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Executive Fire Officers: Leading with Integrity—An Ethical Approach

Throughout history, the fire service has always depended on it members' sense of duty and civic responsibility. This unwavering commitment to protect and serve is a reflection of the selfless dedication and persistent courage of each and every individual it is privileged to call its own. To ensure the continuing integrity of the fire service and their leaders, the highest standards of ethical conduct must be maintained at all times.

The term ethics means the study of moral standards and how they affect conduct. The Greek root for ethics is ethos, which emphasizes the perfection of the individual and their character. Character is better defined as the traits, qualities and established reputation that define who one is and what one stands for in the eyes of others.

Ethics begins with the individual. While simplistic in nature, this is also the starting point for the complications and travesties related to ethics in public service—the fact that it all begins with an individual. An agency or organization can't have ethics; it's the employees who have ethics. It's the administrators who make ethical decisions.

The advantage is that most people want to be ethical, most organizations want to act ethically and most employees and organizations want to be treated ethically. The disadvantage is that many individuals and organizations simply aren't proficient at applying shared values to the process of decision-making.

Individuals become leaders as a result of various possibilities. Some possess qualities that lend themselves to being an effective leader. Some acquire leadership positions through force, wealth, social or political connections. Others become leaders as a result of circumstances or timing.

Regardless of why individuals find themselves in a leadership role, they can't be a leader without having willing followers.

Fire service leaders must consider a multiplicity of issues and concerns in making consistent ethical decisions and in developing a code of ethical behavior for their organizations. A leader's role is to set clear and uniform examples of ethical behavior and to articulate specific expectations and goals so ethical behavior becomes integral to the organization.

Leadership isn't simply a day-to-day administrative task, as some folks think. Leaders—especially fire service leaders—must be aware and have a pulse on their people. From an organizational leadership standpoint, mistakes must be owned and acknowledged.

Perfection is an impossibility and mistakes will happen. What's important is that mistakes not be repeated and that they are learned from. Failure to learn from them and repeating them demonstrate incompetence.

At each step of the way, fire service leaders must continue to question whether decisions made are consistent with the organization's identified values as well as in line with the individual's ethical beliefs.

To help your department's leaders make ethical decision and do the right thing for the organizations, develop a code of ethics. A typical code of ethics contains general, nonspecific expectations and target guidelines that attempt to reduce vagueness and thus lessen the burden of ethical decision-making in the gray areas.

A code of ethics serves two primary purposes.

  • It provides moral guidelines and professional standards of conduct. It holds people accountable for proper performance and devotion to honesty and obligation.
  • It defines professional behavior to promote a sense of pride, tolerance and responsibility. A code typically serves as the foundation for disciplinary action relating to ethical violations.

If you search the internet or visit a library, you'll notice ethics with regards to firefighting is a sadly underexplored and undocumented field. Some believe that ethics associated with firefighting is comparable to medical ethics and so doesn't require unique identification or attention. However, firefighters face much greater risks than most medical personnel face and they must make decisions and operate in conditions that are much more hazardous and sometimes more stressful.

For those leaders who have already developed a code of ethics for their organizations, I congratulate you for realizing that ethics are important in the fire service and that we're truly a profession.

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