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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.