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 officers.
As much as we may not want to, we cannot escape invoking a healthy dose of discipline if our small fire department is going to achieve any degree of success. Fire departments are often referred to as paramilitary in function, meaning we are “like military.” Consequently, our very nature calls for an element of discipline. The word discipline conjures up all sorts of foul views, but consider that the word is derived from disciple, meaning one who follows the teachings and examples of a respected leader.
Once again, that all-important element of maintaining and operating a small fire department emerges – leadership, most notably respected leadership. A notebook full of policies and procedures is useless if leadership is not going to enforce them, and most important enforce them impartially. In a small fire department, discipline often means dealing with your neighbors or your best hunting buddies because they’ve done something outside of department protocol or they have failed to meet some requirement of the department. Any chief who tells you that’s easy probably isn’t honest with a lot of other people either.
Discipline in a small fire department means keeping volunteers within acceptable boundaries and on a charted course. Effective discipline goes hand-in-hand with good supervision. Good supervision in the small fire department means making certain all volunteers know what they are supposed to do, how they are supposed to do it and why they are supposed to do it.
Once a small fire department has policies and procedures, the challenge becomes discovering and eliminating the causes of faulty behavior. The reasons for misconduct as given by Snook, Johnson, Olson and Buckman in their book Recruiting, Training and Maintaining Volunteers (Emergency Services Consulting Group, West Linn, OR, 1998) are: boredom, discontent, idleness, lack of interest in the job, lack of work and assignments, inadequate supervision, misunderstandings of policies and their need and purpose, lack of uniform enforcement of regulations, resentment, poor communication and emotional strain.
Find out through counseling what’s at the core of a misconduct problem and you’re on your way to resolving the problem. There are basically three different misconduct conditions that a supervisory person in a small fire department contends with:
- 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.
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.