‘New kids’ and bad decisions: Are new firefighters encouraged to speak up?

The firing of a Delray Beach firefighter for failing to check a patient’s vitals prompts important questions about ownership and empowerment

I recently met up with an old friend who retired as a chief officer after over 40 years in the fire service. The conversation eventually turned to reflecting on our early days on the job.

“They treated us like idiots when we first came on,” he said. “Most of us had college degrees, professional experience. Some of us had years already as firefighters. But they called us ‘stupid college kids’ and second-guessed everything we did.”

As a result of his experience, the officer had spent his career as a fire service leader trying to reverse this treatment of new people on the job.

The firefighter said in appealing his firing: “I’m just hoping to get a second chance. I’m a young employee. It was my first mistake.”
The firefighter said in appealing his firing: “I’m just hoping to get a second chance. I’m a young employee. It was my first mistake.” (Photo/Delray Beach Fire Rescue)

We both agreed that things had changed for the better over the years. But a recent news story has made me wonder if things have completely changed in this area.

Looking for a second chance

A firefighter with five years on the job was responsible for checking the status of an apparently unresponsive patient. The patient was an 83-year-old man whom the firefighters knew from previous welfare check calls to the residence. The police officer on the scene told the firefighter, who brought in a heart monitor, “You’re not going to need that.”

In fact, the firefighter ultimately did no examination of the patient before declaring him dead. But when two body-removal agents from the funeral home arrived over an hour later to transport the body, they discovered that the man was still breathing and responsive to touch. The man subsequently died several weeks later.

The firefighter was terminated as a result of this incident, but in appealing his firing, said, “I’m just hoping to get a second chance. I’m a young employee. It was my first mistake.”

There is a lot to unpack here, and I don’t have access to the investigative reports from this incident. There is apparently evidence that he lied about his actions on the call, and that this contributed to the disciplinary action. But I do have to ask:

  • Did he seriously consider himself a “young employee” with five years on the job?
  • And did he genuinely see his failure to assess the patient, or even touch him, as a mistake when it was clearly a bad decision?          

Several people commented on this story when it was published:

Five years as a medic is not a new guy,” said one, who also added, “What about the captain? How can the captain let a guy go into a building to do a pronouncement alone?”       

The disempowerment problem

When I first came on the job, I was told to “get on the rig when the tone goes off, do what you’re told, and otherwise keep your mouth shut.” Not all officers treated new firefighters this way, but you knew the ones that did, and you knew to follow that direction explicitly. For some officers, this attitude toward new people lasted far beyond the probationary year on the job. For some, you were always the new kid.

One day I was working with an officer who took this approach, and I had learned from past bad experience to never do anything outside of what he specifically ordered me to do. He was rewiring some lights on the engine, and I was doing what he expected – standing by silently waiting for him to give me an order.

As I watched him do the work, I noticed that he had cross-wired one connection. But I didn’t say a word. Partly this was because I did not want to endure the reaction from him that I knew would follow. But I also stayed silent because my experience working with this person had made me doubt my own abilities and judgment.

After an hour’s work when the lights still didn’t function, he was baffled, and went back to check the repair. At that point, he realized his mistake. He said to me then, “Did you notice this?” I just shrugged. I was not deliberately trying to undermine him. On the contrary, I felt inaction was my only option.

In retrospect, I should have been braver that day. And I want to believe that if the circumstances had been more serious, I would have been. People are responsible for their own actions, and in the fire service, those actions or inactions can have grave consequences. But as the one commenter pointed out, everyone involved has some responsibility for outcomes. If organizational culture disempowers newer firefighters, if officers are allowed to intimidate and silence others on the job, there will be bad results. When this happens, everyone needs to look in the mirror and honestly assess what role they played.

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