The fire service is different from other disciplines because of the risk on individuals, society and firefighters at work. We carry a badge and are held to a higher ethical standard than citizens or businesses. The National Society of Executive Fire Officers published a model firefighter code of ethics, but it does not address the ultimate ethical question of life and death in the work of firefighting.
What is ethics? Wikipedia defines it as: "Synonymous to moral theory, ethics systemizes, defends and recommends concepts of right and wrong conduct, and often addresses disputes of moral diversity. Ethics is divided into three major areas: 1) meta-ethics, the theoretical meaning, reference of moral propositions, and how truth values are determined; 2) normative ethics, the practical means of determining a moral course of action; and 3) applied ethics, which draws upon ethical theory to ask what a person is obligated to do in a specific situation or particular domain of action."
Let’s examine the firefighter death question at these three levels of ethics.
Since the beginning of time, humans have needed to protect themselves from nature and each other. Preservation of self and family is a human condition of existence. The protectors are held in high esteem, and the ultimate protection results in war.
Humans go to war and try to kill each other. The shield has been part of the warrior equipment for thousands of years. Some organizations refer to their badges as shields. The fire service uses the term “fire warrior” — a message that death is part of the firefighter’s job.
When is it acceptable or ethical to society for a firefighter to die doing their job? Newspaper headlines on firefighter fatalities usually read “The City Lost Two Heroic Firefighters Today”. The headline never says “The City Killed Two Firefighters Today for No Good Reason.”
Please send me a copy if your job description or volunteer application form contains any form of this sentence: “As a firefighter, you are expected by society to risk your life doing your job, which can result in your death.” Does this moral proposition exist, whether explicit or implied? This is the meta-ethical question that needs to be answered for the fire service in the 21st century if we truly want everyone to go home.
When we put the badge on, does society expect us to die doing our job? When someone we love pins the badge on our chest, do they think getting killed is part of the job? When we get on the truck for the first or the 10,000th time, is there a possibility we would not return alive? Yes. But is our death ethical? Is there a right and wrong firefighter death?
If the fire turns out to be arson, society has a person to blame for the death of the firefighter, so their death is wrong and the firefighter is a hero. This remains true even if the firefighters, officers and commanders violated every SOP (standard operating procedure) and safety standard during the incident. The situation is similar if the building has a fire or building code violation, because the building owner can be blamed, regardless of how the fire department operated.
How many times has the justification of going into an abandoned building to search for a vagrant been used to explain a firefighter’s death? If the firefighter believes someone is in a burning abandoned building, permission should be sought to go beyond our standards, to ignore our SOPs and safety guidelines, and if tragedy occurs the death of the firefighter is heroic.
As a firefighter, driver, officer or organization, you use applied ethics everyday and on every alarm. Your basic ethical question is: “What am I obligated to do, and is my behavior right or wrong in meeting the obligation?”
Am I obligated to report for work on time? Am I obligated to be sober at work? Does the organization hold me accountable to the obligation? Am I obligated to wear my seatbelt in the apparatus? Am I obligated to stop at red lights when responding?
What are the consequences of wrong behavior? This will help you in decision making. Can I be fired for wrong behavior? Can I kill someone else with my wrong behavior? Can my wrong behavior kill me?
The ultimate ethics of the badge at the meta, normative and applied levels is about life and death. What does your code of ethics say about that? Remember: ethics matter!
DR. BURTON A. CLARK has been in the fire service for 45 years. He was a firefighter in Washington, DC and assistant fire chief in Laurel, MD. He served as the Management Science Program Chair at the National Fire Academy and as an operations chief during national disasters and emergencies for the DHS/FEMA. Clark has a BS in business administration from Strayer University, an MA in curriculum & instruction from Catholic University and Ed.D. in adult education from Nova Southeastern University. He studied fire science at Montgomery College with Professor Frank Brannigan, emergency management at the Emergency Management Institute, national security at the National Defense University, and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer (EFO) Program. Clark writes, lectures and teaches fire service research, safety and assists EFO students with their projects. You can contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.