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Will surveillance cameras deter inappropriate activity at the fire station?

While technology can assist in some situations, toxic leadership and cultural norms require a different approach

None of these types of issues can be resolved by technical solutions alone.

In response to reports that firefighters had sexual activity in fire stations, a large fire department announced that it will be installing surveillance cameras on all of its stations. The reported incidents included consensual sex between adults as well as sexual contact with a 15-year-old prostitute. The officer involved in the latter incident has since resigned and is facing multiple felony charges.

Using technology as a deterrence for bad behavior at the fire station

Surveillance cameras can be a useful technical tool for dealing with some problems and gathering data. But, for a deeper adaptive problem like the unprofessionalism and bad judgment that go along with deciding to have sex on duty at the fire station, cameras are likely to be of limited value.

There are two basic reasons why cameras are not the single answer here:

  1. Very few department members are accused of actually having sex at work. For the vast majority that have never engaged in such activity, cameras may seem like a waste of money and an intrusive way of putting everyone under suspicion for the actions of a few.
  2. For someone who is highly motivated to behave inappropriately in this way, a camera might be only a minor deterrent.

Bad leadership, toxic culture result in inappropriate conduct

The bigger adaptive issue in this case seems to emerge through deeper inquiry. In the case of the underaged prostitute, the man who allegedly employed her was the captain at the station. In the case of apparently consensual sexual conduct, the reporting party was another firefighter in the station, who claims he was told to “shut the f--- up” by his captain when bringing the incident to his attention.

These reports seem to indicate there could be leadership issues involved here. Additionally, an EMT with a private company in the same city recently came forward and stated that sex in fire stations was commonplace, and that she herself has had sex with various department members in fire stations over a period of seven years.

All of these claims are still under investigation, but if they are upheld, it indicates that not only is there is leadership problem within this organization, but also possible cultural norms that support or allow inappropriate conduct to continue.

The firefighter who reported the activity in his station said that he felt he had done what he had been instructed to do, but as a result felt bullied, intimidated and threatened by people in positions of authority.

“The entire situation is proof of the culture that exists,” he said.

If this is true, this department has a much bigger problem than cameras can resolve.

Technical solutions cannot solve problems that require people to change

In their bookLeadership on the Line,” authors Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky make the distinction between technical and adaptive problems. Technical problems, by definition, are problems for which an organization has the necessary know-how and procedures to resolve. It’s not that these problems are trivial or unimportant; technical problems can be a matter of life and death. However, these problems are characterized by the fact that the solution already lies somewhere within the organization’s repertoire. Installing a camera to collect data is a technical solution and a good one for the right type of problem.

In contrast, adaptive problems involve more complex issues: culture, attitudes, norms and the associated behaviors. To solve adaptive problems, you have to change people, and this is much harder than changing things.

If the allegations are true about the aforementioned fire department, then not only were a few people behaving very badly, but a lot of other people were either actively tolerating, enabling or at least looking the other way when the behavior was going on. That is an adaptive problem that surveillance cameras are unlikely to solve.

Solving adaptive problems is not a one-shot deal. The process takes time; it requires seeing the big picture and understanding context and culture. Most importantly, it requires buy-in from those affected. Adaptive solutions cannot just be imposed on people as a quick fix. Such superficial solutions may offer some short-term rewards, but ultimately they end up in dysfunction.

A culture that has tolerated sex in fire stations is just one of many adaptive challenges a fire department may face. Other types of adaptive problems might include cultures that support hazing, harassment, unsafe emergency practices, disparate treatment of service community members, or unresolved and escalating conflict among members. All of these issues necessitate dealing with history, tradition, ethics, trust and developing a common framework for decision-making. None of these types of issues can be resolved by technical solutions alone.

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.