Making fire department discipline more effective

Fire service leaders should set clear expectations for everyone, which must be communicated and upheld


Almost every fire department has a discipline policy; some have complicated matrixes that codify actions to be taken in specific situations. But even with these policies in place, fire department discipline is often avoided. Supervisors are often unsure how and when to apply discipline, while employees on the receiving end often perceive discipline as a personal condemnation.

It doesn’t need to be that way. And in fact, for discipline to be effective, it can’t be. Fire service leaders must cultivate a different approach to discipline. They must set clear expectations for everyone from the fire chief to the newest employee and everyone in between. These expectations must be clearly communicated. And most important, they must be upheld. Everyone must know the program and be held accountable to the program. Only then can every firefighter perform at their highest level.

Neither Negative nor Positive

"Discipline isn’t just formal—it’s ongoing evaluation and correction when it’s appropriate," write Bjorge. (Photo/Getty Images)

Too often, fire department discipline is regarded as negative. But discipline is not negative or positive. It’s an act to ensure the agency and the individual moves forward. Most of us at one time were on the receiving act of discipline that, if we’re honest with ourselves, was the right thing. Corrective action needed to take place.

The negative association with discipline comes in how it’s handled. It’s very easy for discipline to become emotional, personal, even retaliatory. This must be avoided. Corrective action must remain objective and factual.

Why Supervisors Avoid Discipline

Fire department discipline is necessarily confrontational and it involves uncomfortable conversations. This is why so many supervisors avoid it. During a disciplinary conversation, an employee may disclose information the supervisor doesn’t know what to do with, such as substance abuse, relationship issues or trauma from a past call. As a supervisor, it’s important to realize you don’t need to have all the answers. You can engage the department’s resources to help. But failing to address the issue won’t help.

Another reason supervisors avoid discipline is they believe they need to wait to act until a line has been crossed. But discipline is something we should be doing all the time. And when we do it frequently, it becomes less uncomfortable for both supervisor and employee. Discipline isn’t just formal—it’s ongoing evaluation and correction when it’s appropriate. When you see someone going down the wrong path, it’s your job to help the employee understand where they’re headed and get the behavior changed. And that will cut down on the number of times you have to do formal discipline.

Consider, for example, emergency driving. Most firefighters who are unsafe drivers don’t start out that way. But as time goes along, they get more comfortable, more proficient. Maybe they start exceeding the speed limit in nonemergency situations or rolling through stop signs. What’s happening over in the right seat? The officer must stop the behavior immediately, rather than waiting for something bad to happen. As Gordon Graham says, discipline is a function of policy, not outcome. Stop the behavior early. Don’t wait for it to be a huge deal.

Dig for the Root Cause

Most disciplinary issues come down to policy/procedure violations and attitude issues. For discipline to be effective, it needs to address the root cause. Let’s say you have a firefighter who’s been scatterbrained and coming to work late. If you immediately jump on the firefighter and issue discipline, it completely defeats the purpose. Company officers must take initiative to find out what’s going on. Open the door for the firefighter to talk to you. Take them aside and ask, “Hey, you OK, everything all right?”

Firefighter don’t violate policy intentionally very often, so policy violations often come down to the firefighter not being aware of the policy—even if they signed a policy acknowledgment. Bad attitudes will also frequently result in actions that violate policy, such as showing up late to work. Rather than disciplining someone for having “a bad attitude,” it’s best to start the discipline conversation talking about the specific policy violations. And then you can say, “I’ve observed that your attitude is contributing. We don’t have a policy that you must have a great attitude, but your attitude is contributing to you getting into trouble with these other things. What can I do to help? What is going on at home?”

When we carry out discipline without taking the time to find out what’s contributing, we can expect the problem to continue.

A 3-Step Discipline Process

Because it’s so easy for discipline to seem personal, supervisors must go to great lengths to ensure it’s not. Make sure you have all the facts—not just what someone heard. Sometimes we must defer discipline until we can complete the investigation to verify the information. We don’t want to carry out discipline based on hearsay and rumor only to find out afterward that it was inappropriate.

Key questions to ask include:

  1. What is the severity of the infraction? What’s contributing to it? Clearly, some infractions result in serious consequences, but most fire department discipline situations involve much more discretion. If the situation allows, do some digging to try to determine what’s going on beyond the infraction. For example, you may be considering discipline when an employee keeps calling in sick at the last minute. On the surface it’s easy to conclude they’re lazy and unprepared. But if we take the time, we may find out that the employee’s wife is pregnant and has morning sickness every morning, and the firefighter is balancing childcare issues as a result. Engage with the person and find out what’s going on.
  2. How many times has this happened? Is there a history of discipline issues or attitude problems? If there’s a chronic discipline problem, why? Insubordination or the “rogue” mentality often starts because of a lack of leadership. The employee acts on their own trying to fix the gaps. It’s important to consider this possibility and whether the firefighter can be counseled or redirected into more positive behavior. However, a history of discipline issues can also pave the way for more formal discipline, after counseling and coaching has been attempted.
  3. How do we correct the behavior? We’re not trying to accuse or find fault, but we need to take steps to fix the situation. This can include coaching, counseling or formal discipline. The corrective act must be appropriate for the circumstances. For instance, you have someone who physically assaulted another employee, counseling is not appropriate, even on a first offense. Here, it’s also important to be familiar with your department policy. Is it a three-strike program? What latitude are supervisors given? Some disciplinary matrixes are very rigid. You don’t want to send a firefighter home only to find out your policy doesn’t allow for that action in the specific circumstance.

When possible, before implementing discipline, share the details of the situation and what you plan to do with someone you trust. Too often supervisors get caught up emotionally: “We’re going to the office to fix this right now!” Taking your time when you have it can help prevent the accusation of retaliation or of creating a hostile work environment.

Above all, remember this is an objective process to correct behavior and make sure the firefighter meets the expectations the organization has set for them.

Your Attitude Matters

Discipline is not just about the person who has done something wrong. Your attitude as the supervisor matters, too. You must ensure you’re acting on facts, not feelings. Examine your own feelings about discipline. If you believe discipline only happens to bad people or lazy firefighters, that attitude is going to come through, even if you don’t say it overtly. If possible, reflect on how discipline helped you become a better firefighter. And then try to help your employees see how it can help them, too.

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