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Fire chief’s video troubles may mask larger issues

In a situation where no good could come from it, no good came from it


The city of San Luis Obispo, Calif. recently announced the results of an investigation that was done following a joke video made by city officials. The fire chief was the main actor in the video, but other city officials including the city manager were involved as well.

The video referred to firefighters in sexual terms and showed pictures of shirtless male firefighters. The intention of the video was to provide entertainment during a Chamber of Commerce dinner, which the fire chief was hosting.

Complaints about the video came quickly, and initially from department firefighters who said they felt objectified and that the video violated policies and training they were required to adhere to themselves.

The result of this fiasco was a lot of bad press, the loss of up to $70,000 to pay for the investigation, the loss of thousands of dollars in compensation to the city manager and fire chief due to unpaid suspensions, and a lot of wasted time and energy in a city (and that would be any city) that has more important things to do.

But there are some lessons to be learned here.

First, fire chiefs and other government leaders: stop trying to be funny. Few can truly pull it off, it never works out the way you think and it can only end badly.

But why is this? Firefighters are often very funny people and humor is an important part of the job. Why can’t fire chiefs be funny in the same way?

The reason is simple.

Being the adult

The higher up you go in an organization, the less funny you get to be. This is because as you advance into the ranks of officers and chief, your words carry more weight with every step up the ladder. People take you seriously, and suddenly wanting to be the class clown only confuses people.

When you are the chief, people are watching you all the time and marking every word you say in an official capacity. If this is not something you are comfortable with, then advancing to the highest positions in an organization might not be for you.

This does not mean that fire chiefs have to be humorless stiffs. A light-hearted, easy-going attitude is a plus in many circumstances. What it does mean is that fire chiefs cannot instigate pranks and jokes as they might have when they were firefighters. They are no longer truly “one of the guys.”

The fire chief is the designated grown-up in any room he or she may be in, and must act that way.

Second is the issue of moderation in the process. Many people were involved in the production of this video; undoubtedly many more were aware of it before its completion.

Wasn’t there one person who might have suggested, “Maybe we should rethink this?” And if someone did have such thoughts but never spoke up, why not?

Finally, there is another lesson here that has not been much discussed. Many online comments complain that this whole debacle was a result of a culture of political correctness run amok. What those people seem to forget is that the main complaints came from the firefighters themselves and the firefighters’ union.

Of suspicious nature

I guarantee that those firefighters (who are all male) have experienced things that are much more offensive than the fire chief’s sophomoric video. Why did they make such a big deal out of their opposition to it?

One can only speculate. But as a general rule, when people have good relationships of trust and open communication, and one person unintentionally offends another, the solution is simple and direct.

The aggrieved person lets the other person know that they don’t like something that happened. The first person apologizes, corrects the situation, and doesn’t do it again. End of issue. And no one writes a check to a consultant for $70,000.

So why didn’t that happen here? Were there deeper unresolved issues between the individuals and groups? Was there a lack of trust and effective communication? Was the video dust up just a proxy for other simmering resentments?

I don’t know. What I do know is that when bad decisions are made and then events escalate as they did in this case, there is always more going on than just a bad film review.

And that seems like the most important lesson of this whole incident. People will make mistakes. There will also be some bad decisions made along the way.

People need to be mindful when ideas are launched, and listen to those who see things differently. They must consider the farther-reaching consequence of their actions and accept responsibility when they screw up.

They must remember who they are and what the higher mission is that they all serve.

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.