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Discipline for those who discipline

What are the rules for discipline at the chief officer level?


If we do not discipline our upper-level command staff, we set a precedent for conduct misaligned with departmental standards.


The position of chief or chief officer of a department – career or volunteer – is a role model by nature and sets the tone for the department they command.

When we promote our officers, we have confidence in their potential for future leadership and vision to the department. These positions come with huge responsibility and rules of engagement that typically include high standards for interaction, approach and behavior.

Subordinates observe their chief officers’ behaviors and attitudes to gauge what is permissible in departmental behavior expectations. Simply put, you learn the rules from those above you. You acquire knowledge from superior ranks with the hopes that it will reflect the temperament of the department and teach you what is expected. So what happens when those subordinates know their chief officers are not following the rules? If we do not discipline our upper-level command staff, we set a precedent for conduct misaligned with departmental standards. “Do as I say not as I do” is not an acceptable behavior in chief officers.

Consistency is key

The most important key to promoting appropriate behavior and conduct in a department is maintaining consistent discipline throughout the ranks – and this includes command staff. The discipline does not necessarily mean that you apply punishment as your approach when the goal is a change in behavior. There are many ways to accomplish that without punishment. The key is consistency of application.

There may be times when the chief of a department must address upper management personnel who do not follow the rules or meet expectations. The one area of our positions as chief officers or managers that most of us dread is imposing the necessary discipline to our personnel who disobey the rules or simply do not follow through with the direction given. This is often referred to as “the uncomfortable conversation.”

Higher-level command officers should have a complete understanding of the department’s expectations. However, newly appointed officers to a position of authority may have a learning curve. Training and mentoring these officers prior to promotion is an important cog in the wheel to success.

If both measures have been successfully implemented and you still have command staff that is not following the rules or are insubordinate, you must take action, and those difficult conversations should be straightforward. Most importantly, superiors must ensure that their expectations are clear, concise and achievable.

Further, the conversation needs to include:

  • A review of expectations as a command-level officer;
  • An explanation of how their actions are unacceptable; and
  • A discussion on why they chose the actions they took.

Bottom line: As leaders, we must reiterate that we lead by example.

When at all possible, look for a win-win conclusion and find a positive outcome to the disciplinary action. We can look at these difficult conversations as learning experiences for both parties. However, we must ensure clear direction moving forward. If we do not apply the same rules to our command staff, the perception of subordinates will be that the rules are not the same.

Set the standard

In the end, it is important that command staff, chief officers and the chief all set the standard for the department and rules are applied the same at all ranks.

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This article, originally published in September 2021, has been updated.

Joanne Rund began her career in 1987 in Howard County, Maryland, and now serves as fire chief of the Baltimore County Fire Department. Before joining the career fire service, Rund served as a volunteer emergency services provider (EMS) in Carroll County, Maryland. At the national level, Rund serves on the board of directors for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF). In 2006, she was elected to serve as a director-at-large with the IAFC Safety, Health and Survival Section for which she continues to serve. In 2018, Rund was accepted into the prestigious IAFC Fire Service Executive Development Institute Program.