Ethical Disasters in the Fire Service: “Preventing the Predictable”
Ethical Disasters in the fire service are becoming a more common occurrence in our world. Or are they? The concept of breaking a code of ethics, failing to comply with a set of known standards, or breaking the law by a public official is nothing new but it is more readily scrutinized and used for inflammatory purposes by the media, the politicians, and other social agenda groups. The repeated response by the public and our leaders is “How could this happen?”
However, these ethical disasters by the fire service inflict damage upon the public trust, our ability to provide services, and potentially shrink or cut our future budgets. If we search the Internet we see numerous examples of ethical disasters that are primarily monetarily motivated such as the case of the attorney who threatened his clients with harsher sentences but then they received favorable treatment for signing over their property. (Skidmore, p.28)
We also see that there are numerous ethical disasters that are not primarily monetarily motivated and but as a consequence of our occupational stressors.
What can we do about this issue?
Identifying the problem is half of the battle towards producing a solution. We will discuss processes that help prevent such occurrences verses policies that simply state what is right and wrong organizationally.
As public servants, we are seeing a continual trend of veteran firefighters (with ten years of service or more) who are losing their jobs due to drug and alcohol abuse. I interviewed Mark Lamplugh from American Addiction Services who specializes in treating first responders. He stated that the majority of the clients they see are first responders who have been on the job for 10 or more years. One would reason that a public servant with this amount of tenure would be well educated in the rules and regulations of the organization and the consequences of their unethical behavior. I have personally witnessed the loss of several employees to drug and alcohol abuse and the collateral damage caused by their actions. These individuals have often been veteran firefighters who were well educated on the rules and regulations and the consequences of such actions. And sadly, the fire services response to prevent such incidents has not changed overall.
We must pose the question then why do senior firefighters fail to make the right decisions in these circumstances. It has been said, states there are two modes of ethical norms: classical and modern (Skidmore, p.28). It is my belief that the dilemma a firefighter faces in making an ethical decision is driven more by their particular circumstance than their virtues. Their virtues tell them that the decision to illegally use prescription drugs, abuse alcohol, is wrong but their modern mode of ethics justifies their behavior. “They were once prescribed the medication by a doctor so in their mind they believe they are justified” (Mark Lamplugh).
In government, the lack of rules or regulations defining right and wrong isn’t the problem; it’s often the application of those proper ethical behaviors.
In the United States the fire service has produced a national code of firefighter ethics (http://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/code_of_ethics.pdf), in municipal departments we have mission statements and codes of conduct, and in volunteer departments they have oaths or firefighter pledges that define the organizations ethical parameters. With all of these predefined ethical fences, why then are firefighters and first responders continuing to breech these codes of ethics?
Perhaps the problem is much deeper and wider than a set of codes or fanciful jargon that is developed to describe the same problem yet prescribe no solution.
Describing ethics as bureaucratic ethos or democratic ethos is important but what is missing is the consistent application of these values and endorsement of them. The fire service has the appearance of high ethical standards but what are we doing to reinforce those standards other than “rule-driven” moral guidelines? (Skidmore, p. 28)
The fire service has organizational measures designed to protect itself but few departments train their employees on how to recognize if an employee is an ethical disasters waiting to happen. Sadly, even fewer fire departments have “Last Chance Agreements” which are designed to rehabilitate employees who self-report their drug or alcohol abuse problem.
The Phoenix Fire Department offers such a policy for its employees who are found to test positive for drugs and alcohol. Their guidelines are strict but offer the employee to return to work after successfully completing treatment.
Chief Mark Revere, a Harvard fellow sums it up well in the following quote:
“We should never “leave behind” an alcoholic member, even as they resist our best efforts to help. Our aggressive support of members with this disease should be a given. However, my goal here is to protect our younger firefighters, to ensure that they never have to hit bottom—losing family and friends, a career and their health—before they can get a handle on this disease. Alcoholism is an illness, and like all illnesses, early detection and courageous intervention are the cure.”
Ethical disasters of these types can be compared of recurring symptoms of an untreated disease. Our current diagnosis and prescription for these ethical quandaries isn’t working. A new code or rule that isn’t followed, endorsed, or applied will not cure the illness of unethical choices. The fire service ethical system is primarily a punitive or reaction based process. The code or policy states if firefighter does X action, he or she will receive Y disciplinary action. Discipline without prevention and correction is nothing more than punishment which will allow the problems to continue.
“The mode of moral philosophy that has since prevailed. That mode reflects the scientific spirit and embraces a search for laws to govern conduct” (Skidmore, p.28). In all of human history, laws have served as a means to govern conduct but they haven’t’ prevented them from being broken. They are inherently necessary but their existence is only part of the solution.
For example, in the fire service:
9 out of 12 firefighters may suffer a divorce.
As much as 37% of the fire service suffers from PTSD.
As much as 30% of firefighters suffer from alcohol and drug abuse.
As much as 30% of firefighters suffer from depression.
This information should not only enlighten us but if we want to prevent the predictable ethical breeches of public servants that are resulting from occupational stress then we must act.
Consider the case of Kyle Lenn, a 23 year member of the fire service, and considered one of the most progressive fire chiefs of his time. He was actively involved in the Everyone Goes Home program, active in the Nebraska Fire Chief’s Association, and more. On the morning of January 31rst 2012 his body was found hanging from a bridge from an apparent suicide. His death shocked the fire service community and numerous other deaths like Lenn’s have brought attention to behavioral health problems in the fire service.
Identifying a solution: A Lack of Training:
“If it’s predictable then it’s preventable” (Gordon Graham). Robert Golembiewski’s work argued “that ethical standards should reflect some degree of core values of society” (Skidmore, p.31). But the predictable outcome of first responders being exposed to occupational stress and the recurring choice to use alcohol or drugs to cope does not compute with common core values. Any organization that believes that someone suffering from addiction will make ‘ethical choices’ because a standard exists is not only foolish but naïve. The fire service needs more training and education on not merely how to discipline these employees but how to recognize the signs, rehabilitate them, and allow them to return to work.
Firefighters are exposed to constant occupational stress. The statistics overwhelmingly point out that firefighters are suffering from alcoholism and drug abuse at a higher rate than most professions. If we as leaders ignore the problem and then when an employee makes an unethical decision resulting in the loss of their career and damaging public trust shouldn’t we be held accountable for their decision? If a fire service leader ignores signs and symptoms of a pending ethical breech are they not negligent?
Ken Holland of the NFPA “says behavioral health remains a difficult topic for emergency responders for a variety of reasons. “The thinking is, ‘we’re called on to help everyone else—we aren’t the ones who should need the help,’” says Holland, who’s been a first responder for 22 years. “No one wants to admit that they have a concern or an issue. But the cumulative effect of what we see in the fire service day to day, without having a way to offload some of that stuff, is obviously becoming a larger issue.” (http://www.nfpa.org/newsandpublications/nfpa-journal/2014/may-june-2014/features/special-report-firefighter-behavioral-health)
The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Fire Life Safety Initiative #13 states “Firefighters and their families must have access to counseling and psychological support. In most departments this is limited to an Employee Assistance Program with no prior training of leadership to identify impending ethical dilemmas. Firefighters receive countless hours of training to stay proficient in the services that they provide. How many hours are required in the following areas?
Identifying the signs of an Emotional MAY-DAY: (suicide, family issues, depression, PTSD, anxiety)
Identifying the signs of alcohol and drug abuse.
Counseling and Rehabilitating Firefighters who suffer from the problems mentioned above.
The fire service invests time and countless dollars developing an employee into a trusted asset of the department. If a firefighter commits an ethical breech and is immediately fired; does this prevent the next occurrence? No, the threat based system of zero tolerance needs to be revised to a “Last Chance Agreement” whereas the employee is given one chance to rehabilitate and become a productive member of the department once again.
Numerous organizations are conducting training and solid work in these areas to help fire departments “prevent the predictable”. I strongly believe that the problem with most articles and publications is that they are merely information without application, therefore let us consider several organizations that are currently working to reduce the damages of ethical breeches and more importantly save firefighters lives.
Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance: Jeff Dill started tracking first responder suicides in 2010. Firefighter Behavioral Health has gained attention by the NFFF in life safety initiative #13 and by the NFPA in a special report where they mention Jeff’s work. He has complied a database and conducts training on suicide prevention, implementation of suicide prevention programs, and is offering free training funded by the AFG grant. He is also paying it forward by training FFBH Ambassadors to share the message. Please check out his organization at: http://www.ffbha.org/
The Share the Load Program: Through a collaborative effort from Mark Lamplugh of American Addiction Services and the National Volunteer Firefighters Council the Share the Load Program was introduced. This is a 24/7 365 days a year service that is available free to first responders who are suffering from addiction, PTSD, suicidal thoughts, and or depression. The phone number routes them to a trained counselor who is a former or current firefighter/first responder.
These are but a few of the great organizations that are actively involved in saving those who save others. The collateral damage from ethical breeches by firefighters is a symptom and can be prevented if we as leaders refuse to ignore their silent cries for help. Organizations who espouse ethical codes of conduct but fail to train and educate their members on how to take care of one another before, during, and after crisis are setting themselves up for failure.
It is my passion to see such incidents reduced and have created my own personal foundation called Bringing Back Brotherhood Ministries (www.bringingbackbrothehood.org) that provides the critically needed resources for first responders. It is my hope that the fire service will respond quickly to the 911 calls coming from within their own organization and put policy into action.
The National Fallen Firefighters foundation through the Everyone Goes Home program offers free training to help prevent these incidents and help firefighters in need. This is the result of the Fire Life Safety Initiative 13 (FLSI #13) and is available on their website.
In conclusion, ethical disasters are predictable therefore preventable. This article defines the problem, provides solutions, and hopefully has instilled a new found understanding of the importance of this issue.
Instructor Andy J. Starnes
Gist, Taylor, & Raak, (2011) Depression and Suicide White Paper. NFFF Everyone Goes Home Project-Behavioral Health Initiative (FLSI 13). Retrieved from: http://lifesafetyinitiatives.com/13/suicide_whitepaper.pdf
Messina, Marina. (2014). Firefighters and Alcohol-Who will Rescue the Heroes? Retrieved from: http://blog.americanaddictioncenters.org/firefighters-alcohol-will-rescue-heroes/?mm_campaign=9FAE9832F3A64C3EF3B80EBD8AE7F884&mm_replace=true&utm_source=1stResponders&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=1stRespondersTwitter
Revere, Mark. (2013) Addressing Alcoholism in the Fire Service. Firefighter Nation. Retrieved from: http://www.firefighternation.com/article/management-and-leadership/addressing-alcoholism-fire-service
Wilmoth, Janet. (2014) Trouble in Mind. NFPA Journal. Retrieved from: http://www.nfpa.org/newsandpublications/nfpa-journal/2014/may-june-2014/features/special-report-firefighter-behavioral-health