6 reasons fire officers hate being disciplinarians

Fortunately, there are steps fire chiefs can take to make this job easier for the officers and the firefighters

I recently got a phone call from someone who was tasked with evaluating the disciplinary process for a large fire department. This person had previously worked primarily with law enforcement, where policies, procedures, formal structures and extensive published literature exist related to the topic of discipline.

In contrast, the caller was finding little similar information pertaining to the fire service, but abundant publications about technical subjects such as incident command or equipment deployment. I was asked if I could give any insight about how fire departments view and manage discipline.

I laughed. Fire officers hate talking about discipline, I replied. They hate doing it. They hate defining themselves in that role. And as a result, things often do not turn out as they hope when disciplinary challenges arise.

Why do fire officers hate being disciplinarians and why do their actions in this area often have less than optimal outcomes? I can think of six reasons.

1. They are ill prepared
First line supervisors are not well prepared for their positions of authority and tend to under- or over-react to disciplinary situations. In my experience, under-reaction is more common at least at first, as there is strong cultural pressure to still be "one of the guys" even after promotion.

2. They avoid confrontation
Because leaders at all levels often choose avoidance rather than confronting lower-level issues, problems frequently escalate before they are addressed. When that happens, leaders may overreact, cast blame randomly or choose scapegoats rather than identifying and addressing the real problems and root causes.

3. They lack communication skills
Supervisors at all levels lack skills in communication, conflict resolution and documentation necessary for effective use of disciplinary processes. They simply don't feel comfortable having the conversation and so will avoid it if possible, or do it badly when avoidance is not possible.

4. They don't understand
Disciplinary processes are not well understood or communicated and may be perceived as arbitrary and unfair. Often existing disciplinary processes are not used consistently.

5. They carry baggage
Senior officers may carry baggage from their younger days and therefore lack credibility when acting in the role of disciplinarian. Trying to manage discipline through a "Do as I say, not as I do (or did)" approach rarely works.

6. They lack the shared vision
The necessary autonomy that company officers have is often not grounded in a shared vision of professionalism. In other words, a lot of freelancing goes on in the area of discipline at the station level and the results may be wildly inconsistent from station to station and shift to shift.

Each of these factors is a separate issue, but remedies may address more than one factor.

First, disciplinary processes must be transparent, fair, consistently applied, and balanced in their approach. Everyone should know what will happen if members violate policies or engage in unacceptable behavior. Disciplinary processes cannot be applied to the letter for one person and brushed aside for another.

That said, those processes need to be reasonable. Many fire departments over time develop books of SOPs several inches thick, which are really just rules written for past individual cases — or policies with people's names on them.

Policies should address general principles rather than very narrowly focused scenarios. And there needs to be some room for people to make honest mistakes.

All department members need training when it comes to the disciplinary process. They need to know what the process is, how it will work and what their rights and responsibilities are within it.

A common purpose
Perhaps more important, all firefighters need training and support to be better communicators, to be able to initiate the so-called difficult conversation, to create effective documentation and to defuse escalating conflict situations. These are essential job skills as important as throwing ladders or pulling hose.

But training alone is not enough. Fire officers need skills but they also need to know that they will be supported by their departments in using those skills.

If a company officer feels he will be abandoned by his superior officers when trying to impose discipline, or even thrown under the bus himself, he will find ways to avoid dealing with the problem. If the problem is significant and part of a pattern of behavior, it will worsen and be that much harder to resolve when it surfaces again.

Then there is the problem with personal baggage. All of us have done things in our younger days that we would rather not be reminded of 20 years later. Escaping links to those past actions is much more difficult in an age where everything we do is captured in photo and video, where our texts and Facebook posts and comments are retrievable seemingly forever.

Those who choose to move into supervisory roles must be cognizant that their personal histories will follow them. If there is something in that history that undermines their credibility, there are two things they can do to diminish the effect.

  • Acknowledge the transgression, be clear about what was learned from the experience and any discipline associated with it and demonstrate understanding of why something that might have seemed OK in the past is no longer acceptable.
  • Never do it again.

Finally, discipline can only be truly effective if it is tied to a sense of common purpose or vision among department members. Company officers have a lot of autonomy in their roles and that is a good thing. Fire departments would be paralyzed without the ability of first-line officers to make substantial decisions.

But everyone needs to be on the same page not only about what should happen, but why it should happen. Working with all members to develop a common sense of vision about who they are and what they represent is time well spent.

With such core values in place, firefighters will monitor themselves at the lowest level, reminding and correcting one another when an individual makes a mistake or a bad decision.

Building an organization based on transparency, fairness and a strong sense of shared values is work that happens from the top down. Chiefs must demonstrate through words, actions and policies that they are leading an organization based on trust, fairness, inclusion and professionalism.

Ultimately, every firefighter is accountable for maintaining this culture. Once it is in place, discipline becomes just another way to be vigilant that those shared core values will never be compromised.

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