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Fire department culture is surprisingly similar from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, state to state, and even country to country. Part of that similarity in culture comes from our perception of ourselves as the good guys, ready to risk our lives for our neighbor. We are there day or night, rain or shine, summer or winter. In a world full of self-serving, self-dealing and unethical people and organizations, firefighters stand for what is good in humanity.
However, not everyone sees us the way we see ourselves. The media sensationalize even the smallest of stories involving firefighter misconduct. Politicians find it advantageous to attack public employees as a strategy to appease angry voters. The digital age results in photo and video evidence of nearly every conceivable act of wrongdoing being captured for all to see. The days when a fire chief could manage indiscretions and improper conduct quietly behind closed doors are gone. Let’s look at some examples:
• A black firefighter is served dog food as a firehouse prank by a Hispanic firefighter. Discipline is imposed on the member responsible, as well as two officers. The black firefighter sues for race discrimination and receives a $1.5 million settlement. The two officers sue for due-process violations related to their discipline and receive $1.7 million each. In the process, the department is subjected to the scorn and ridicule of millions in the community.
• On-duty firefighters take a fire apparatus to a “Porn Star Costume Ball” being held at a hotel and engage in the festivities, including drinking. Two are later accused of sexually assaulting a woman on their apparatus in the hotel parking lot.
• A firefighter takes a brief video with his cell phone at the scene of a fatal accident, and forwards it to a friend. The video clip is forwarded to others, who in turn forward it to others until it reaches the family of the deceased. The public outrage that follows results in the firefighter being terminated and his officer and co-workers being disciplined. A formal investigation into the incident recommends that the fire chief be fired.
• Two firefighters drinking on duty engage in an altercation, resulting in one firefighter hitting the other on the head with a chair and causing life-threatening injuries. Officers in the station, who were also drinking, attempt to cover up the incident, but due to the severity of the injuries, the cover-up is exposed.
It is hard to imagine these cases involve firefighters who were the first in their departments to engage in such misconduct. They might have been the first to be caught, and perhaps their conduct pushed the limits of what had been done previously, but it is unlikely they were the first and only. In fact, it is probable that similar types of conduct were being quietly tolerated by others in the department, including officers. The tolerance of the conduct (pranks, drinking, taking apparatus to questionable events, sex on duty and photo-taking) set the stage for the headline-grabbing event.
Many fire departments are experiencing unprecedented disciplinary problems. A department of approximately 840 members recently made headlines when it was disclosed that more than 70 members had been charged with criminal offenses in the past five years and more than 125 members had been disciplined. Another department of 300 members made headlines when 20 members were arrested for driving under the influence (DUI) in a single year. Yet another department of 600 firefighters made headlines when 21 members were arrested over a six-month period for offenses including dealing drugs from a fire station, stealing a motor vehicle and spitting on a police officer, felony assault, breaking and entering and stealing from a fellow firefighter’s locker.
“Robin Hood Syndrome”
We all know the story of Robin Hood. It is a simple story about good vs. evil, the powerless battling corrupt powerful rulers and ordinary people struggling to survive. It is a story that strikes a primal cord in our human psyche for reasons that perhaps a psychologist is better equipped to answer than me.
How does Robin Hood relate to misbehavior in the fire service? When your only exposure to the fire service is your own department, it is easy to fall victim to the assumption that your department is much more dysfunctional than other departments, and that your fire chief and your city administration are the most uncaring, unethical and incompetent bureaucrats that ever walked the face of the earth. As you start to learn about other departments, you realize you are not alone.
Having traveled across the United States and met thousands of firefighters from all 50 states, I have been struck by the number of firefighters who earnestly believe that their chief stands head and shoulders above other chiefs in terms of being a horrible leader. Can virtually every fire chief in the United States really be a horrible leader? Is that possible? Or is there something else at work?
In many fire departments, chiefs and firefighters are stuck in a polarized relationship. It is easy to blame the present economy for the problem, but the reality is that the bad economy is just today’s excuse for a longstanding situation. The polarization problem is not new and it will not disappear once the economy rebounds.
Want to know a key symptom that the polarization problem exists in your department? Consider if this fits: Your last fire chief was horrible (although now that he is gone many conclude he was not all that bad). You changed fire chiefs, and within a short time the new chief became horrible, just like the old chief. Sound familiar? It probably applies to your last city administration as well. If this scenario does not sound even remotely familiar to you, then thank your lucky stars because you are one of the fortunate few.
Attorneys are trained to understand both sides of a dispute, regardless of which side they represent. When I listen to one polarized faction in a fire department talk about the other faction and then listen to the other side, a common denominator consistent from jurisdiction to jurisdiction is that each side villainizes the other. The firefighters villainize the chief. The chief villainizes the firefighters. Each side seems to relish the opportunity to further villainize the other with some new fact that shows just how horrible “they” are. Perhaps it is part of human nature, but having witnessed first-hand the dynamic play itself out in hundreds of departments, the scope of the problem is alarming.
Mark Gerzon’s book, Leading Through Conflict, does an excellent job of explaining the polarization process and its implications for organizational survival and progress. To be honest, solving the polarization problem is perhaps beyond our capability, but recognizing that it exists and dealing with the palpable consequences is something that anyone who cares about the fire service needs to be aware of.
As we have discussed, firefighters by and large are good, honest and sincere people. We care deeply about the citizens and taxpayers in ways that go beyond mere words and token actions. We are our brother’s keeper and the level of our commitment is measurable in our deeds. Noble, courageous, risking our lives for folks we do not even know, firefighters are in a role that is in some ways analogous to that of Robin Hood and his Merry Men.
In the polarized state of the fire service, opposing the firefighters are the fire chief and the city administration. Both are often demonized as being unethical and immoral, willing to compromise firefighter safety and civilian lives for the sake of a few pieces of gold. It should be no surprise then that the chief and the city administration can easily be cast into the roles of the Sheriff of Nottingham and Evil Prince John.
To be clear, the “Robin Hood syndrome” is a convenient metaphor to explore challenges facing the fire service. It is not consciously considered by any of the parties. Far from it; it is a fictional construct. Nevertheless, like Robin Hood, firefighters tend to view themselves as holding the moral high ground in a noble struggle against an enemy who seems to care little for the welfare of the average person.
Given the widespread polarization that exists in the fire service, how can anyone expect to successfully manage a fire department, let alone successfully manage a fire department’s reputation? What are the long-term consequences to a fire service that is polarized?
Polarization & Discipline
Are disciplinary problems a predictable consequence of the polarization we see in the fire service? When we consider the discipline problem confronting the fire service in light of the “Robin Hood syndrome,” two sets of questions arise:
• First set – Is the discipline problem a function of spoiled firefighters who need to be reigned in? Can we solve the discipline problem in the fire service simply by having fire departments get tougher? Was the problem in Nottingham that the Sheriff was not being tough enough?
• Second set – Under what set of circumstances would Robin Hood turn one of his men over to the Sheriff of Nottingham to be disciplined? It would not happen. Robin Hood’s men protect each other from the Sheriff.
One long-term consequence of a polarized workplace appears to be that company officers are reluctant (or refuse) to enforce what they perceive as the “Sheriff’s” rules. The end result is a blurring of the boundaries between right and wrong. Right and wrong becomes synonymous with what you can get away with and what you cannot. Firefighter misbehavior is tolerated until someone does something so outrageous and so widely known outside the organization that it cannot be ignored or covered up. Take another look at the list of incidents at the beginning of this column. How did they come to happen? Was everyone in the respective organizations following the rules until one day that one bizarre incident occurred, or were the boundaries gradually being stretched?
Polarization is only part of the problem with the “Robin Hood syndrome.” Robin Hood rationalized his conduct because he believed he held a higher moral ground that justified robbing from the rich to feed the poor. There is a danger when people believe they have exclusive hold of the moral high ground. Polarization, and the villainization that accompanies it, can be used to justify conduct that would otherwise be unacceptable.
Last year, Dr. Denis Onieal, the superintendent of the National Fire Academy, spoke to Executive Fire Officer (EFO) graduates at the academy in Emmitsburg, MD, about a book by Jim Collins titled How the Mighty Fall. Collins studied successful people and corporations that reached the pinnacle of success, but who ended up failing. He found a pattern, including: an arrogance in believing they were so big, so important or so vital that they could do whatever they wanted; an “unprincipled pursuit of more” – more money, more power, more acclaim; and a denial of obvious warning signs that their greatness was in jeopardy. Onieal left us to contemplate the similarities between these indicators and where many fire departments find themselves today.
Consider this quote from Collins: “Whenever people begin to confuse the nobility of their cause with the goodness and wisdom of their actions … they can… easily lead themselves astray.”
How do we address the “Robin Hood syndrome” and the polarization that plagues the fire service? The solution must begin with recognizing that a widespread polarization problem exists. Even agreeing on that may prove to be too challenging given the present state of the economy and the pitched battles being waged from coast to coast to contain costs.
At a minimum, we must recognize the vital role company officers play in setting workplace boundaries. Polarization backed by a sense of moral superiority can put pressure on officers to look the other way at misconduct. Real life in the fire service is not like the Robin Hood scenario. The fire department’s rules are not the Sheriff’s rules. They are intended to protect the organization and the firefighters themselves.
Unethical and immoral conduct by public officials cannot be allowed to serve as an excuse for firefighters to ignore rules or for officers to look the other way at misconduct. No one wins when the rules are ignored. We all lose. Our departments lose. Our reputations are damaged. Public support erodes. And in the end, it is the firefighters – the ones who are out there day after day risking their lives – who suffer the most.