Judgment call: Sound judgment must exist at all levels of fire department culture

Judgment is sometimes a matter of life or death, but it is also a matter of professional credibility


A couple recent headlines caught my attention – and the attention of the national media:

Both these cases are aberrations, and most firefighters disapprove of the actions taken by the individuals. The lieutenant involved in the sex-at-the-firehouse case apologized to his department, saying he wished had used better judgment.

"Judgment is sometimes a matter of life or death, but it is also a matter of professional credibility," writes Willing. (Photo/Getty Images)

But these incidents do bring up the role that judgment plays in developing firefighters and officers, and how otherwise competent and respected firefighters can make bad decisions. And of course, there is the question of how to prevent such bad actions in the future.

Screening for judgment is difficult

Sound judgment is a critical part of being a good firefighter, and especially being a good officer. Firefighters make judgment calls all the time in their day-to-day work: whether a patient is able to walk to the ambulance or must be carried, whether to continue with an interior fire attack or move to exterior, whether a situation is manageable or police backup is needed.

Judgment is not exclusive to the emergency scene, however. Those same firefighters must also choose whether to go along with a joke that is going too far or if they should speak up when a coworker seems impaired on the job. Judgment is sometimes a matter of life or death, but it is also a matter of professional credibility.

Many departments talk about hiring for character and screening for judgment in the hiring process, but this is not an easy thing to do. Here’s why:

  • You can get references for new candidates, but most former employers will give generically decent references at worst.
  • You can ask applicants about their experience with public service or community groups, but this can be problematic, as it can lead to conclusions based on unconscious bias on the part of an assessor.
  • You can include interview questions that address judgment calls, but these aren’t always useful. For example, if you ask a candidate, “What would you do if you saw a coworker drinking on the job?” every person is likely to answer, “I would report it.”
  • You can try creating more open-ended questions, such as “Tell me about a time you faced an ethical dilemma at work, and what you did about it.” The problem with this approach is that a candidate who is unprepared for the question and already under pressure is likely to draw a blank – but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t exhibit sound judgment if they did face such a situation.

Sound judgment through a career

A more effective approach is to have an organizational commitment to ethics and the support of good judgment in all aspects of the job. This should start in academy and continue throughout an entire career.

Recruit school: Professional standards of conduct should be a hallmark of the recruit school experience. New firefighters must understand their obligation to treat coworkers and the public with respect, to always meet high standards of response in any setting, to never disgrace the fire service through selfish individual acts, and to stand up to others who may be deviating from these standards.           

Early training: The establishment of clear expectations and accountability through training goes a long way toward setting a high bar among new firefighters when it comes to judgment and ethical decision-making. Perhaps most important, those who are running these academies must set the highest standards in their own conduct.

Ongoing training: Once on the job, training must continue, both formally and informally. However, check-the-box training where participants can mostly disengage and then “pass” through a superficial assessment at the end will ultimately have no benefit and may even cause harm. People must be put in the position to make decisions and then have those decisions challenged by others. They must be able to have discussions that are well-facilitated and respectful and include honest feedback.

Leadership levels: Furthermore, training must include skills-building, especially for those in leadership positions. All firefighters, but especially officers, need to know how to de-escalate situations, stand up to inappropriate behavior, resolve conflict and communicate effectively. This kind of training can be done in-house but can also benefit from having an informed neutral third party as facilitator. Several individuals provide this type of training, as do organizations, such as IPSLEI and ABLE.

New supervisors: Company officers need support with making good judgment calls, especially when it comes to personnel issues. Many company officers go from being a firefighter to being in charge virtually overnight. They may have little training or support for managing conflict or making personnel-based decisions, and they may feel pressure to go along to get along as a member of the crew. It is telling that in the two cases mentioned earlier, one was instigated by a company officer, and one took place under the direct supervision of an officer.

Culture matters

Exercising good judgment is an individual responsibility, but there is accountability to organizations as well. It is very difficult for one person to stand up if the prevalent culture is driving decision-making in a different direction.

Organizational culture goes much deeper than a catchy mission statement. The real culture of any organization is based on what members truly believe and how those beliefs are demonstrated by actions and decisions made in every circumstance, every day.

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