When I was preparing to become a firefighter some 20-plus years ago, I remember stopping by a fire station at a department I was testing for in the San Francisco Bay Area (who will remain nameless), so that I could do some research before my upcoming oral interview. I asked the firefighters various questions about what to expect on the oral interview, what they liked and disliked about that department, what the future of the department might look like, how to best prepare for the rest of the testing process as well as for the position of firefighter itself, and basically how to be the best candidate I could be for that department. And before I go any further, yes—I did bring ice cream for the crew to show my appreciation for their time and assistance.
While I was talking with the firefighters (the company officer was in another room doing whatever he was doing), we got on the subject of oral interview questions that are commonly asked in that department. One of the questions I was told to expect was the question related to ethical behavior. The question they (and many other fire departments) typically ask an oral board candidate: “You see another firefighter doing something illegal, unethical, immoral, or just plain wrong (stealing, cheating, lying, drinking on the job, taking illegal drugs, poor customer service, harassment, hostile work environment, sexual behavior, etc.)—what are you going to do?”
I then took advantage of the chance to ask their opinion of how to best answer that question. Since I wasn’t expecting a handout or to be spoon-fed, I first provided them an answer something to the effect of what I was previously taught to do: approach the individual, let them be know I saw what was going on in a non-accusatory manner, don’t jump to conclusions, don’t accuse them of something you may not have all the facts on, give them the opportunity to explain their side of the story, and basically don’t throw them under the bus (but don’t stick my head in the sand like an ostrich if something illegal or unethical is truly going on).
What came out of their mouths shocked me to the point I thought I was being tested, or that I was going to be on Candid Camera (Note: if you have no clue about what Candid Camera is, do an Internet search). One of the firefighters told me with a straight face: “If you see something like that, something you think is illegal or unethical, forget about it. Look the other way. Walk away. We don’t like snitches—snitches get stitches!” I was floored, as that not only contradicted everything I was ever taught, it was just plain wrong!
I must have showed them a perplexed look because the other firefighters also chimed in with similar opinions to ensure I heard and got what the first one told me.
We continued our discussion on other topics and I then went home to gather my thoughts and do whatever else it was I had to do that day.
Fast forward to my oral interview shortly thereafter. As fate would have it, I was asked a question related to ethical/illegal behavior (another firefighter appearing to put a Rolex watch into their turnout coat while on scene of a fire at a jewelry store) that I witnessed as a probationary firefighter, and how I would handle the situation.
Oral board questions on ethics
Before we go any further, why do you think oral boards ask you questions related to unethical or illegal behavior?
Simply put, for three reasons:
- To test you and determine how you would handle such a situation;
- To evaluate your ethics, your integrity, your moral compass (do you know right from wrong?);
- Because, sadly, that type of behavior occurs on a daily basis around the country. Don’t believe me? Do an Internet search on websites such as www.firehouse.com and review the "Reputation Management" White Paper found on www.firefighterbehavior.com.
Thinking back to the advice I was offered by the firefighters that day at the station ("snitches get stitches"), I briefly had an impulse to answer the question that way, but thankfully I did not answer it that way. I did the right thing. I answered the question as best I could, stating something to the effect of what I appeared to be seeing did not appear to be right, that I would approach (not confront as that is too harsh) my co-worker and ask him a simple question such as “Hey, what’s up? Is that a new salvage technique? I don’t recall seeing that in the IFSTA textbook?” I wasn’t accusing them of anything specifically (or so I thought). I would throw the ball in their court and see what they chose to do with it? I also went on to share that I would encourage the firefighter to get whatever the item was to the company officer to ensure it made its way back to the appropriate person.
While I did answer the question more in depth than that, that was about the flavor of my answer. I also tried to add if it was indeed stealing, the potential ramifications for our fire department and the entire fire service as a whole (poor public relations, loss of trust, loss of credibility, etc.), and I also tried to add some stories I had heard about where firefighters had indeed been accused of, or found guilty of stealing, just to demonstrate I was paying attention and aware of the problem. Now this was before the Internet; so I was relying on items found in the print newspaper or television news outlets. Today, a story of a firefighter doing anything unethical or illegal hits social media and the Internet and is around the world in a matter of moments.
Had I chosen to answer the question by saying that it couldn’t have been stealing because firefighters don’t steal things, or that the fire service only hires the most honest and upstanding individuals to serve the community (as those kind firefighters were trying to have me answer the question), I would have not received as good of a score or ranking as I did. I didn’t ace the question by any measure, but I know I didn’t blow it either.
I have been a rater or proctor for hundreds, if not thousands, of future firefighters when this question was asked of them, and sadly, many of the candidates put their head in the sand, deny the situation could even happen, dance around the question, or just flat out say it couldn’t be true. Wow! They were either coached incorrectly by the wrong set of role models (such as in my situation of "snitches get stitches"), or they were never taught right from wrong by their parents or guardians.
As to why those firefighters would steer me wrong, consider this: personnel at the rank of firefighter are usually not serving as oral board raters. Also, many firefighters don’t think like company officers. When I was a firefighter, I cared about having fun, fighting fire and saving lives. I didn’t really consider terms such as risk management, bigger picture, hostile work environment, etc. However, when I became a company officer, it became loud and clear that I better care about risk management, not to mention providing a safe and harassment-free environment for my personnel. Why? Well for one, it was my job now as a supervisor. Also, if that fun or horseplay leads to someone getting injured or killed, I was going to be the one held responsible and their spouses or significant others, family and friends were going to be pointing the finger at me and holding me accountable for allowing the tragic situation to occur in the first place.
When you’re testing for a department, and going through an oral interview, the raters are typically at the rank of company officer (lieutenant or captain), the rank that supervises firefighters. Yes, some departments do allow firefighters, engineers or even battalion chiefs to serve as oral board raters, but the one rank that will almost always be on an entry-level firefighter interview is that of company officer.
The more I thought about it, I was still wondering why those firefighters would give me such bad (good in their mind) advice. Was it because they truly didn’t like snitches? Was it because they did or approved of those inappropriate things? That’s a good question that I’ll never have a good answer for. Had I answered the question the way they suggested, I would have probably failed that question if not the whole interview because I would have shown the company officers how clueless I was, or how I was going to enable or encourage such illegal or unethical behavior to occur and/or continue.
I can’t speak for every company officer, but I would hope every company officer wants to be kept informed and up-to-date with what is going on in their firehouse at any given time. I’m not saying a company officer wants to have “snitches” working for them. But, if you’re a company officer and there is illegal or unethical activities going on in your firehouse while you are supposed to be the one in charge (the designated adult for the day), wouldn’t you want to know so you could stop the behavior? What’s the difference between being a snitch or keeping your boss (company officer) informed of potential illegal or unethical activities? One sounds worse than the other.
Now I know some company officers at this point are probably saying what they don’t know won’t hurt them; or out of sight out of mind; or what goes on behind closed doors in other parts of the firehouse isn’t my responsibility; or something to that effect. Or, even worse, there are some company officers that don’t want to upset the apple cart, or upset the “brotherhood.”
Ignorance isn't acceptable
Well, newsflash—if you are the person in charge of that firehouse, you are 100 percent responsible for everything that is going on in that firehouse while you are on duty—whether or not you know about it! What you know of and do nothing about, you then condone or approve of. Ignorance is not an excuse in today’s world anymore.
A couple of years ago, while discussing oral interview preparation techniques with my "Introduction to Fire Technology" class I teach at Chabot College one night a week, we got into the topic of how to best answer oral interview questions that related to potential illegal or unethical activity by another firefighter. I shared my “snitches get stitches” story, and I one of my students, raised his hand to ask a question. He said, “Chief, at what department did that happen?” I told him and the rest of the class I preferred not to share the name of the department. He said, “Was it _____?” I was shocked; it was the exact same department, 20-plus years later! I asked him to share what happened, and he went on to explain his interaction with one of the crews at that department, and how a crew had used literally those same words to him when it came time to answering such oral board questions. What are the odds of that? Especially in today’s world? It sparked a great discussion about right versus wrong (not that I should have to have that type of discussion with 40 or so students ages 18 to 30).
I was then asked how to answer the question. The student said, “But the firefighters at the firehouse said to answer it like nothing happened or that nothing inappropriate is even occurring.” What should I do? I asked if a Company Officer was present when the firefighters told you the "snitches get stitches" comment and the student said there was no company officer in the room at the time. I offered my opinion (which some students agreed with, and some were still skeptical about for whatever reason), and we had what I feel was a good, healthy discussion. I tell the students that I’m not telling you how to answer a question. I’m offering best practices and that they have to feel good about what they say, and they have to believe what they say.
I share with everyone that they should answer the question as they would truly do in real life. Meaning, don’t just answer questions the way you think they want you to, but answer questions the way you truly would handle them in real life. If you think it is inappropriate for illegal or unethical behavior to occur at the firehouse, then be true to yourself and answer your questions that way. You’ll have more passion and you will be sincere in your answers when you truly believe what you’re saying.
The one student then asked, “But if that’s the advice of the firefighters, shouldn’t I answer it that way, even though I know their advice is just wrong?” I explained how there would probably be at least one company officer on the oral board who will probably disagree with your answer, as they should. Then another student made a comment to the effect of “if that is culture of the fire department, and I have high ethical standards, have integrity, and believe in honesty, maybe it wouldn’t be a good idea to work for that department, would it?” I said that is a good observation and something you should strongly consider. If the culture of their fire department thinks it is acceptable to do illegal or unethical things, and you do not have the same values, you’re setting yourself up for failure or disaster should you take a job with that fire department. You’re darned if you do, darned if you don’t. Think about it: if you do let your company officer know of something illegal or unethical and then your “brothers” and “sisters” call you a snitch, for doing the right thing. If you say nothing, then you encourage or condone the behavior, and will probably hate yourself (assuming you have a heart and have integrity) for the rest of your life for allowing that illegal or unethical situation to occur and potentially even perpetuate.
Suggestions to approach your answer
I’m not a fan of telling people how specifically to answer oral board questions. Instead, I will give suggestions as to general ideas of what to say and what not to say, but I don’t like giving exact answers because there is usually more than one right answer, and because I don’t want everyone using the same answer and sounding like the rest of their competitors. Oral boards don’t want to hear the same answer; they want to hear your thought process of how you got to your answer. Don’t get me wrong; if it’s unethical or illegal, it is unethical or illegal, no matter how much you try to justify it. The behavior is inappropriate.
At the bare minimum, when faced with a question related to illegal or unethical behavior, here are my suggestions:
- If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. If something appears inappropriate, it doesn’t mean it is inappropriate; however, it is worth at least looking into.
- If something that appears illegal or unethical occurs in front of you, the best approach is to not accuse anyone of anything. I would consider an open-ended question such as, “Hey, what’s going on?” They typically have three choices in this situation:
o Say nothing, which doesn’t help their situation.
o Implicate themselves, which makes it easy in some respects.
o Deny anything wrong is going on in the first place.
Regardless of their answer, they’ll realize you at least are aware of something that is going on and put them on the spot.
- If something illegal or unethical occurs, but did not happen directly in front of you, such as you locate a bottle of what appears to be Jack Daniels underneath one of the beds in the dormitory, but you don’t see anyone drinking from it, then the only option is to give it to the company officer and go back to your work. The last thing you want to do is start figuring out who it belongs to or even worse, try to dispose of it or do nothing about it.
- As a firefighter, you’re not paid to do fact-finding or investigate situations. That’s the job of your company officer. That said, regardless of the three answers they give you from the above choices, you have to let your company officer know of what you saw, in a non-accusatory manner. Your company officer can then choose to either do nothing or to do some more fact-finding. At this point, you can at least sleep with yourself at night.
- If you are staying on top of what is going on in the fire service (especially related to reputation management situations like this that involve illegal or unethical behavior) around the world, by subscribing to www.firehouse.com or paying attention to social media and the Internet, I encourage you to share those lessons learned or reasons why the illegal or unethical behavior is so damaging to our fire service. By adding current information to your answer, you will show the oral board that you are paying attention to what is going on in your fire service, something many of your competitors will not be doing.
Answering the question
So, how will you answer the illegal or unethical situation question? Will you do the right thing and potentially be labeled a snitch? Or will you stick your head in the sand, and allow the person who is say stealing something, end up being caught by the business owner and having it make the nightly news, social media and Internet, resulting in major damage to the reputation of your fire department, not to mention the fire service in general? Doing the right thing is tough; and can even alienate you from others. But at the end of the day, only you have to live with yourself for doing the right or the wrong thing.
Having the other firefighters call you a snitch for letting the company officer know about a firefighter with a sticky finger (theft) problem may be a label you can’t shake for the rest of your career. However, if it ends up letting the firefighter get some employee assistance program help that may save his or her career, and keep the department off of social media for a potential negative and credibility damaging situation, then you can live with yourself for doing the right thing. But, if you choose to stick your head in the sand, look the other way, and not say a thing to the firefighter or officer (because you didn’t want to be labeled as a snitch), and then someone from outside the fire service finds out about the situation after it gets out of control, you’re going to have to live with yourself for the rest of your life.
Even worse, the investigation may actually determine that you knew of the situation and chose to say or do nothing. If that happens during the investigation (trust me, the guilty person who put you in this position for their wrong doing will throw you under the bus if they’re looking at severe discipline, “but Steve saw me and didn’t say anything to stop me, so I thought it was ok), you may now be faced with your own severe discipline since you knew of something and chose not to say something. If you actually have a conscious, you’ll be second-guessing yourself every day for the rest of your life. What if I had just said something? What if?
It all comes down to this: do the right thing, and if you see something, say something!