ReIGNITE Quick Take: The impact of firefighter misconduct and how to manage ethical dilemmas

Assistant Chief Debbie Carpenter shares tools and strategies for firefighters and fire leaders when making and maintaining ethical standards


The fire service depends on the trust of the public to perform their jobs – without it, members would be unable to function in their traditional capacity, causing inherent harm to the community.

In a virtual session during the IAFC Fire-Rescue International ReIGNITE 2020 conference, Carrolton (Texas) Fire Rescue Assistant Chief Debbie Carpenter, MS, outlined how firefighter misconduct impacts the fire service, and how to approach ethical dilemmas with a sense of purpose.

Memorable quotes about fire department ethics

“It is our organizations and our leadership that is responsible for making sure that ethical lessons are reinforced.” – Assistant Chief Debbie Carpenter, Carrolton (Texas) Fire Department
“It is our organizations and our leadership that is responsible for making sure that ethical lessons are reinforced.” – Assistant Chief Debbie Carpenter, Carrolton (Texas) Fire Department (Photo/Getty Images)

“The fire service … has a strong sense of cultural identity, with honesty and integrity ranking on most firefighters’ list of common traits. If our fellow firefighters continue to breach those ethical precepts, we all lose the ability to label ourselves as having integrity.” 

“All of us are capable of poor decisions.” 

“It is our organizations and our leadership that is responsible for making sure that ethical lessons are reinforced.” 

Top 5 takeaways for an ethical mindset

During her session, Carpenter highlighted several examples of firefighter misconduct from her home state of Texas, and asked the audience, “Would you hire a firefighter you knew would do this?”

Here are five highlights from her session regarding ethical dilemmas and how to solve them.

1. Consequences of firefighter misconduct

  • Loss of public trust
  • Cultural ambiguity
  • Legal issues and subsequent money issues
  • A drop in ethical employees’ performance

2. How to teach ethics

  • Base your training on real-world examples
  • Give your employees scenarios that they are likely to encounter
  • Practice making ethical decisions in a friendly environment
  • Clearly explain the consequences of unethical behavior
  • Use short, clear messages
  • Focus on foundational principles that can be applied to most situations
  • Play an active role (especially important for senior leaders)
  • Have a plan to sustain learning
  • Use common ethical tests to work through the examples

3. Tools for making ethical decisions

  • The Golden Rule test. “Would I want people to do this to me?”
  • The Truth test. “Does this action represent the whole truth and nothing but the truth?”
  • The “What if everybody did this?” test. “Would I want everyone to do this? Would I want to live in that kind of world?”
  • The Parents test. “How would my parents or grandparents feel if they found out I did this? What advice would they give me if I asked them if I should do it?”
  • The Religion test. “If I have religious beliefs, how do they apply to this action? What would a respected member of my religion advise? Are there any religious texts I can draw upon for advice?”
  • The Conscience test. “Does this go against my conscience? Will I feel guilty afterward?”
  • The Consequences test. “Might this action have bad consequences, such as damage to relationships or loss of self-respect, now or in the future? Might I come to regret doing this?”
  • The Front Page test. “How would I feel if my action were reported on the front page of my hometown newspaper?”

4. Framework for handling ethical decisions

  • Recognize that you have an ethic issue
  • Think before you take any action
  • Decide what course of action to take
  • Test your conclusions and proceed

Decision Tree

In her session, Carpenter refers to Borealis Group, a chemical company based in Austria, which requires its employees to be familiar with a decision tree designed to guide individuals through tough decisions. Starting with, “Is it legal?”, employees are asked a series of questions to help determine the ethical underpinnings of their quandary.

5. Maintaining ethical standards

  • Inform employees of your organizations’ ethical code of conduct
  • Tell manager they are held to a higher standard
  • Train employees on the policy
  • Monitor compliance
  • Keep policies up to date
  • Listen to your people

Additional resources

For additional information about ethical leadership and maintaining the public trust, read these additional articles from FireRescue1:

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