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Last year, public outrage ensued after firefighters and police officers stood on a beach in California and watched a man drown because budget cuts prevented the department from recertifying the firefighters in land-based water rescues.
In Tennessee, outrage broke out as firefighters stood by as a house burned to the ground because the homeowner had not paid the annual subscription fee (a reoccurring scenario from 2010 in the same area).
In Virginia, a drunken firefighter took a fire truck on a joyride and almost smashed into a deputy’s patrol car.
In Georgia, a firefighter used his cell phone to make a gruesome video of a 23-year-old dead woman who was the victim of a car accident. He then passed the video around to other firefighters and the public until it found its way to the woman’s parents.
In Massachusetts, a firefighter was terminated for Facebook posts that ridiculed members of his department and others in his community, including police officers.
In Florida, a firefighter was fired after attempting to have sex with a 14-year-old girl he met online.
These are all true stories and there are countless others just like these in fire departments around the globe. These are all stories that have been made public. Very public. Whether you agree or disagree with the firefighters’ behaviors or the consequences of those behaviors is irrelevant. The end result is the same: the fire service is experiencing an escalating public-perception crisis. One reason is the proliferation of social networking and mass media. If events like those listed above had occurred 20 years ago, knowledge of them would probably have been limited to the local community, if that. Today, news stories like these become viral sensations, especially if a video can be attached to the incident. As a result, the fire service is facing the very real challenge of managing its image when it comes to public perception.
There are five strategic ways to adequately deal with this:
1. Change department policy
2. Pre-emptively educate the public
3. Train firefighters for these situations
4. Implement a strong code of ethics
5. Enforce consequences for bad behavior
In any case of firefighters watching a structure burn to the ground, you can expect public outrage. It doesn’t help to try to explain to the observing citizens that someone didn’t pay their annual subscription fee and it wouldn’t be fair to people who did pay. What would be more effective is to change the policy. That can be done in a number of ways, including tax assessments or informing homeowners that failure to pay the fee will result in a $5,000 charge if firefighters put out a fire on a home where the subscription was not paid.
In the case where the firefighters were not certified for land-based water rescues, educating the public in advance that the firefighters in the area do not engage in water rescue would have helped to curtail outrage. Additionally, training the firefighters on how to handle this type of incident when department policy prohibits a firefighter from engaging in a rescue that the public expects would also help protect the image of the fire service.
In other cases like the gruesome video or the Facebook fiasco, having a strong code of ethics and a values-driven culture will help prevent these types of occurrences. Firefighters must be educated in the important concept that their on- and off-duty behavior affects public perception and they must adhere to a very high standard of professionalism. The public expects a high level of excellence and ethics when it comes to the fire service profession.
Lastly, every person in the department must support having consequences for bad behavior. In the case of the Florida firefighter who attempted to have sex with a 14-year-old, if the union or fellow firefighters had fought for him to keep his job, they would be contributing to the public-perception crisis. The public must see the fire service stand in unity against bad behavior.
Developing outstanding leaders from the top of the organization to the front line will only serve to improve your image in the eyes of the public. n
Kimberly Alyn, Ph.D., will present “Developing Responsible and Accountable Leaders” at Firehouse Expo 2012, July 17-21 in Baltimore, MD.
KIMBERLY ALYN, Ph.D., is a best-selling author and an international fire service speaker and training instructor. She is the owner of Fire Presentations (FirePresentations.com), a company dedicated to keynote presentations and training workshops for the fire service. Dr. Alyn has conducted the largest known fire service study on the topic of leadership and organizational commitment. She works with fire departments across the country on firefighter and fire officer leadership development. She is the author of 11 books and a variety of CD/DVD productions. Dr. Alyn holds a bachelor’s degree in management, a master’s degree in organizational management and a doctorate degree in management with a specialty in leadership. Dr. Alyn can be reached at: 800-821-8116 or email DrAlyn@FirePresentations.com.