The Need for Fire Service Ethics
Anyone who follows social media and has been in the fire service can readily identify that there has been an increase in ‘bad firefighter’ behavior. News headlines vary from firefighters being disciplined for sexual exploits in the fire house, to firefighters who are serving prison time for paying other firefighters to work for them, and firefighters being disciplined for inappropriate behavior or remarks on social media.
The fire service is a respected position of public trust and is still considered by most a noble calling. Why do we see an increase in ‘unethical’ behaviors by firefighters in today’s headlines? It is my belief that the fire service has its attention and focus so divided from hiring a diverse and well trained workforce, to constantly adding new services to our job description, that it has forgot to focus on the very foundational principles of the fire service.
These principles can be found in a Code of Ethics. Firefighters need to be taught early on and reminded constantly about the value of maintaining the public’s trust through a life of ethical behavior.
After searching many department’s policies and procedures I noticed that code of ethics aren’t often easy to find. They are not often listed next to the mission statements of the organization. This should be a red flag to us all that in many cases a code of ethics or policy has been more of a knee jerk reaction to bad behaviors.
As a firefighter, we are continuing to see a trend of numerous firefighters fall victim to poor behaviors and choices. These actions often result in disastrous consequences for them personally and professionally.
For myself, I have lost friends to: suicide, a stress induced heart attack, and another who lost his job due to alcohol abuse. Each one of these friends left a mark upon me personally as they played a major part in influencing my life. What saddens me even more is that I had no idea that they were capable of such behaviors.
With the constant exposure of occupational stress, financial struggles, and sleep deprivation it is no surprise that a firefighter’s attitude eventually suffers. Then we add the demands of our family schedules, the usual problems of life, and we suddenly have become disheartened. We feel unappreciated and are tired of the false brotherhood that many firefighters and our leaders portray.
However, a lifetime of serving others should not leave us broken, destitute, alone, and bitter? A department that tells its troops to live a life above reproach but does very little to reinforce or model the appropriate behaviors will leave a trail of shattered lives and a loss of public trust in its wake.
So where do we go from here? How do we refresh or renew our spirits when they become weary? How does a Fire Department that has previously failed to exemplify the appropriate behaviors to its troops start anew?
Redefining the Foundation:
The foundation of a house is the most important part. Without a proper foundation the house will collapse. Our future, our family’s future, and the future of the fire service are dependent on building upon a solid foundation.
Let us ask ourselves the following questions:
What foundation is currently being laid for the future houses of fire service leadership?
Or are they building without a foundation at all?
What principles, morals, and values do they hold fast to?
“But the one, who has heard and not acted accordingly, is like a man who built a house on the ground without any foundation; and the torrent burst against it and immediately it collapsed, and the ruin of the house was great.” (Luke 6:49).
The Fire Service must define for its members the proper behaviors, virtues, and values in a code of ethics. This code of ethics is no mere piece of paper; it is the foundation upon which all behaviors and actions of the firefighters should be based upon. The leadership of the organization should be held to the strictest standard and if they fail to live out these ethics they should be disciplined accordingly.
If the members of the organization see improper behaviors and violations by its leadership and they go unpunished the department has therefore destroyed its credibility.
Why is this important?
An intelligent leader who doesn’t have a solid moral foundation will ultimately fail the organization, their family, and those around them personally and or professionally. They will be found manning the life boats alone while the entire organization goes down with the ship.
Anyone can learn to be competent in their profession but to be exemplary is to be the one standing up for truth, caring for others, and leading by example (at home and at work).
In this moral battle, integrity is a word that is often misused. Integrity truly means to hold fast to our beliefs and values no matter the circumstance, the consequence, or the audience. In other words, we consistently apply our beliefs and values day in and day out no matter what. This requires a greater courage than facing down the flames of the greatest inferno. Our very lives, actions, and behaviors should speak volumes about our beliefs long before we ever speak a word.
For myself, my dedication to God, my family, and to my calling as a firefighter should all be a part of this visible ‘witness’ to the world. If not then I am setting a hypocritical example thereby leading others astray.
In a profession that prides itself in team work, sacrifice, service before self, camaraderie, integrity, courage, and honor we should be about the business of maintaining these foundations.
Where is it that the traditional fire service values originated from?
Where they from man?
Where they from a government?
Have we forgotten to focus on them at all?
As the fire service is embracing the diverse culture around is and changing daily, one who would implement a specific set of religious values as a ‘code of ethics’ would not only be unacceptable but could lead to career suicide. Thus the following fire service code of ethics is based upon these principles without quoting or endorsing a specific faith or religion:
The Fire Service Code of Ethics:
I_______________ pledge to serve the citizens and the department in a manner that exceeds the public’s expectations of the title of firefighter. I understand that a firefighter is never off duty and that the position I hold is one of great privilege, responsibility, and trust. I do not take this responsibility for granted and will strive to maintain and protect this trust with the utmost regard. I will honor this pledge by living a life above reproach:
•My words and actions are no longer without oversight. I am a servant to my fellow man and understand that anything that diminishes or damages that trust will be cause for discipline and or termination.
•My choices should be based on the organizations guiding principles and I pledge not to misrepresent the organization in areas of social media, outside employment, or areas of public scrutiny.
•The customers (internally/externally) that we serve shall always be treated with respect, professionalism, kindness, and most of all with compassion
•Any behavior or action that is criminal, unethical, or a conflict of interest I will stop or report as to protect those that we serve from such damaging incidents.
•I will surround myself with fellow members who will serve as accountability partners so we may be ‘our brother’s keeper’ to prevent any such behaviors or actions from rising to a level that would harm the citizens, the department, and ourselves.
The example listed above is not the absolute answer but it is a must have for all departments. Each department shall have a code of ethics, work to model and reward ethical behaviors, and implement the training at all levels of ethical issues that they will face over the course of their career. By doing so, the department is not merely writing a statement that is hidden away in a policy manual; it is lived out, trained on, and rewards those who exemplify the organizations code of ethics.
In the case of those who choose to violate the departments code of ethics their actions should be dealt with swiftly, openly, and the department shall conduct an after action report of each incident on how to prevent such behaviors in the future. These reports will be used to develop programs to prevent improper behaviors, teach others proper coping skills, and to train the members what can happen to them if these ethics are not followed.
Instructor Andy Starnes