Leadership: Ethics and the Code Enforcement Process

Watching the news coverage of the recent horrific events in Chicago and West Warwick, my thoughts, like those of many of you, turned to wondering how we would respond to similar incidents if they occurred in my community. The idea of nearly one hundred lives lost in a fast-moving fire sends chills of dread up my spine.

While I have every confidence that our department would be thoroughly professional in its response to the fire, I can't help but think about how I'd much rather have such an event prevented in the first place. But it's not always that easy, is it?

Here's a case in point. I live in a growing community where many of the newer amenities (restaurants, nightclubs, retail and grocery outlets, etc.) are located on the fringes of our established areas, causing the boundaries to shift ever outward from the older part of the city. However, the City Council and Administration would like to see some redevelopment of the older part of town.

They are, therefore, willing to consider "design alternatives" in an effort to induce developers to look to that area. So, what are those alternatives? They can be any or all of a long list of things designed to reduce the cost of development. In our case, they might range from relaxing the requirements for access/egress and parking, a reduction of stipulated firewall ratings, sprinkler requirements, construction materials, infrastructure improvements, or a host of other things.

So where does that leave the fire department? If we insist on complete compliance with the letter of the code, aren't we sometimes viewed as unrealistic? After all, isn't the code a set of general guidelines to be considered? One member of the governing body might think so, while the next will argue that there's absolutely nothing general about it, and that nothing in the code is open to compromise.

This can put the code enforcement staff in a ticklish situation. Fire administration is quickly involved too, because that's who the elected and appointed leadership will approach if design alternatives are the only way to achieve redevelopment of less-than-affluent areas. That risk is certain to trickle down to firefighters who may have to respond to whatever kinds of emergencies that might happen there in the future.

I'm reminded of a class I took nearly two decades ago at the National Fire Academy, the Strategic Analysis of Fire Prevention Programs. One of our role-play scenarios had to do with a large foreign automobile manufacturer thinking about building a factory in a community that was suffering from a severe economic downturn. Obviously, the factory would have provided a huge economic stimulus to an area that desperately needed it, and the community was overjoyed at the prospect of the return of good times. But it wasn't going to be built unless a whole lot of tight restrictions got loosened. At the time, I remember thinking that the fire officials ought to just stick to their guns and hold the auto manufacturer's feet to the fire (code), but I also remember a great instructor, the late Don Manno, warning us that it wouldn't be that easy in the real world.

To be sure, in the real world the eyes of politicians open wide at the thought of a significant economic stimulus, especially in a community that really needs a shot in the arm. And they don't want to hear that the fire department is going to play hardball on the fire code, especially if that will mean the potential economic windfall isn't going to happen here. More than one fire chief, fire marshal, or fire inspector has drawn a line in the sand over this issue or similar ones. And more than one of them wound up seeking employment elsewhere; with a clear conscience, perhaps, but that can be a flimsy way to feed the family.

In our case locally, we are pushing hard for all parties to sit down and come to a meeting of the minds. I'll have to let you know how it turns out, but I can tell you that it's not a comfortable position to be in. Somebody's going to lose in a situation like this one. Maybe the community, by not having the amenities where they'd like them to be; maybe the developer and the business owner, who could have to pay more for the privilege of doing business; and maybe the fire department. And if the fire department loses, doesn't the community also lose by not being as safe as it might have been?

Returning to the recent tragedies in Illinois and Rhode Island, I want to salute our brothers and sisters who responded to those incidents. They performed bravely and effectively, and I admire their courage and their dedication. They have faced a couple of terrible situations, responded appropriately, and are smarter and better prepared because of it. I only hope our departments can do as well if they have to.

But didn't Ben Franklin have us in mind when he said, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?"

You may e-mail Chief Thompson at bthompson@ci.sierra-vista.az.us with any questions or comments you may have.

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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

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