Fire Law: Firefighters, Discipline & the “Robin Hood Syndrome”

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...


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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