Saturday, March 13, 2010

Caveat Lectores on Firefighter Values and Ethics

Caveat Lectores is going way out on a limb by taking on this subject but will do so anyway. For several years, we have received scores of daily Google alerts for everything fire/rescue related. We cross referenced the search terms so many ways; there is not much that escapes Caveat Lectores. Recently, I have noticed more news traffic and commentary about firefighter values, morals and ethical issues.

Coincidentally, I teach business ethics in the School of Management at a large local university that shall remain unidentified lest some of the rhetoric on Caveat Lectores gets me fired. I like teaching.

What I read about the fire/rescue service, both on and off duty, sometimes disturbs me. It takes only a little bad news coverage to undo what takes years to build up in the way of good news. The fire/rescue service, in general, and its predominant union, the IAFF, have together and separately done a great job of placing firefighters on a pedestal in terms of public relations.

Firefighters are largely considered heroes who ride to the rescue on big trucks to save the day when some unfortunate citizen finds him/herself in peril. Most other public employees do not have that level of public appeal. All public employees provide a valuable public service, but other public service professions have baggage that drags them down in the public’s view. Firefighters are “special.”

I joined the fire service in 1973 and immediately felt the aura that surrounds a firefighter. The job did not pay well, but there were many fabulous “bennies” not the least of which was doing a job that asked me to do my best work to help someone in trouble. Cost was no object for a rookie “tail boarder.” Believe me when I tell you that it did not work that way in private business. I had worked for small and large businesses, and we made money or we did not provide the service. Too bad, so sad.

In the earlier years of my career, it was like a neighborhood club. Yes, it was a job, but most firefighters were there because they liked what they were doing. It certainly was not the money. We constantly fought among ourselves and with the political powers; but when the alarm sounded, we ran to the fire apparatus to do what we did best. Some reasonable physical fitness and a high school diploma along with good references from someone on the inside could get you a ticket to the world of being a “fireman.” I was an oddball because of a college education in business and several years experience when I got my ticket punched. I loved it. The City of Temple Terrace and later Tampa actually paid me to do something that other people would do for free if given the chance.

The demographic makeup of the fire service in the 70’s was largely middle and lower middle class white males. Because Tampa had a large “ethnic” community, we probably had a larger than expected non-Anglo workforce. Afro-Americans were under represented, and there were no females. The nearly all white boys club, who had grown up together in the same neighborhoods, tended to self police and weed out those who did not belong, if they were hired at all. We had our share of dirt bags and miscreants, but they were usually marginalized. The job was really very simple. It did not pay worth a damn, but the incredible amount of out of the ordinary fringe benefits made the job attractive to certain people.

In the mid 70’s, things began to change. Some would say for the better. Others would disagree. Either way, the law required the all white boys clubs to become more diverse. Make no mistake; I firmly believe that society is better off today because the laws forced the fire/rescue service to accept diversity. It might not have happened otherwise.

Because of the demands of the market place, the fire/rescue service is now frequently dominated by EMS/ALS calls. It is not enough to have a strong back and a willingness to do things dangerous and dirty. The modern fire/rescue employee must be better educated and trained to do a much more complex job. We now call firefighters without paramedic training “slick sleeves” and worse. They are considered relics of another time. The needs of the market place demanded that change. In order to fill this need, it is necessary to open the door to more than the “guys from the ‘hood.”

Be forewarned, this is not going where you might think. I will not condemn the inclusion of all races, ethnicities and genders into the fire/rescue service. All deserve the opportunity to make the fire/rescue service their profession.

I will opine that the inclusion of more than the self policing neighborhood boys clubs and a couple of other factors may have caused internal ethical standards to falter. I do not contend that the ethical nature of the fire service 30 plus years ago was superior to today. However, it was more predictable and insular; therefore, the dirty laundry was better hidden. There are more stupid things to do today than 36 years ago. Everyone knows that firefighters are very resourceful and can find ways to get in trouble that others would never recognize.

The Internet makes sure no secret is secret for long. A firefighter cannot fart in the wrong place without somebody taking a picture and posting it on the Internet for all to see. When something really bad actually happens, and it does and always has, it now becomes national news because of the tarnished halo that all public safety workers wear since the public has tired of the 9/11 exaltation of those who died while trying to save innocent people. Public safety prospered in many ways because of what happened that dreadful day.

The simple fact is that the demographics of the fire/rescue service are now more than ever a snap shot of the population at large. We hold our public safety workers to a higher standard of conduct than others. Most can meet that standard and do.

One problem is that hiring procedures cannot predict who will be a bad apple one day and who will not. Another problem is management and supervision procedures fail to identify who needs to be removed from the service before they falter and embarrass us all. Yet another issue is that when an employee’s job is undervalued by the employer and the public, as all public employees’ jobs are today, the employee himself may cease to respect the job as well.

That being said, I must admit some of the stories I have read lately about the incredibly stupid, negligent and yes, even illegal actions and inactions of my brother and sister firefighters embarrasses even me. In my law practice, I frequently meet with public safety employees in trouble for some of the damnedest things. When I ask something like, “What were you thinking when you did that?” The answer almost always starts with, “I didn’t think….” Frequently, that is the problem. They just did not consider the implications of what they were about to do or not do. According to most Management Ethics texts, “moral awareness” must precede any analysis of whether something is ethical or not. Otherwise, you can screw up and not even know it until too late.

I suspect management types will call for an enhanced awareness of ethical standards and maybe some codification of ethics to apply to fire/rescue. The over reaction will cause more problems than solutions. Ethical standards are already in place in most jurisdictions, but they frequently are not stressed until a lapse causes embarrassment to the department. In Florida, a firefighter must be of “good moral character” (whatever that means) to be certified, and most departments have further nebulous requirements listed in their SOPs. Occasionally, the union bylaws will have some requisite lack of moral turpitude for membership in the union. That certainly clears the air on ethics and morals, doesn’t it?

Maybe it is time for management to address ethics before hiring and during the career of a fire/rescue employee rather than allow the condemnation of the profession due to the intemperate acts of a few.

Maybe the unions should govern and educate their members better as well as defend them when they are accused of a breach of ethics.

Maybe the employees themselves should understand they are not above the ethical standards of a community just because they run into burning buildings while other run out.

Maybe all of us should understand that these heroes are human just like everyone else, and they will make mistakes.

And oh yes, Have a Nice day?


1 comment:

Manish said...

hello wjc, doing good to teach others to fight fight from the fires. i think they need to think about you again. because you was doing work that helpful for others.