How fire chiefs get in trouble: The top reasons chiefs lose the top spot

From substance abuse and harassment to improper hiring and promotion practices, there are several ways chiefs can self-destruct


Chief Ludwig will present on “How fire chiefs get in trouble” on July 28 at Fire-Rescue International. Learn more and register here.

I have my Google search set up to send me a daily email compiling all the links to news story from the last 24 hours that contains the term “fire chief.” The email typically contains between 25-35 links. I scan the headline and determine which to click.

Many stories focus on someone being named fire chief, a fire incident where the fire chief is quoted, or some other interesting community event involving the chief.

But almost every day, at least one of the stories is about a fire chief who is in trouble or a fire department that is in turmoil. Today, the email contains a headline about a fire department responding to allegations of sexism, racism and favoritism in the department.

Fire chiefs can easily find themselves in hot water if they fail to follow simple guidelines related to personnel, finances and other management issues.
Fire chiefs can easily find themselves in hot water if they fail to follow simple guidelines related to personnel, finances and other management issues. (Photo/Getty Images)

As I have watched these headlines arrive in my inbox every day for many years now, I have come to learn the most common reasons fire chiefs get in trouble. Let’s review them here so you can consider your own behavior – and how to stay out of trouble.

Substance abuse

A fire chief who uses alcohol excessively, abuses prescription drugs or uses illegal drugs will eventually be caught. Usually, the substance abuse begins to impact the job. Some fire chiefs are even caught driving their staff vehicle while intoxicated. Others are arrested in their personal vehicle was driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

If you are a fire chief who is abusing alcohol or drugs, please get help before it is too late.

[Read more: Firefighters and alcohol: What the data says]

Sex-related situations

Sex is a common theme that pops up in news stories, and can involve a variety of troublesome issues: making unwanted sexual comments to someone else, telling sex-focused jokes to members within your department, or soliciting sex from employee or illegally from a prostitute.

From the stories I have seen, many fire chiefs have found themselves in hot water for inappropriate behavior on the job site. Some have been caught having an affair with someone in the department – a situation that can also lead to divorce, with the spouse being awarded half of the pension.

And in still other sex-related cases, a fire chief may find themselves on the receiving end of an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint dealing with perceived unfair treatment of a member of the opposite sex.

Personnel problems

Fire chiefs can find themselves in trouble if they do not handle personnel issues properly. Such issues are mainly based on discrimination claims, including age, race and gender. It can also involve failing to supervise or manage firefighters during inter-departmental conflict, or failing to adhere to their department’s policies on discrimination, harassment, hazing or bullying.

Fire chiefs can get themselves in trouble when they do not follow federal or state laws. It is vital that you respect and follow the laws, including the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for time off, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) related to veterans, Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) related to wage issues, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, and other laws applicable to personnel issues.

Many of these personnel issues come down to leadership, ethics and character. In some cases, the fire chief avoids conflict and does not deal with the issue. In those cases, the other person often has no choice but to file the lawsuit or complaint.

[Watch next: On-demand webinar: Unaware, unwilling or unable? Identify and manage 3 types of underperforming employees]

Hiring and promotion problems

Another trap waiting to snare a fire chief is improper hiring practices. There have been plenty of lawsuits for illegal hiring practices or discrimination in the fire service. Every step of the process – application, written examination, candidate physical ability test (CPAT), oral boards, the offer of employment, and medical and psychological testing – must be handled properly or that fire chief can find themselves in hot water.

One story I found interesting some years ago was a fire chief who did his hiring based on whether you liked baseball. It seems the fire chief was quite the avid baseball fan and even managed a local team. If you liked baseball, you were hired without doing any testing. This situation could easily result in countless lawsuits from prospective members who were not hired or who were hired but had to go through the testing process.

Similarly, not properly handling promotions can get fire chiefs in trouble. From the announcement of the position, identifying studying materials, written testing, assessment centers, oral interviews, scoring and list developments, there are landmines that can explode at any point. For example, I have seen fire chiefs get themselves into hot water when they insert themselves into the process or even show up at the testing site.

As the fire chief, I remove myself completely from the testing process and allow a third-party company, whose test has been validated, to administer the exam process. This way, I avoid any allegations of favoritism or interference. Once the list is generated, I promote straight down the list, with the exception if someone is under suspension or investigation for a serious and egregious infraction.  

Money trouble

I am always amazed when I see headline regarding a fire chief who improperly used a credit card, embezzled money, or stole from the department in some fashion. I’ve seen stories about fire chiefs who filled their swimming pool from a public hydrant using fire department hose, used their credit card to purchase cigars, and violated purchasing policies while on a conference trip.

When it comes to finances, there’s usually some type of record that can be easily checked. Think about it: Using a credit card for illegal purchases is near insanity, as the records can be easily checked.

Remember, the money is not yours. Improper use of department money means you’re stealing from the community you swore an oath to protect.  

Domestic abuse

Unfortunately, I have seen multiple stories about fire chiefs being arrested for domestic violence or assaulting their spouse. It does not matter if it happened off the job site, in the privacy of your home. If your spouse calls the police and you get arrested, it will make the newspaper. As a fire service leader, the public holds you to a higher standard – and the media will single out public safety wrongdoing.

Codes and policies

There is a reason why the NFPA committees put a lot of time and energy into developing standards – because they’re important! Many of the NFPA standards focus on training and safety. Following the standards will not only reduce the likelihood of your firefighters suffering injuries (or worse) but will also keep you out of legal hot water.

Similar to NFPA standards is an area that overlaps with several of the areas already discussed: violations of ethics or the code of conduct.

During the summer of 2020, amid the civil unrest and peaceful protests that occurred after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, I identified 16 fire chiefs who wrote disparaging things on Facebook or Twitter about the protestors or those engaged in civil disobedience. Many of these fire chiefs were terminated as a result of their actions, as they violated their department’s ethics, code of conduct, or values of the organization.

Make good choices

So many of the incidents where a fire chief gets in trouble could have been avoided if they had simply consulted their attorney or human resource department before making a decision. In other cases, the fire chief knew the difference between right and wrong and chose to make the wrong choice.


Watch next: Chief Billy Goldfeder weighs in on how fire service leaders can win back community trust after a financial scanal. 

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