Does it seem lately like every time you pick up a newspaper, watch the evening news or read the Daily Dispatch for that matter, there’s a story that paints a negative image of a particular firefighter, fire department, or the fire service in general?
Unfortunately, it happens all too often, and often it’s not just those directly involved who are negatively affected. Sometimes these stories are unjustified, and sometimes we are our own worst enemy.
As chiefs and company officers, it’s our responsibility to enhance and protect not just our personal reputations, but also the reputation of our department and all its members. Much of how we are perceived by the public, other members of the public-service community and the elected government officials we work for is based on our collective reputations and on how what we do—both on and off duty—is viewed by the media and those around us. Something as simple as a crew having a loud, raucous conversation in a restaurant can lead to the perception that the crew isn’t businesslike or respectful or they may be viewed as arrogant and obtrusive.
So what happens when that crew is seated next to a news reporter who is researching a story on how your community invests its tax dollars? Or a governmental official who is weighing the difficult decision of what departments should have layoffs due to the current state of the economy?
No matter the scenario, it’s up to every member of our departments to manage their collective reputations.
So what can we do? Well, it all starts with personal accountability and setting expectations of behavior for our department members.
First, we must put policies in place that address on- and off-duty behavior. Allowing members to wear their department t-shirts while off duty may be acceptable, but there needs to be a clear expectation of how a member behaves when wearing the department logo and a defined set of consequences when those expectations are ignored. These policies must address uniform use, conduct in public, social media use (and yes, this includes the members personal social-media conduct), criminal activity including driving while intoxicated or domestic violence and a myriad of other items that can negatively affect our departments’ reputations.
Next, we must lead by example. It does our department and us no good if as leaders we don’t follow the rules we put in place for everyone else.
There was a news story recently involving a fire apparatus being used as the backdrop for a pornographic movie shoot. As a result, people were disciplined—as they should have been—but in a true show of leadership, the chief of the department sentenced himself to a number of unpaid community service hours for an incident involving a bikini-clad female being photographed with the chief a number of years earlier and long before he was the chief. This action told the entire department that the chief was serious about enforcing the rules and was willing to live by them himself. Outstanding!
We must also ensure that we discontinue any practice that makes it appear we’re rewarding bad behavior. Many departments place members on paid administrative leave once they’re accused of misbehavior. This can send the message that all you need to do is get into some trouble and you get a few days—at least—of paid vacation while the department investigates the event.
Another department—again in an outstanding display of leadership and accountability—reassigns employees arrested for DWI to the Animal Welfare Department for the course of the investigation, where they clean kennels and perform other menial tasks that don’t include operating motor vehicles or interacting with the public.
In any case, all members need to be held accountable for their actions, from the chief to the probationary firefighter. Any discipline handed out must be commensurate with the severity of the infraction and must be administered fairly and consistently.
Finally, we must be open and honest with the media, government officials and members of our communities. We should make every effort to get in front of the camera when something happens, good or bad, and give an honest report of what happened, why and what we plan to do about it. The days of “No comment” or “It’s a personnel matter so I can’t discuss it” are gone.
The people paying our salaries and defining our budgets expect more, and they’re entitled to more.
Mike Jaffa is chair of the IAFC Company Officer Task Force and a captain in the Santa Fe County (N.M.) Fire Department.