Does Your Ethical Compass Need Calibrating?

May 8, 2003
Is your ethical compass still functioning the same way it always has, or does it need to be recalibrated based on the issues of the day?
Like many others in Arizona, our city purchases police "cruisers" for the fire department administrative staff. The other day I noticed some writing next to my speedometer that read "certified calibration," which I took to mean that my speedometer must be more accurate than most of the other cars on the road.

Then again, my car is a few years old now, and I'm sure whatever certification it originally came with must have expired by now. For sure, I know that my speedometer must be off because when I'm doing 75 MPH between Tucson and Phoenix, everyone else seems to pass me like I'm standing still. But that's another story.

Somehow, this train of thought led me to wondering about ethical issues. Specifically, I began thinking about how societal norms seem to change with the passing of time. Do our values change with the times? In many cases, they certainly do. Can you think of ethical issues we come across in the fire service that we address differently than we used to? Or perhaps there are new issues that have arisen since we joined the fire service - things we never even dreamed about having to face before. Let's examine a few, shall we?

Take computers, for instance. I joined the fire service in 1974, and if there was a computer in use in our business in those days, I certainly didn't know about it. But these days there's a PC or a laptop on every desk, and most of them have high-speed Internet access. So what goes on after hours with that Internet access? Are our people surfing sites of questionable value to the department? You bet they are. Are they downloading things they don't want you to know about? Yep, you can count on it. I just read an article about midshipmen at the Naval Academy accused of using incredibly fast T3 lines to copy music and swap files illegally, in some cases for profit. Now, what's wrong with that picture? Maybe a better question is, what should be done about it? Does your department have a policy about electronic communications? Will it stand up to scrutiny?

What about other computer-related issues? Are people making illegal copies of software on the computers at the stations? Are they copying music CDs for each other? When DVD burners get better and cheaper, will they be copying those as well? If I were a betting man, I'd put a few bucks on the "yes" side of that wager.

Then again, aren't there other, non-computer ethical questions facing us? Have you ever had someone request a day of leave or vacation, get turned down for one reason or another, and then call off sick that day? That happens all the time in the fire service. What do we do about it? It's difficult to prove without looking like you're trying to trap someone. The troops know about it, to be sure. Usually, they're angrier than management is because they are the ones most affected by the abuse of sick leave. They're the ones left short-handed or unable to get the leave they want because someone else has selfishly reported off sick when the whole world knows they're not sick at all.

Sadly, I've learned (the hard way) over the course of my career that firefighters will occasionally steal from each other. And I'm not talking about that apple pie left in the refrigerator. Does money ever find legs and walk away from your department?

Now I assure you, and I know for a fact, that the vast majority of firefighters are as honest as the day is long. But it only takes one to violate the trust that exists between brother and sister firefighters, or between firefighters and the public. All you have to do is read the news in the fire service to know that we are not exempt from the problems suffered by society in general. And why should we be exempt? We are a part of that same society. Many of us "fudge" on our taxes without considering it illegal. Many of us will keep the extra change given to us erroneously by a store or bank employee. Some of us are the same as the people we read about being charged and convicted of far more serious offenses than these I've mentioned.

So are the values you had coming into this job still the same? Do you wink at something and let it slide, where you might have made an issue of it years ago? Is your ethical compass still functioning the same way it always has, or does it need to be recalibrated based on the issues of the day?

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: [email protected]

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