Organizational discipline is a topic that most folks don't want to deal with as either a supervisor or subordinate. There is, however, a great deal of interest and thirst for information that will help the leaders within an agency to be consistent, fair, transparent and honest when forced to activate the disciplinary process.
Whenever I discuss the privileges and pitfalls of taking on the mantel of leadership, the disciplinary process is always a topic of great interest and discussion. Most folks say they are very uncomfortable "sitting in judgment," as it were, of other members, but understand the organizational need to maintain discipline. The discussions usually go something like this: "Being a company (or battalion or division) commander is the best job I've ever had, except for the fact that I am expected to instill and manage the disciplinary process. I work hard to keep myself out of trouble and 'my nose clean,' but I have to investigate situations and deliver punishment when it is needed. A large part of my working day is spent on discipline issues instead of doing 'real work.' If it weren't for this aspect of my position, I could get at least another meaningful drill in each work week. I dislike that part of my job and wish someone else could handle it for me."
My only response to these brave men and women is "welcome to the club." Some of the work that leadership involves isn't as pleasant as the emergency response part.
Let me say loud and clear that the best discipline I know of is self-discipline. Members should have the opportunity to learn the rules and regulations of the department as part of their recruit training and orientation process. In fact, the important rules need to be reviewed on the first day on the job, in the first few hours of employment or membership. Many organizations have packaged the dozen or so critical rules that help to get you through the first year as members and require you to sign them, acknowledging their review and receipt. Once the rules are reviewed by the member, the agency hopes the member will follow those rules (a simple process, but we do somehow get disconnected from this desire from time to time). It seems to me that the best fire-rescue officers and members are the ones who can control and discipline themselves on the job and, just as importantly, at home.
Fire and EMS agencies must start with the best possible employee/member attainable. If you are in the intolerable position of hiring folks with sordid and questionable backgrounds, your agency will likely spend a disproportionate amount of time and energy delivering discipline and then on to court to defend your actions.
Let me give you the best advice I can: hire the best candidates with known and validated clean backgrounds. We are in a great position of having so many people interested in becoming firefighter/EMTs that you should consider hiring or recruiting only the very best that your community has to offer. Don't shortchange your selection and qualification process, but make it the most robust selection system you can. This is the period when you can avoid the headache of letting problem people enter your work force. If a person was fired from another job or dishonorably discharged from the military, it is likely that person will not work in your outfit.
The best quote I ever heard on this topic is from a nationally recognized lecturer, retired Captain Gordon Graham of the California Highway Patrol: "Past performance will predict future behavior." Pick the best and brightest candidates for public safety positions; never settle for questionable people. Your life will be a lot easier and your department a lot better for the effort.
It can be argued that a firefighter in this country has more authority than a police officer (cops hate hearing me say this). Relating to behavior, understand that we are never off duty. I know it may not seem appropriate, or even fair, that fire departments must have concerns about a member's off-duty behavior. But the truth is, some of our members get into a lot of trouble away from the firehouse.
Let's examine the evidence: When a firefighter responds to a medical emergency that requires injuries to be exposed to determine their extent and to deliver treatment, firefighters are expected to cut clothing away from a person's body. When a person dials 911 and requests assistance, firefighters can enter the person's home without a search warrant. Many times, sick or injured people are home alone and their possessions are in plain sight. The belief is that the firefighter cutting away the clothing or assisting a person sick at home will not violate the highest level of public trust. All of us, career and volunteer members alike, must have this level of public trust to perform our jobs. If a firefighter robs a bank, beats a spouse, threatens workplace violence or misuses a weapon, it is difficult to get the public to buy into placing all of the necessary trust into the department. Off-duty behavior is just as important as on-duty conduct if we are to maintain our value to those we are sworn to protect.
After a negative event occurs involving our members, the newspaper headline or TV news tease starts with the fact that "A firefighter from…" was connected to a crime. It also generally is pointed out if the person was a previous member or a retired member, so pick your staff carefully. It is easy to take exception to the way the media covers stories involving fire and EMS members, but the reality is that a higher standard is expected of public officials who hold positions of trust in our society.
Knowing that the public is demanding a higher level of behavior from us, we must meet that challenge or suffer the consequences of our actions. Most departments have structured discipline processes that outline how and when they are implemented. Once negative behavior is observed that must be corrected, a formal process must start and be carried out fairly and honestly every time for everybody in the system, no exceptions. The expressed goal should be for the system to correct behavior and to do the least amount of damage to the member and the department. This is always a balancing act and adds a significant measure of stress to the folks who must implement the system.
To close, let me remind you to do your department and yourself a favor and select the best folks to become members (never just settle). Next, try to instill self-discipline at all levels of your department. Finally, have a solid discipline that is fair, open, transparent, consistent, and honest.
Until next time, stay safe!
DENNIS L. RUBIN, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is chief of the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. Previously, Rubin was chief of the Atlanta, GA, Fire and Rescue Department. He holds a bachelor of science degree in fire administration from the University of Maryland and an associate in applied science degree in fire science management from Northern Virginia Community College, and is enrolled in the Fire and Emergency Management Administration program at the graduate school of Oklahoma State University. Rubin is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officers Program, is a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) and has obtained the Chief Fire Officer Designation (CFOD) from by the International Association of Fire Chiefs. He is an adjunct faculty member of the National Fire Academy since 1983. Rubin is the author of the book Rube's Rules for Survival.