Hiring plan: How not to hire idiots, thugs and misfits

As much as anything, firefighters will determine how the public and lawmakers support the department — hire wisely

The need for effective, efficient, well-behaved and self-disciplined troops has never been more evident in the fire-rescue service than in present times. In reviewing the external political landscape, it is clear that our industry is under attack on many fronts. 

Whether it is in the statehouses conducting hearings to reduce pay and pension plans or in the city halls voting to reduce staff or to disband entire fire departments, we need to pay attention to these overt external indicators.

Let's face it, the political support we enjoy is a direct reflection of how well we serve our customers and how they perceive and value the services their fire department provides. 

When the customers inform elected officials of how they view their fire department, it returns directly back to us in one of three distinct ways: support, indifference or acrimony. 

From the beginning
Our service delivery and political support (or sometimes lack of it) tie directly to the recruitment, selection and hiring process — our hiring practice has everything to do with our political support.

Implementing and maintaining national minimum fire department entrance standards typically produces high performing, trustworthy firefighters and pre-hospital care providers. There is a direct correlation between hiring the right first responders and the work that they are able to perform for the community; this fact cannot be denied.

While attending a leadership conference a few years ago, Commander Gordon Graham was introduced to the large crowd of senior fire officers in Notre Dame's tiered auditorium. He lectured on how a fire department can reduce its liability. 

Graham is a highly skilled and talented classroom presenter. So, when the Commander kicked-off this great discussion by indicating that fire departments (and police departments for that matter) "should not hire idiots or thugs to be members," most everyone reacted with a hearty chuckle. 

But the animated presenter cautioned the attendees that if a department hires these types of folks, that the idiots and thugs will never disappoint the hiring agency. Graham went on to say, "You see, they will always be idiots and thugs." 

This presentation had a profound impact on me and caused me to adopt Graham's mantra. In fact, I've added military misfits (dishonorable discharge and less than honorable discharge folks never seem to work out in public safety agencies) based on several personal bad experiences with employees. 

Idiots, thugs and misfits at work
Graham discussed a case study of the Los Angles City Police Department's hiring practices in the 1990s. No matter how hard the LAPD tried to recruit new police officers, they were consistently below the correct level of staffing — several hundred vacancies were common. And there was a lot of pressure to get more officers on the streets.

One high-ranking LAPD officer developed and sold the idea that if the selection standards could be reduced or perhaps even set aside for a while, the department just might reach a full roster and resolve this growing controversy. 

In particular, their recruitment process saw the lowering and/or removal the personal background and ethical standards that had been in place for many years. The results, Graham pointed out, was a highly predictable and therefore highly preventable disaster. 

Graham focused on the report about the operations and activities at the Rampart Precinct where many of the idiots and thugs were assigned. Graham spoke of the crime spree that the newly hired officers were directly involved in creating, with it coming to a head in 1997 when three LAPD officers were accused of participating in the drive-by shooting of the rap star Notorious B.I.G.

Yes, those who were sworn "To Serve and Protect" the citizens and visitors of the City of Angles were some of the most horrible criminals L.A. has ever experienced. It is a "forever black eye" for LAPD. 

I urge you to see just what can happen when undesirables are hired to work in the public safety field by spending a few minutes reviewing this case study. Once this case came to light, I can’t imagine that the L.A. police were politically well supported anywhere close to the Rampart area for a very long time. 

The Rampart Scandal case concluded with the Mayor James Hahn not retraining the contract of the Chief of Police Bernard Parks, after the media exposed this unthinkable scandal. At the risk of being repetitive, never hire idiots, thugs or military misfits for any public safety position.

A good policy
Most career departments have hiring standards that have been ground into policy and will prevent employing idiots, thugs or military misfits, if the SOPs are carefully followed. However, there are several departments that have failed to implement written policies and even a few that have no hiring policy. 

Sometimes we overlook volunteer departments when discussing membership recruitment and selection. I worry quite a bit about the volunteer fire departments that do not believe that careful selection and scrutiny of new members is important. 

In fact, some departments may think that these types of hiring rules are impediments to obtaining the proper level of staffing that the community needs; don't fall into this trap. This issue is critical for all types and structures of fire departments. 

The "Tip of The Spear" acknowledgement this month goes to Fire Chief John J. McNeil. He is the fire chief in Covington, Ga., which is about 25 miles west of Atlanta.

Before John became the fire chief in Covington, he served with Atlanta Fire Rescue for nearly 30 years, where he and I worked together.

Along the way, I asked Chief McNeil to redesign and implement Atlanta's policy on recruit hiring standards. His work was outstanding and incorporated all of the available minimum national requirements to become a career firefighter. The test measurements used to select new hires, included:

  • Candidate Physical Ability Testing
  • NFPA Standard 1582 — Standard on Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments
  • Standardized Academy Testing
  • Background checks and testing modeled after the Atlanta Police Department to include a polygraph examination. 

In fact, we used the work Chief McNeil completed for Atlanta Fire as the basis of the revised Washington D.C. process to screen firefighter applicants.

Best and brightest
The focus was to hire the best and brightest that the community had to offer while ensuring that the selection process was fair, honest, open, transparent and accessible to all who might be interested in becoming career firefighters.

Chief McNeil also implemented a physical fitness preparatory academy. Interested firefighter candidates could work and train on the CPAT equipment about three months before the actually examination.

This preparatory academy was a great success and there was a plan to develop an academic preparatory academy as well. Unfortunately, time and funding became formidable barriers that prevented Atlanta Fire from starting an academic preparation program during my tenure.

The last component implemented during my time in Atlanta was a four-level application review and approval process. The recruitment office checked off on a potential new members application, followed by approval from the chief overseeing professional standards (background review and polygraph testing), next the support services deputy fire chief would sign off and finally I would review every application jacket before a person was selected. 

There is no doubt about it, selecting the correct new recruits determines the future of any department. Considering what is at stake, taking the time, the cost and energy to select only the best while ensuring that there is always rich diversity in the selection candidate pool is the key to making an organization better. 

Return on investment
These improvements are not a few percent at the margins. The return on investment will continue as long as the employee remains with the agency, perhaps 25 to 40 years, or longer. 

It would be interesting to "dollarize" all of the costs associated with the discipline process that a department spends during a single year. Some examples are the personnel needed to investigate bad behaviors; the time and effort to document same; the cost to consult with outside agencies such as police or attorneys; if a member is suspended or terminated, calculate the replacement overtime costs; the aspect of spending time with the media explaining the situation and so on. 

I would submit that the discipline process is a very costly venture in some organizations. It just makes sense to spend a much smaller amount of taxpayer money on the front end to select good employees that have already demonstrated self-discipline and have the necessary skills, knowledge and abilities to be effective firefighters and EMTs. 

Until next time, be safe out there.

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