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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There also needs to be the mechanism for appeal of disciplinary action and review at a later date to see it if the action should be removed from the member’s record. This may all seem too technical for a small fire department, but from a legal standpoint, if small fire department administrators find themselves in court over a disciplinary action (something that has happened), attorneys are going to swarm over seeing that due process was followed in the action that was taken.
Always make sure disciplinary actions are documented, provided to the receiver of the action in writing and they are witnessed, meaning this is ideally a team approach administered by at least two officers of the department; then it does not become a heavy-handed tactic administered at the personal whims of the chief. Yes, disciplinary action falls upon the back of no one more than the chief, but the judgment of more than one person must apply in order to minimize bias and prejudice.
A major factor that differentiates disciplinary actions in the small fire department from the career fire service and corporate America is they have a big hammer they can hold over an employee’s head when it comes to discipline – it’s called a paycheck. A volunteer fire department doesn’t have that venue.
Disciplinary actions cannot be arbitrary; they must be consistent. Taking action on disciplinary issues inspires confidence in the troops and sends a message that this chief takes things seriously. Conversely, not taking action on an obvious infraction sets up a doomsday scenario. Probably the best example in a small fire department is the chief’s best fishing or golfing buddy who gets away with whatever he wants.
Not all disciplinary actions go well. Defense mechanisms often overrule logic when an accusatory finger is pointed at someone. Tempers flare and people behave irrationally. All the officers can do is their best and move on or possibly allow a period of cooling off or let a different officer come in and mediate a resolution. The important thing as far as the small fire department is concerned is that the misconduct situation is handled, not ignored.
A discussion of keeping a small fire department in line and on track cannot be closed without discussing one important item – meetings. As much as some may disdain them, meetings are a most critical function to the small fire department and not to be underrated in their importance. Every bit of effort fire department leadership can put into making a meeting that members feel was worth attending pays huge dividends.
With small fire departments, the monthly business meeting is the main event. This is the occasion where the formal organization is at the zenith of its influence. All of the department’s membership, or at least hopefully a majority of its membership, is present. Decisions are made, policies and procedures are ironed out, and department direction is set.
If a department’s business or monthly meetings are poorly attended, the department is crippled; members are not informed and it’s difficult for the department to maintain a continuity of function as well as progression toward goals. Poor attendance is more often than not due to a lack of interest, but there is probably a reason for a lack of interest. True, some of the reason may be apathy, and that can be addressed with application of departmental bylaws, but the larger reason is probably that members feel the meetings are not worthwhile.
ON TRACK AND IN LINE
Keeping a small fire department on track and in line is comprehensive of several elements in the small fire department environment. It demands the constant attention of the chief in even the smallest jurisdiction.
With a solid set of policies and procedures on which to rest the department’s operation, attention to the content of department policy, a regard for taking disciplinary action when needed and attention to providing meetings that have merit, the small fire department is well on its way to being one of those agencies that neighboring departments regard as one that’s on the ball.
Steve Meyer, a Firehouse® contributing editor, has been a member of the Garrison, IA, Volunteer Fire Department for 22 years, serving as chief since 1985. He is past president of the Iowa Fire Chiefs Association. Meyer is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program, and is a contract instructor for leadership and administration with the NFA. In 1998, he was presented the State of Iowa Firefighter of the Year award.