Supervision and enforcement are the bedrock of leadership, accountability, justice, equality, and fairness. (Photos by Bill Tompkins.)
By Wilbur Harbin
In 2010, the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association (CVVFA), in collaboration with representatives from the United States Fire Administration, the International Fire Service Training Association, and the National Fire Academy, published a report on the negative impact unethical behavior (UB) has on the reputation of the fire service. The report, Fire Service Reputation Management White Paper, identified a national trend of UB in the fire service.1 The White Paper also identified “leadership failures” as the root cause of a large number of unethical incidents. The two leadership failures identified in the White Paper are lax supervision and the failure of officers to take action to stop or prevent UB (lax enforcement). (1) If leadership failures involving lax supervision and lax enforcement are the root cause of numerous unethical incidents, the real national trend in the fire service is lax supervision and enforcement.
Sacramento Metro (CA) Battalion Chief Anthony Kastros (2014) described leadership in the fire service as a “leadership pandemic” and stated, “Officers fail on a daily basis to stop bad behavior and inspire good behavior.”2 Lax supervision and lax enforcement are the result of the choices each officer makes when they report to work. If the leadership problem in the fire service was a lack of knowledge or skill, training would reduce or eliminate UB in the fire service. Training cannot fix an officer who chooses not to supervise or enforce the department’s expectations of employee performance and conduct. Supervision and enforcement are the bedrock of leadership, accountability, justice, equality, and fairness. Without supervision and enforcement, poor performance and conduct will continue to increase.
Lax Supervision Supports Poor Performance
In the fire service, performance expectations are consistent. Performance expectations include the following:
- Responding to emergency and nonemergency calls.
- Fire station maintenance.
- Apparatus and equipment maintenance.
- Hydrant maintenance.
- Training and tactical planning of structures (preincident planning).
- Fire prevention and community education programs.
- Treating supervisors, peers, and citizens fairly.
Performance expectations are written in policy and procedure manuals, administrative orders, and collective bargaining agreements. In addition to performance expectations that apply to all personnel, to become an officer requires taking a written and/or practical assessment of an individual’s knowledge and abilities. Some fire departments also require prospective or newly promoted officers to attend officer development training. With all the fire department requirements to become a competent firefighter and a competent officer, poor performance is not the result of a lack of knowledge or ability but a sign of lax supervision.
Officers are responsible for ensuring their personnel develop the right attitude and behavior to meet or exceed their department’s performance expectations and values. All high-ranking fire department leaders want their personnel to provide excellent service to the community they serve. The desire for excellence has allowed many well-funded fire departments to provide their personnel with competitive salary and benefits and the most advanced equipment in the fire service. If fire service personnel are going to spend 25 to 30 years risking their lives for others, they should be provided with the best equipment and training their department can afford. The question that immediately comes to mind is, is lax supervision the expected return on the fire department’s investment in its personnel?
Lax Enforcement Supports Poor Conduct
Fire department officers are the law enforcement officers, or the police, in the fire service. According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police (1957), law enforcement officers have a duty to:
- Safeguard lives and property.
- Protect the innocent against deception.
- Protect the weak against oppression or intimidation.
- Protect the peaceful against violence or disorder.3
In military and paramilitary organizations, the word “police” means to keep clean. Operating as the police officer of the fire service, fire department officers are responsible for the overall cleanliness of the fire station, apparatus and equipment, their personnel, and themselves. Enforcement is the primary responsibility of all fire department officers. Enforcement requires courage and fairness. Without the courage to stop UB and the ability to ensure all personnel are treated fairly, firefighters and officers should reconsider being an officer in the fire service.
If fire service officers are lax in their enforcement of the rules and core values of the fire service, why waste time creating rules or core values?
The fire service should be one of the fairest places to work in America. Officers are responsible for enforcing state and federal workplace laws, fire department policy and procedure, fire department values, and collective bargaining agreements. The clear mandate for all fire department officers is to keep the workplace free from all forms of harassment, discrimination, hostility, and UB. Unfortunately, UB still exists in the fire service. The severity and frequency of UB in the fire service is increasing. How can officers or firefighters be held accountable for their behavior when the officers who supervise them are lax in their enforcement of the fire department’s performance expectations and values? If fire service officers remain silent or fail to ensure the workplace is free from UB, innocent citizens and employees will suffer. John Stuart Mill said: “Let not anyone pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”4 Lax enforcement is fertile ground for the seeds of UB to sprout and flourish. Poor conduct is a sign of lax enforcement.
|The only way to correct unethical behavior in the fire service is for every officer in the chain of command to hold themselves and the personnel they supervise accountable for doing the job they volunteer or, in some cases, get paid to do.|
Lax supervision and lax enforcement are leadership failures that should not be tolerated in the fire service. The national trend of unethical behavior in the fire service is not going to be corrected by taking another class or receiving another certification. The only way to correct unethical behavior in the fire service is for every officer in the chain of command to hold themselves and the personnel they supervise accountable for doing the job they volunteer or, in some cases, get paid to do. Fire service personnel who commit unethical acts come closest to the abusive power of tyrants and dictators when they are not held accountable for their actions.
Leadership, accountability, justice, equality, fairness, and excellent service cannot exist in the presence of lax supervision and lax enforcement. Being an effective officer in the fire service is not easy. Holding fire service personnel accountable for their actions takes a tremendous amount of vigilance, courage, and effort. Lax supervision and lax enforcement are clear indications that fire service officers do not lack knowledge or skill; they lack the courage or desire to lead.
1. Cumberland Valley Volunteer Fireman’s Association, “Fire Service Reputation Management White Paper,” 2010.
2. Kastros, A, “The American Fire Service Leadership Pandemic,” 2014, Retrieved from http://www.fdic.com/articles/2014/09/the-american-fire-service-leadership-pandemic.html.
3. International Association of Chiefs of Police, “Law Enforcement Code of Ethics,” 1957, Retrieved from http://www.dictionary.com/browse/policehttp://www.theiacp.org/codeofethics.
4. Mill, J. S., Inaugural address at the University of St. Andrews, page 74, 1867, Retrieved from https://archive.org/stream/inauguraladdres00millgoog#page/n78/mode/2up/search/pacifypolice.
Wilbur Harbin is a 26-year veteran of the fire service and a battalion chief with Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue. He has an associate’s degree in emergency medical services, a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership, and a master’s degree in executive management.