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4 rules that keep firefighter humor funny

Rude humor may go with the territory, but hurtful jokes can result in dismissal


Rude humor just goes with the territory of firefighting. Some of it is historical: a long tradition of jokes and pranks among co-workers. Some of it is situational: people living and working together in close quarters needing to blow off a little steam. And sometimes it can even be therapeutic: after the third suicide in one week, a tasteless joke can sometimes be just the thing to break the tension.

But there are limits to firefighter humor. And this is where some firefighters get into trouble.

When firefighter humor goes astray

There are limits to firefighter humor and this is where some firefighters get into trouble. (Photo/Pixabay)
There are limits to firefighter humor and this is where some firefighters get into trouble. (Photo/Pixabay)

Two recent examples of firefighter humor illustrate the point. In one case, members of a recruit class thought it would be funny to place a noose at the seat of the only African-American member of the class. In another incident, a firefighter posted a photo of himself dressed in a Confederate hat and holding a Tiki torch with the comment “Headed to VA.” The posting was tagged to an African-American friend of the firefighter.

The contexts of these two firefighter humor incidents were quite different. In the former, those involved were not even out of recruit school. In the latter, the person responsible had nearly 20 years on the job. In addition, the incidents were perceived differently by those who were targeted. The person who found the noose was disturbed by it and took a photo he later showed to a senior member of the department. In the other incident, according to one source, the man who received the online photo said he was not bothered by it.

The outcomes so far have also been different. The recruits responsible for the noose lied about it and were subsequently fired. The firefighter who posted the online photo effusively apologized, and at this date, had not been formally disciplined.

But despite their differences, these two firefighter humor incidents have some key aspects in common. The main lesson is that when it comes to joking around, even among friends, there are limits that must be respected.

Keep these four points in mind:

1. Rank and position matter when it comes to jokes.

Those at the top and at the bottom of the organization have much less latitude than those in the middle. The chief of the department just can’t try to be very funny and get away with it. Likewise, new firefighters should be only busy learning the job, not planning pranks.

2. Know the person.

Jokes should only happen between those who know each other well enough to be able to predict how the joke will be received. Jokes should also happen among equals — if someone plays a joke on one person, that person has the right to respond in kind. This equal standing is the key difference between mutual joking and hazing.

3. Remember where you are.

When you are at work, you are first and foremost a representative of your organization. While some kidding around is acceptable, extreme jokes and pranks, horseplay, hazing or other unprofessional behavior can be the source of discipline or even dismissal.

4. Some things are not OK, no matter where you are.

The firefighter who posted the photo of himself online did so when drinking on his back deck at home. But the content and timing of the photo were so provocative and toxic that soon afterward, the fire commissioner said, “I am utterly horrified and disgusted. Racist images, symbols, words and actions are contrary to our mission and values.” The mayor stated, “It's disturbing, it's stupid. I know he regrets it, but we regret it also.”

It may not seem fair to hold firefighters accountable for actions even off duty, but a key federal court case from 2006 clearly made the point that this is legally possible. In that case, several firefighters and a police officer had entered a float depicting racial violence (among other offensive images) in a neighborhood parade. Despite the fact this behavior took place off duty, their departments fired them when they learned of their actions.

The men felt their First Amendment rights were violated, and they appealed their firings to the U.S. District Court. At that level, the court upheld their case. But when the city appealed that ruling to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, the ruling was reversed. The court stated, “The [city’s] interest in maintaining a relationship of trust between the police and fire departments and the communities they serve outweighs plaintiffs’ interests in expressing themselves in this case. The First Amendment does not require a Government employer to sit idly by while its employees insult those they are hired to serve and protect.”

Take responsibility

Which leads to the final point. If you do screw up, make a bad joke or an inappropriate social media post, admit it, apologize and take responsibility for your actions. Be clear that your intention was to be funny and not hurtful, but you now see that you were wrong. (In the words of the firefighter with the Tiki torch: “I am an idiot. I am very sorry. Maybe I get too carried away on Facebook and I put something up there that is stupid. I thought he would get a joke about it. I really did. It was very stupid.”)

Firefighter humor is an important part of the job of being a firefighter, and no one is saying that all jokes are off limits in the fire station. But firefighters, being naturally competitive, tend to push things to their natural limits and beyond. That tendency, combined with the effect of social media, has proven to be the downfall of more than one firefighter and fire officer in recent months.

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