Ethical Landmines Can Challenge Fire Service Officers

CHICAGO – The fire service is filled with ethical landmines from seemingly simple things like accepting a baseball cap from a vendor to lying on an employment application to cheating on an exam. As much as we might like think it doesn’t happen, it does.

In a training class, Mike Burton, chief of the Tamarac (Fla.) Fire Department offered ways to recognize and, hopefully avoid landmines that could blow up an officer’s career. Burton was one of the presenters at the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ Fire Rescue International, the organization’s annual conference and expo held this year in Chicago.

In his interactive session called “Ethical Landmines: Recognizing, Understanding, and Avoiding the Trap,” Burton offered several ways officers and firefighters can avoid ethical dilemmas in a time when the public is no longer willing to give firefighters a free pass on once was treated with a “wink and a nod.”

“Ethics are relatively timeless,” said Burton, who is also serves on IAFC’s human relations committee. “They are usually established by groups and not individuals. They are based on philosophy more than religion.”

Burton offered several ways to help determine whether a situation was ethical which included one ultimate test that crumbles even the most hardened and callous firefighters.

“That is the ‘mom test,’” Burton said. “Is this something I would do in front of my mother or have to sit down and explain to her? …Never underestimate the power of the mother test.”

Burton said in formulating his class, he asked several colleagues for situations they have confronted in the past. They include incidents of firefighters accepting discounted meals and free drinks from establishments in their districts, to accepting jackets and ball tickets from manufacturers and vendors, to firefighters potentially abusing sick leave policies for good and noble causes, like caring for a spouse or partner.

“I don’t have the answers, I really don’t,” Burton said. “But I do have lots of questions and the real education is going home to your department and thinking about them and looking at your policies.”

In the instance of the firefighters accepting half price meals one of the potential landmines might explode when department members head to that same establishment for building inspections members of the class said, and Burton agreed.

What happens when that business owner gets a violation and reminds the inspector he or she was just there the day before enjoying free drinks and discounted food, Burton asked. “Is that a problem,” he asked.

Most agreed it was.

Less obvious but still something to think about is a very standard practice of having truck manufacturer representatives take firefighters out to dinner after a final inspection and then pick out hats, jackets and other merchandise from the builder’s store.

“These are very successful business practices that are used all the time,” Burton said, noting that depending on the department’s policies and ethical norms, it may or may not be a potential landmine.

“I can’t tell you if that’s right or wrong, but you better check with your department’s lawyer or your policies before you accept those gifts,” Burton said.

The class members were divided in their reaction to that situation. Some said those who accepted the hats and dinner could be disciplined because their departments have strict, spelled out policies prohibiting that behavior. Some said they wouldn’t have any issue because the deal had already been completed and still other had policies limiting the kind of gifts firefighters could explain.

Burton posed the question asking what the students in his class would do if a firefighter called in asking for leave to take care of a domestic partner when the department’s policy only spells out family members as eligible reasons for the request. Then, after being denied that leave, calls back moments later requesting emergency personal leave.

While there are usually no correct or incorrect answers to most ethical questions, Burton offered many tips for working through the issues.

Burton said officers should think about whether the behavior, like accepting free lunch, could be come habit forming and cloud other kinds of issues. Others include is it legal, is it safe, is it the right thing to do, will it stand the test of public scrutiny, is it fair and balance, can I defend myself, how will it make me feel, is what is being done serve the great good for the greatest number of people.

“You really need to listen to that little woman, or little man sitting on your shoulder questioning whether it’s the right thing to do,” Burton said.

Burton also offered some ethical behavior models and tips. First, he said always do what you say you will do; never divulge information given in confidence’ never become involved in a lie; and avoid accepting gifts from companies you do business with as it might compromise business deals

“The fact that chief officers have purchasing authority can cause a tremendous amount of ethical conflict,” Burton said. “Just try to keep in mind what is best for the organization.”

Above all else, Burton offered a closing bit of advice from Mark Twain.

“Always do right. It will gratify some and astonish the rest.”