But I Didn’t Even Know About It ...

So how can I be held responsible?

By Billy Goldfeder

Dear Nozzlehead,

One of the issues the firefighters on my department are struggling with currently is the fact that a company officer (lieutenant or captain) can get disciplined, up to and including termination, for the crew misbehaving—even when the lieutenant knew nothing about the behavior! We think this is ridiculous and unfair.

Can you please address this and help our crews, lieutenants, and captains understand that, as supervisors, they cannot possibly get in trouble for the action of their crew when they knew nothing about it and weren’t there.

— Persecuted Paul

Dear Pauly,

Let’s make this easy: Please stop misbehaving. The End.

But since we have an allotted space to write this column, I’ll dig a little deeper. The question is wide open as it really needs to be addressed at several levels, which I am going to do. I mean, was the lieutenant in quarters and just not near the crew? Was the lieutenant off duty, vacationing, perhaps in the beautiful South of France? Was there a specific policy? Were the firefighters training on the policy? Was the policy legal and relevant? Oh my, my head is spinning.

So, before I continue to give you my opinion, let’s hear from my partner at FirefighterCloseCalls.com, veteran attorney, retired police commander, founder of Lexipol, and long-time annual co-presenter with me at FDIC International, Gordon Graham:

GG here, and greetings! You will laugh when I give you a lawyer response to your query: “Well, it depends.”

I would love to talk about this in greater detail, but this concept of holding a lieutenant, captain, or related fire officer “strictly liable” for the actions of his crew would be difficult to support in many situations.

Let’s assume that the fire department senior leadership has done their job in building good policies. Let’s further assume that the involved company officer does his job properly in training personnel about the policy. And let’s further assume that a firefighter deliberately deviates from the policy (like sexually assaulting a coworker or drinking alcohol on duty) during nighttime hours when the company officer is sleeping. Should the company be held strictly liable for that?

Or, let’s say that the lieutenant is in the right front seat, and the apparatus operator (fully trained by the officers and department on vehicle ops policy) runs a red light and collides with another vehicle; should the company officer be held strictly liable for that?

The primary mission of that lieutenant, captain, or related company officer is enforcement of organizational policy, and when the involved company officer fails in his job of training the crew, or ignores inappropriate behavior, I can make a good argument that lieutenant needs to be firmly addressed.

What we have here is a lot of words for “it depends,” but I dislike hard and fast rules that the lieutenant is 100 percent liable for the behavior of his personnel 100 percent of the time. There are so many issues regarding what the lieutenant “knew or should have known,” and when that can be proven, the lieutenant must be held responsible. But strict liability for all actions of his personnel does not ring true in my book. See you soon, Gordon.

Thanks so much for chiming in on this, GG.

Paul, as you see, it depends ... but it doesn’t always have to. Instead of the crew “screwing up,” let’s consider the company officer who rarely has that occur in his firehouse. 

How does that happen? Through systems—systems, supported by relevant and legal fire department policy along with initial and ongoing training. Just like you cannot (or should not) hire a firefighter off the street without all the things that go along with it (backgrounds, physicals, psych, testing, etc.), you cannot promote an officer from the firehouse without relevant policy based systems in place.

While it may seem I am not answering your question—yet—I am going deeper than that to make the point that, when there aren’t systems with related policy in place, the crew, the firefighter, and the officer are all set up for failure. I am trying to prevent the problem, and that is done well before “that day” in the firehouse. 

In discussing this with Gordon, we talked about some organizational, “risk management” solutions including the following facts:

Legal, relevant, and trained-on policy must be the game plan for any fire department. Unfortunately, so many departments don’t have relevant/current policy, and if they do, it may not be enforced or even trained on (you’ve heard people say, “That may be the policy, but that’s NOT how we do it at Battalion 3”). When the policy hijackers come along, the organization starts to erode. You can visit some departments and it is like three different departments depending on who is working that day! Talk about being set up for failure ....

It’s important to understand that policy must be relevant to YOUR department. While a policy may work well for a large metro department, it may not work for another or for a smaller department, based on staffing, local laws, state laws, and related considerations. 

Fire departments must strive for continuous improvement in their personnel. Training—every day. Holidays? Yes. Sunday? Yes. Evenings? Yes. And the training must be based on the policies as well as your operational procedures. For example, if policy dictates a requirement to lay out, size up, stretch lines, throw ladders, and wear full personal protective equipment, then that’s how we should train, and train hands on. 

Fire departments must hire quality people. “If you hire stupid people, they are not going to get better over time,” a favorite from Gordon.

Fire department supervisors must spot problems before they become tragedies. The toughest and most critical job in the fire service, from a risk management, personnel, and operational survival standpoint, is the COMPANY OFFICER. Go back and look at any significant issue, and the company officer is almost always at a point to correct it, but IF, and only IF, the department invests in that company officer directly and indirectly (such as a system of policies). 

So now, let’s look at your original question at “face value”: Can an officer get disciplined, up to and including termination, for the crew misbehaving—even when that officer knew nothing about the behavior?

Let’s look at the possible answers through a sample of the following related questions:

• Does the department have “real” policies in place as described above?

• Are the members trained on those policies regularly?

• Is there a system of documenting the provided training and the related policies?

• Is it clear within those policies what is, and is not, acceptable behavior?

• Is there a system in place that allows all members access to those policies at any time?

• Is there a system in place that allows updates to the policies based on best industry practices and applicable standards, and state and federal laws?

• Is there a system in place affirming that members were genuinely trained on the policy?

• Does the officer have a proven history of fairly enforcing those policies?

• Does a fair system of performance evaluation reflect a history of solid performance by the officers and the firefighters?

Hopefully you understand where I am going with this. Generally, if the department and the officer have done all that is reasonably expected and a member or members intentionally or maliciously create a problem, that officer should have little responsibility. The onus is on those who chose that behavior, be it in quarters, while responding on the fireground, etc.

If a department has provided all the above but the officer intentionally ignores or violates policies and related behaviors or has a history of poor performance, then the officer may very well be held responsible, on or off duty. This is because, in this case, the officer and members were provided with the necessary support but chose not to follow the requirements. For example, if an officer failed to educate, train, drill, or inform based on policy expectation/job requirements or orders, that officer probably owns the resulting problem because he failed to do his job on duty even though the problem occurred after that, when the officer was off duty.  

And lastly, if a department’s policies are regarded as a joke, or they don’t exist or are woefully inadequate, out of date, and perhaps not even legal, the ownership then rises right to the top.

So, in conclusion, please stop misbehaving ... and that includes those at the very top. If the negative descriptions and areas lacking as described above sound a little or a lot like your department, this is a great time to turn things around. If you don’t have the “systems” in place, including comprehensive, applicable, legal, relevant, and defensible policies, and initial and ongoing training for your personnel, be it a career, combination/on call, or volunteer department, this is a wake-up call. After all, as the headlines every day prove, getting in front of these issues is a whole lot easier than the other options.

Got a fire service question or complaint?

Let Nozzlehead hear all about it. He’ll answer you with 2,000 psi of free-flowing opinion. Send your letters to: Nozzlehead, c/o FireRescue, PennWell Corp. 21-00 Route 208 South, Fair Lawn, NJ 07410, Attn: Diane Rothschild dianer@pennwell.com)