Keeping the Small Fire Department on Track and in Line - Part II

Steve Meyer continues his leadership discussion in part two of this series.


DISCIPLINE AND MISCONDUCT Once adequate policies are in place, the deciding moment comes – enforcing them. That means discipline, the word so many people hate, particularly volunteers. The mere mention of disciplinary action sends tremors up and down the spine of many small fire department...


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  • Those that involve errors at emergency operations
  • Those that occur during the normal, day-to-day operations of the fire department
  • Those that occur in situations outside department activities that may reflect on the department

With errors in emergency scene operations we seek to change the way a firefighter is doing things. It’s often because of improper knowledge or training and it becomes a matter of providing the proper training or counseling the firefighter in proper procedures.

Behavioral issues can be a factor at emergency scenes also. When the alarm rings and adrenaline takes hold, personality traits that encumber firefighters with erratic behavior sometimes manifest themselves and impair sensible incident operations. Counseling the member one-on-one is the proper approach.

Coping with misconduct that occurs in day-to-day operations of the department or incidents that occur outside department activities is often more tenuous because it involves behavioral modification. Perhaps the most common problem of this nature in the small fire department is lack of participation. The solution is straightforward – enforce departmental rules on participation. At the same time, the solution provides the challenge of uncovering why the firefighter is non-participatory. It could be because of personality conflicts, work and family conflicts, or quite simply boredom. Each case requires a little different approach to resolving the situation in a positive manner.

Every misconduct and disciplinary action situation is unique and requires a different approach. If Firefighter Jones isn’t participating in departmental activities as required because he’s working two jobs just to feed a family of six and pay the bills, the approach to resolving the problem is much different than with Firefighter Smith, who isn’t participating because he’d rather play golf and because he doesn’t like the chief.

If a misconduct situation involves criminal actions such as theft or sexual harassment, for example, by all means obtain legal counsel before proceeding with any disciplinary action. If the disciplinary action involves misconduct relative to alcohol, drug abuse or a similar problem, be certain you offer suggestions on where a firefighter can get help. It’s beyond the department to assist a firefighter coping with such problems, but a visit with a local human services agency can at least help you find out what kind of assistance is available for the person. Sometimes, all it takes is a nudge from someone one close to them, like a fellow firefighter, to get people encumbered with such problems to seek assistance.

The important thing to remember is that as much as possible, discipline actions must be managed in a positive manner. Always emphasize the positive things a firefighter being subjected to disciplinary action does for the department and make certain the person understands the disciplinary action is undertaken on behalf of the department, not some personal vendetta.

Only in the event of actions that are immediately detrimental to life safety or property is an immediate, in- front-of-everyone reprimand called for. In all other instances, the best approach is in private and, in all instances, in accordance with prescribed policies and procedures. Many departments follow a three-strike type of process where the first misconduct incident is handled with counseling and noted for the record. If there is a subsequent problem, then the process goes to the next step where something more severe occurs such as probation or suspension. If there is a third incident, then, depending upon the severity of the disciplinary circumstance, the consequences become more severe – possibly termination from the department.