We’ve all heard the stories about firefighters doing stupid things on duty or off. Firefighters committing arson, breaking and entering, driving intoxicated, failing work-related random drug screening tests, abusing their domestic partners…the list goes on and on. As one of the replies to the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Fireman’s Association’s recent White Paper on Ethics in the Fire Service says, the report is a “litany of the obvious”. The ethical problems that plague the fire service include “Cheating, arson, theft, alcohol and substance abuse, harassment, discrimination, and misuse of departmental and personal information technology… “
It makes one wonder if the Fire Chief's uniform should include this shirt;
Here are a few examples of less-than-smart and ethically-impaired firefighter behavior I found in a Bing search that took about 10 minutes:
Firefighter investigated for arson at his own home.
Firefighter investigated for arson at his own home (another one)
Firefighter sets fire to another firefighter’s home
Firefighters involved in two separate break-ins
Firefighter DUI case
Firefighter arrested for DUI, spits in police officer’s face
Still another firefighter DUI
Firefighters charged with assault in bar brawl
Firefighter charged with child sexual assault
Another fire station noose incident
Here’s another twist – noose planted in fake firehouse racism incident
Firefighter charged with arson and convicted of bomb threat
Firefighter hospitalized after firehouse prank goes wrong
Ex firefighter gets prison for firehouse arson
Junior firefighter shot in leg during firehouse hazing
Peeping Tom firefighter arrested, peered from ceiling at female paramedic as she showered
Firefighters fired for obscene and harassing prank phone calls to female lieutenant
Female firefighter sexual harassment lawsuit settled
Female firefighter harassed
Son of late fire chief guilty of embezzlement
FireGeezer has several other stories about embezzlement from fire companies here
How do we reconcile this with the recent public opinion polls that rate firefighters as the most trusted profession in the U.S. and Great Britain?
How do we, as a profession, reduce or eliminate the ethical problems that will inevitably knock us from the position of high trust we hold? Whose responsibility is it? Is it the fire chief’s responsibility? Does the responsibility lie with the officers, senior firefighters, or with instructors at the fire academy? Does it lie with a new fire recruit’s parents and family? Does the school system that has spent the last three decades teaching “value-neutral” education share the responsibility? Does a pop culture that downplays the role of religion share in the blame? Does the switch to playing computer games and baring our inner thoughts via social networking sites instead of learning a trade and the value of productive work contribute?
Without designing a multi-year sociological study, the short answer is that all of the above share in the responsibility and the blame. More importantly, what do we do about the problem?
When we accept a new fire recruit, we have to understand them for what they are. We can’t give them a two-parent home, send them to church, or give them a meaningful job outside the fire service. We can’t help them re-live their formative years. We can’t eradicate the computer gaming and social networking culture from the new firefighters – those are here to stay.
We can make our expectations clear.
We can provide supervision, leadership, mentoring, and Big Brother/Big Sister-type programs for our new members.
We can assign a reliable veteran to mentor every new firefighter not only in fire/rescue and EMS skills, but in ethics and the role of good behavior and public trust as essential to our mission.
We can institute smart business solutions including internal and external audits of department funds and business practices, frequent reports to the membership, and a fully-transparent annual report.
We can set firm rules for firefighter conduct and behavior.
We can make it clear that serious rules violations will result in termination and if appropriate, a referral to law enforcement for prosecution.
We can enforce the rules equally, regardless of rank or position.
We can lead by example.
We can limit or eliminate alcohol at fire department and related events. Alcohol doesn't make you smarter, funnier, better behaved, or more trustworthy.
We can develop an Organization and Discipline training course and require that every new member complete it prior to granting full membership in the organization.
We can develop a Fire Service Ethics training course and require that every new member complete it prior to granting full membership in the organization. (The CVVFA’s program is a good start.)
We can develop a program to review case studies involving the financial, criminal, family, and personal costs of firefighter misbehavior with new members, and periodically, with the more seasoned veterans.
The candidate pool is what it is. We can’t go back in time to better prepare our new members, we have to work with what we get. We can ensure that candidates are screened, supervised, and mentored to reduce the impact of bad firefighter behavior on the profession and upon individual departments. We can also make it clear that bad behavior will not be tolerated, and that if the new firefighter wants to become a veteran firefighter, good choices and ethical behavior are not just expectations – they are essentials.
I don't know how to say this any more strongly - If you're going to engage in unethical, racist, sexist, criminal, or stupid behavior, particularly while representing your Fire/Rescue or EMS department, GET OUT OF THE PROFESSION! The CVVFA White Paper shows the way to ethical firefighter behavior. It is a road map for maintaining the strong position of public trust we enjoy. This job is supposed to be the province of the people who can best do the job, who are the most trustworthy, and who demonstrate responsible behavior. Let's all commit to helping prevent a few bad apples from screwing it up for the rest of us.