All the fire service is a stage; act accordingly

Dennis Rubin

In his best-selling book, "My American Journey," Gen. Colin Powell writes that someone is always watching. A recent national news story mentioned that the average American's image is captured on a security camera 22 times per day.

Those in the fire service are not average Americans; they are much more closely watched. If a fire-rescue service member finds himself in serious trouble, the department, the community, the region and perhaps the country (according to the scope of their misdeed) will know about it short order.

In fact, some fire service members are tracked by Google alert software providing a near instantaneous notice to the media of all deeds — good or bad that are reported about them.

Of course, it seems only bad deeds get re-published in the fire blogs and the like. The days of personal misconduct, such as mistreating employees, being tolerated by an organization is over — striking fear in the hearts of the membership is not going to fly in the 21st century.

13 Career Crushers

  • Revenge
  • Discrimination, harassment and hazing
  • Inattention to details of the organization
  • Troubled personal life
  • Actions not in align with departmental goals and values
  • Declining health
  • Ignoring technology
  • Illegal activity
  • Irreconcilable differences with the boss
  • Lying
  • Political suicide
  • Political ambition
  • Incompetence

Public engagement
Examples of employees and residents speaking out about misdirected community leaders are plentiful. The former mayor of San Diego quickly comes to mind.

After a long spell of allegedly abusing female employees at City Hall in many forms and fashions, this horrible personal behavior story surfaced. Once this top elected official was outed, his resignation was soon to follow.

Although the former mayor begged for forgiveness and publicly announced that he would be admitted into a sex addition therapy program, the community that elected him demanded he vacate the office. The civil and potentially criminal issues are still being sorted out.

I could spend the rest of the space retelling similar stories of high-profile, once-trusted public figures. The number of fire chiefs who have been asked to move along (some quietly and some not so much) for engaging in poor personal choices seems to grow every month.

From being intoxicated on incident scenes to sexual abuse to child pornography and molestation, it does not take a lot of time to research and locate a sad case study that have cost a fire chief his or her career and freedom in some cases.

Most-trusted profession
Even if the appointing authority tolerates immoral and illegal behaviors from public safety employees, the trust of the community will be eroded. Without the trust of our public, the ability for the department to delivery the best services possible will be severely compromised.

When presenting the importance of proper personal behavior on and off duty in the classroom, I discuss a multi-systems trauma case. In this example, the EMT/paramedic must remove all of the clothing from a severely injured victim to be able to follow evidenced-based medicine protocols.

If the medic or other pre-hospital care givers had felony convictions relating to inappropriate sexual behavior, the community would never let that person serve in one of society's most-trusted positions. The community expects better and deserves better than being cared for by someone who could potentially harm them at their most vulnerable time.

All public safety workers are expected to start with a clean background, maintain that spotless background and retire with an unblemished background.

Having outstanding public servants will not happen by pure chance or luck. There is a shared responsibility between the department and the member. Each role is different, but both create a solid framework to uphold and maintain upstanding responders.

Early recognition
Most of the personal problems involve misuse of alcohol, illegal drug use, inappropriate sexual behaviors, domestic violence and financial issues.

I know, that covers just about all of the deadliest sins — I guess firefighters are human too.

If the chief or anyone in the department exhibits these or any other serious negative behaviors, the department should have a rehabilitation program safety net available immediately, discretely and confidentially.

The trick, however, is to figure out a way to provide intervention service steps before the behavior is exhibited. In some cases, this step may be impossible to implement — compulsions and addictions are powerful forces.

Once the damage is done, the person in question may not be able to continue as a member of the department. Rapid identification and rapid deployment of the intervention programs will always be the key to lessening the damage poor decisions can have on one's career.

An effective employee assistance program should let the member self-identify as needing help and receive treatment without penalty. If the member with a personal problem is punished in any way, that likely will be the last time a member takes personal responsibility.

However, once someone has engaged in behaviors like work place violence, or illegal drug use, the path of action is usually clear and with few or no choices. The individual must seek help before there is an action that will cause consequence and the department should be there to support those members.

On fairness
From fire fighter to fire chief, our members are always on stage. In this era of cell phone cameras, Google alerts and the like, do not expect to get away with any type of poor behaviors.

Some folks might not think that this is fair, but as the saying goes; some times life is not fair. Having the responsible of upholding the public’s trust, we cannot afford to make a serious behavior misstep.

The best chance for success to operate and manage a high-performance and highly trusted agency is to hire (or vote-in) the best people during the initial selection process. Train them well. Treat them well, with respect and hold them accountable.

To paraphrasing words of Gen. Powell: Always do the right thing, even when no one is watching — because someone is always watching.

Until next time, please be safe out there.

Comments - Add Yours


  1. This is great advice. The one tweak I would make is shifting the emphasis from “career crushers” to “most-trusted profession”. Focusing on the damage to oneself misses the far more important point that you touched on – weakening the department. How will a public embarrassment come into play the next time there is a fight about manning or layoffs? There seems to be way too much emphasis in the fire service on CYA. That’s not what my senior man taught me. He taught me to “do the right thing”, paying forward what was given to me by every brother who had struggled before me. There’s no room in this business for egos to put themselves before the team – there is too much at stake. Behaving badly in public puts all of us at risk.

  2. As someone with my share of “personal issues” right now, I agree. Professionalism is the key. However, I don’t agree that financial issues are, or should be, a career killer.

    I’ve never been good at managing my finances. I’m only now, at 40 just figuring out the “budget thing”. Never in my 25 years of being a firefighter did I EVER have the thought of “taking the money off the dresser” so to say.

    I am now starting counseling through EAP to take care of a huge number of other issues. All personal, none illegal, and none that should cause the end of a career I love. People have issues. I believe that most firefighters are truly good people yet we still have our troubles.

    Cameras are everywhere. We need to act our parts. But let’s not classify someone who needs help as someone who needs to go as soon as they’re videoed in public frowning. You never know what they’re dealing with.

    To you in administration, remember: swift help may be the better answer than swift justice.

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