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...
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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.