Leadership: When Firefighters Start Fires

Related on TV -- Wednesday, Nov. 20 on CBS' 60 Minutes II: Firefighters Setting Fires: 10PM ET/PT

In my last column we talked about some ethical issues that included a firefighter having been charged with starting the Rodeo fire this past summer, the biggest fire in Arizona's history. Since then, firefighters have faced similar charges in at least two other areas of our country.

Without assuming that any of these people are guilty, I think we can all agree that there have been numerous instances when firefighters have been guilty of arson crimes. Why is that? Have you ever pondered the irony involved when a firefighter--someone who is supposed to protect the public from the potential ravages of fire--causes a fire to occur, thereby jeopardizing the very people he or she is sworn to protect?

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One of the reasons why it bothers me so much is that I have always felt that the general public underestimates the potential danger of fire. Unlike firefighters, who clearly see the damage that fire can do, the people in our communities seem to think they are immune from that danger.

Do any of the following situations sound familiar to you? You respond to an apartment complex where someone has a lit barbecue grill on a balcony that was left unattended while the "chef" went inside to get another beer. Or you respond to a smoke-charged mobile home only to find that the battery from the one smoke detector was removed to be used elsewhere, or to stop nuisance activations due to cooking. How about this classic: your company shows up at a garage fire where a handyman had been using gasoline to clean up his tools or paintbrushes too close to a water heater or other ignition source. The first things firefighters usually hear are, "I didn't think?" or "I didn't know?"

Well, we DO know, don't we? We are all too familiar with what fire can do. We've all stood in the stinking burned out shell of what used to be the living room of a nice home. We've all shaken our heads at the senselessness of a tragedy that could have been avoided by the application of a little knowledge, a little common sense. And that's what makes it so damaging when firefighters commit arson.

This column is entitled "Leadership," and if you're wondering what I've said thus far has to do with leadership, allow me to explain. All firefighters are leaders. If you've studied the basics of leadership, you know that we have what is referred to as expert power. Those in the community who do not have the expertise that we have look to us as leaders in dealing with fire. We also have a great measure of trust. The people in the community trust us to protect them from fire. They trust us because of our position, our training and equipment, our knowledge and skill, and our reputation for being trustworthy.

Therefore, when one of our own commits arson, that trust is violated. That expert power is abused. Our leadership is jeopardized and that all amounts to a betrayal. Just as all law enforcement officers were damaged by the Rodney King scandal, so all firefighters are damaged every time a firefighter commits arson.

I wish I knew how to stop it. At the very least, I believe the entire fire service community ought to express its collective outrage when firefighters start fires. That's the best way I can think of to let our communities know that we see our leadership as critically important, that we take it very seriously, and that the hard-earned trust of those we protect is sacred.


Bruce Thompson is the chief of the Sierra Vista(AZ) Fire Department. Chief Thompson started his fire service career in 1974. He is a Past President of the Arizona Fire Chiefs? Association and a 1989 graduate of the National Fire Academy?s Executive Officer Program. E-mail Chief Thompson at: bthompson@ci.sierra-vista.az.us