A labor organization has two goals: safety and fair compensation. We want to make sure everyone goes home and our firefighters can raise their families.
A good fire chief shares these goals. I've worked with many good chiefs over the years, but I've also watched a lot of good chiefs get into trouble when handling fitness-for-duty issues, which range from emotional to physical issues. Some are cut and dried, like drug abuse, while others are much harder to manage, such as a firefighter who requires new turnout gear annually because they've gained 100 pounds in four years.
There are five major pitfalls that can get both fire chiefs and union presidents in trouble.
Address the problem, don't ignore it.
We ignore an issue because it's easy. Over 32 years as a firefighter and union leader, I've seen many who faced termination or disability and realized that we, the fire service, had done them wrong. Obvious issues ignored early in a career become problems so severe that it seems as though there's no going back.
To identify problems, first build your team of officers through training—how to both identify problems and address them. Problems include tardiness, tiredness, acting distant, weight loss/gain, a physical inability to do the job and more; these can be symptoms of much deeper problems. If an observed issue affects someone's ability to do the job, address it immediately, because that issue can affect every firefighter's safety.
When problems are behavioral, the company officer needs to first approach those firefighters to see how they're doing. Suggest some avenues to help them get better, such as a critical-incident stress-management program, your EAP, a visit to a doctor or the department chaplain or just spending time with a fire department mentor they trust.
If the behavior then continues, the officer needs to provide a documented verbal warning. After that, a written warning should be issued. Then it needs to move up to a higher office to be handled.
Set the outcome as "making the firefighter whole"; avoid a self-serving outcome.
After we identify a problem, we shouldn't try to resolve the problem by removing the firefighter from the department; instead, we should help the firefighter become 100%. It's a financial disservice to our taxpayers when we don't recognize our investment in a firefighter; the cost of replacing a firefighter is much higher. And even if it isn't more costly, we need to care for the firefighters on our team now.
Helping firefighters become whole means ensuring they can perform 100% of their duties without harming themselves or others. At the end of the day, we want our firefighters to go home to their children, and at the end of their careers, enjoy retirement with their grandchildren.
Involve doctors to create a recovery; don't play doctor yourself.
After we've identified a problem and have the right outcome in mind for the situation, we need to bring in experts to create a recovery plan. We're firefighters; these issues are not in our scope of expertise. No chief or local president should be handling medical or psychological issues.
The first consequence for playing doctor is that you'll get sued, and a judge won't care who you are in the fire department. The second consequence is that we may cause more harm to members by slowing down and possibly derailing their recovery.
To involve experts, you need physicians and psychologists who can diagnose the real issues and develop solid plans to return those individuals to full duty. You want to be sure these doctors understand what your firefighters do and what it means to be fit for duty. Once you bring them your concerns, let them create the recovery plan.
Set a realistic timeline; don't make it unreasonable.
If you've identified the problem, set the right outcome and involved a doctor to create a recovery plan, you need to set a realistic recovery timeline for your firefighter. It's a mistake to not set a recovery timeline or to set an impossible one.
You have to approach goals reasonably. If it's unreasonable, it's impossible.
Lean on the experts to set an appropriate timeline. The doctor will have a better idea of a realistic timeline for recovery. You can get some productivity from your firefighter by instituting a light-duty policy. The individual may not be able to safely perform essential job functions, but your department doctors may clear him or her for administrative work.
Make decisions with accountability, not in secret.
Even if you handle fitness-for-duty cases by following the first four steps, you may still get in trouble if you don't involve labor in this process. When it is someone's life you're dealing with, trust is not automatically assumed. By not involving a second pair of eyes that your members can trust, you're doing yourself a disservice—even if you did everything right.
You need to involve a representative from your labor organization as an advocate for the firefighter, or if you don't have a union, a trusted leader in the department such as a senior captain or pension secretary. The advocate is there to check your work and make sure you're thinking things through.
These are brother and sister firefighters' lives you're making decisions for. If you make mistakes, your advocates may catch them; if you do things right, they'll let others know. Either way, it's a win-win situation.
Working together, we can ensure that firefighters who protect our communities are healthy enough to ensure everyone's safety, including their own.