Fire chiefs: Break the law, lose your career

Even the perception of illegal activity can be enough to bring down a fire chief; exercise good judgment and hire those with a solid character

It seems painfully obvious that involvement or even the perception of involvement in illegal activity would spell the end for a fire chief's career. One could speculate that any member of the fire department might not fair well if they had a verified run-in with the law beyond a minor misdemeanor traffic ticket.

However, that obviousness is lost on many fire service leaders as is evidence by the string of news stories detailing the serious crimes and horrible lapses in judgment by fire chiefs and fire officers. The reoccurring theme is the four deadly sins that permeate much of our society. Those sins have a great negative effect on our business as well.

These activities include: greed (money or goods obtained illegally), substance abuse and addiction (to drugs, alcohol and gambling), sexual misconduct and abuse, and assaults of all types.

To be forewarned is to be forearmed and to be able to avoid these self-destructive behaviors. Maybe having an open, honest and frank discussion about this difficult topic can save some jobs and the reputation of some fire departments.

Job 1
Department members must come to grips with the fact that we only exist to serve the needs of our community's residents and visitors. If we can't preventing harm before it happens or effectively mitigating harm that has occurred, we will lose our "stock in trade."

To effectively deliver the goods for our communities, we must have their trust. The fire department needs to enter properties without the homeowner being fearful that something inappropriate might happen at our hands during their hour of greatest need.

A fire department responds to the home of an elderly woman in severe pain caused by the cardiac dysrhythmia episode. Clearly, the emergency medical pre-hospital care providers are expected to deliver high-quality and effective patient treatment based upon evidence-based medicine. 

Further, she has a high expectation that all of her valuables are unmolested and in the same place that they were before the medical emergency. In fact, she would need the medical team to secure the home and make sure that the local police were aware that she was transported to the hospital and to place the now-empty home on close patrol.

Another department responds to a 15-year-old child who was struck by an automobile and sustained serious injuries. The medic knows that the potential for unseen injuries is high in this type of situation. In order to properly treat the child, the providers remove all of the clothing to determine the extent of the injury and provide proper life-saving treatment.  

A matter of trust
Based on just these two realistic and common scenarios, the public trust is critical in delivering our services properly. In fact, upholding the public trust is the single-most important corporate value that a department can pursue.

In cities where the public trust has been lost, senior employees get fired. New leadership arrives and the trust building process with the public starts over from scratch. It can be rebuilt, but at a steep price and with many sacrifices along the way. The best option is to value the public trust and cling to it dearly.

Whenever there is a negative news story about someone associated with public safety, on duty or off duty, the coverage starts by pointing out that a member of the fire department was arrested for some indiscretion.

It doesn't seem fair that we are scrutinized when off duty as well. Further, why do reporters drag the department or local government into the mix?

Of course, the answer is that by pinning on the badge, firefighters are sworn to uphold the public's trust. It is a solemn oath that firefighters take and one that should be etched into their brains as they do the work of the people.

Privilege and accountability
And when the firefighters are off duty, they are expected to behave equally as well as on duty. That's not saying that you can't have a good time off duty, but remember the two scenarios discussed earlier?

The question must be asked, would the little old lady having a cardiac event allow a firefighter into her home if that member was a bank robber? Would the trauma victim's parents allow you to cut away the kid's clothing if you were a registered sex offender?

Those families would not let the "criminalized" firefighters within a mile of a sick or injured loved one. Those actions are not going to happen without a high level of trust.

Being under the microscope around the clock and calendar doesn't seem fair. There are folks out there who live on the edge of society and never seem to lose their jobs. Why should a firefighter (public safety servant) be under such scrutiny?

The answer resides in the fact that firefighters and police officers hold the public's trust. They can go places and do things that the average person could only dream of have the authority to do. However, with that authority comes responsibility and accountability.

So, a firefighter must always use self-discipline in every setting in life, both on and off duty. Is that fair to the firefighters? Probably not! Is life always fair? Probably not! Get over it and behave properly on and off duty. 

Staff choices
To have a high-performance team staffed with great people, the best place to start is at the very beginning of the process. I've pointed out more than once that public safety organizations should never hire idiots, thugs or military misfits.

When questionable or untrustworthy people enter the rolls of the department, it is an almost impossible battle to hold the public trust. If there are idiots, thugs and military misfits already a part of your organization, they will never let you down. They will always behave like idiots, thugs and military misfits. 

One department has been notorious for hiring folks that fall into one or more of these undesirable and unacceptable categories. The estimate is about 5 percent of their staff cause about 90 percent of the department's administrative woes. 

Ensure everyone hired or voted in as a volunteer member meets all of the national standards relating to candidate selection and hiring. Exhaustive background checks, drug and alcohol screening and comprehensive academic, physical and medical testing should be part of the process used to add a person to the rolls of the department for 30 to 50 years. 

A good character
Background work and medical checks will be money will spend and the return on investment off of the charts compared to dealing with the issues that undesirables bring to the work place.

Please do not miss interpret this. Everyone that has proven themselves to earn a second chance should get one.

However, if the offense is significant (drug use, incarceration, crime of a sexual nature, major misdemeanor, felony, less than honorable or dishonorable discharge from the military, etc.) their second chance cannot be in a public safety agency. Perhaps the sanitation, roads or public works departments might be a good fit.

To reach the highest level and quality of uniformed employees that the organization can attract, all applicants must be of good character.

A great fire chief once pointed out to me, "If a candidate being considered for employment is a maybe hire, simply don't hire that person. There are too many great people waiting to become a member of a pubic safety department not to choose the best."

This career crusher seems so simple and straightforward, however statistics indicates that we have work to do. The goal should always be to be a high-performance and high-trust agency. Any involvement or even perceived involvement in criminal activity shatters any chance of reaching this desirable organizational status. 

Hire great people. Maintain your employee or membership standards based on national requirement. Do not accept applications with questionable backgrounds. And, always protect the public's trust in the department. 

Until next time, please be safe out there.

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