How to avoid the most common fire and EMS legal issues

Sarah Calams, Associate Editor

Bullying, harassment and discrimination claims have landed many firefighters and departments in hot water.

In Fairfax, Va., allegations of bullying and harassment surfaced after firefighter-paramedic Nicole Mittendorff died by suicide in April 2016. Recent discrimination lawsuits vary from racial slurs used against an ousted fire chief; claims of gender bias in recruitment policies; and religious lawsuits, such as a fire chief's firefighter son refusing to cut his hair.

In his presentation at the International Association of Fire Chief's Fire-Rescue International conference in July, attorney John Murphy will discuss fire and EMS legal issues. His seminar, "Fire and EMS legal issues – what's important to you and the fire service," will be held July 26; the early registration discount is available until July 7.

Murphy, who began his fire service career as a firefighter-paramedic, retired as a deputy fire chief after 32 years of service. As an attorney, he focuses on firefighter health and safety, firefighter risk management, employment practices liability, employment policy, internal investigations and more.

Murphy will focus his presentation on the current high-impact legal issues affecting fire and EMS departments using current legal standards, case law and mistakes made by departments placing them into legal harm's way.

The most noticeable high-impact and high-risk issues affecting the fire service today, Murphy says, are discrimination and personnel issues.

Looking at the statistics

The statistics are not hard data, but you can look at the litigation that goes around the country dealing with firefighters and their legal issues.

"It's mainly firefighters suing other firefighters or departments for lack of comprehensive response to a claim of discrimination and/or retaliation for reporting," Murphy said.

And because the fire service is a predominantly male-dominated organization, Murphy says the fire service needs to do a better job of integrating women, as well as people of color.

"The predominant force is the white male firefighter," he said. "The departments that may bring on a woman, African-American or Asian firefighter, that are looking to broaden their community-base, don't do a good job in preparing the department for change."

Departments, Murphy said, are also poorly prepared in providing either diversity classes or how to include individuals in an organization.

"They also do a poor job in creating a communication link between all the firefighters and administrative staff," he said.

Another area for departments to focus on is ensuring adequate policies are in place to manage complaints made by firefighters.

"If you file a complaint for harassment, bullying or egregious workplace conduct, there's either no policy in place to deal with it or, if they have a policy in place, departments choose to ignore the complaints because that's the way they've done it for years," Murphy said.

The "old guard" mentality, Murphy says, can result in a department's downfall.

"The new people take things differently than what the 'old guards' are used to," he said. "We have to change our way of thinking to the new people."

Moreover, failing to respond to complaints is another mistake departments are making to put them in legal harm's way.

Rising to the chief level

When Murphy is providing guidance to a department, he tells fire chiefs to always pay attention to what's occurring at their organization.

"There's a lot going on and sometimes chiefs are asleep at the switch. I was a chief once and I understand – you have a busy life professionally and personally," Murphy said. "The question is – do all problems in the department rise to the level of the chief? And obviously, the answer is no."

However, training your staff to recognize bad behavior and how to deal with it at the lowest level of the organization, Murphy says, will help tremendously.

"If remediation, corrective behavior or discipline – if that's what it takes – doesn't correct the behavior, then that is when the fire chief needs to get involved."

Bullying, harassment, hazing and discriminatory behavior, Murphy says, are all problematic in an organization.

"The proactivity of a department should include communications, diversity and inclusive training. There should also be some training dealing with policy – what your policies are, how you manage your policies and the expectations of firefighters adhering to the policies."

For firefighters who have filed grievances based on discrimination, harassment or bullying, Murphy says they don't file due to fear of retaliation or termination.

"They get ostracized out of the organization and then they don't think what's going on against them rises to the level of a complaint – so they don't file. We need to level the playing field and allow people to express their distaste against bad behavior."

And the ability to recognize bad behavior and the capability to report it all goes back to proper training.

Train everyone to a standard

What a 20-plus year fire service veteran may have gone through as a probationary firefighter might not be the same thing today's rookie firefighters are facing and dealing with.

"Sometimes departments filter behavior through their own lenses," Murphy said.

Training members of a department to a particular standard, Murphy says, is key to eliminating conduct that is unbecoming or unacceptable.

"If there are rumblings of bad behavior, I think the department at the leadership level needs to be attuned to the pulse of the organization and figure out what's happening in order to prevent them from future litigation. They also need to make the workplace a safe place for firefighters to be."

The educational process, Murphy says, is also important.

"Educating people and supporting the department and firefighters with a different perspective helps the industry at all different levels."

The "old guard" firefighters, who are retiring in droves, are also increasingly being replaced by upcoming millennial firefighters.

"Millennials are the most racially diverse group coming up," Murphy said. "I think the generation change is going to make a tremendous difference in what we're going to be seeing in the next 15 to 20 years in the fire service."

And when the millennial generation does finally replace the "old guard" firefighters, that's when, according to Murphy, there's going to be a dynamic shift in how attorneys conduct themselves on the litigation and legal side of the fire service.

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