in this and other incidents that others involved could not speak up, recognizing the potential repercussions of going forward. If there is truly a relationship of trust between a leader and crew, anyone present should be able to express their concerns without fear of retaliation. Just pulling someone aside and saying something like, “Do you really think this is a good idea? I don’t feel completely comfortable with it,” can have the effect of making someone else think twice and make better choices.

Why is this so important? Because there are larger repercussions to these incidents. As a judge stated when ordering the San Jose investigative report be made public, the crew on the fire truck “occupy a position of trust and responsibility, and thus the public has a legitimate interest in knowing whether and how the department enforces its policies.”

The city manager commented how the incident reflected on other department members and city employees: “This is an isolated incident that is highly unacceptable and should not overshadow the tireless work thousands of employees perform every day to serve our community, while being transparent, honest and ethical in every aspect of their job.”

A few lessons emerge from these incidents:

  1. It is best to be as transparent as possible as quickly as possible.
  2. Developing patterns must be attended to and reversed as necessary.
  3. And most importantly, those in positions of leadership and control must exercise those qualities at all times. Specifically, a big part of the company officer’s job is always to be the “designated adult” in the room. If all officers would remember that, a lot of problems could be prevented.
Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.
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