Lost Trust

I was reading an article this morning about yet another mutt (just because they are a “member” somewhere, I refuse to call them “firefighter”) whose actions erode the community’s trust in us as they broke into their own station and vandalized it.  To me it seems like the fire service could weed them out. However, even in my own department, with rigorous background checks, very high expectations, and positive organizational culture, sometimes they slip in undetected and must be guided to the door before they cause real damage to our name.

Another article, though, made me think about preempting that loss of integrity. I saw a story of a fire chief in Maine who had as a secondary means of employment, a fire restoration business.  In this situation, he resigned from his secondary job because of the consideration that it was a conflict of interest. I don’t know if that decision came because he realized the perception could be there, or if he was told he had to, but in any case, he made it clear where his priorities were by making that break.

There is nothing at all wrong, in my eyes, of being involved in both. There are other jobs as well- fire protection installation, safety foremen, extinguisher sales and service- that are enhanced by the knowledge we gain as firefighters.  And in communities with volunteers, often times it is just those people, the ones in the fire damage control or fire protection businesses who are also the backbone of the department.  I guess the difference is, which came first, but it really doesn’t matter if you are above-board with it and don’t conveniently profit from another’s loss (or potential loss).  While one could argue that the opportunity is there to promote a business that has genuine ties to helping the victim, these relationships might create a perception of conflict if there aren’t careful delineations between the two.

After all, if you are doing the business inspection and cite someone for not having an up-to-date extinguisher, then show up the next day to cold call the business, I’m saying you are grossly out-of-line. My father had a fire protection business on the side, and I worked for him in the early days, as well as for other companies over the course of my career as a firefighter.  To me, however, there’s a big difference in having an ongoing clientele that you have advance notification they need service, and that of going in ahead of the other company and swiping their business. I certainly draw the line at taking advantage of others, and if I even for a minute felt uncomfortable about that relationship, I simply would have rather not serviced the business and pointed them toward making an independent decision via the Yellow Pages.

I remember early in my career, witnessing a coroner who after making a death declaration, handed his funeral home’s business card to the bereaved.  After a complaint or two, that ended. But to me, and I would think to you, that egregious violation of the public trust is the exact thing we need to avoid in the fire service.  Best practices include communicating expectations with your personnel.  Requiring them to declare in writing their secondary employment is a start. Outlining clearly that taking advantage of the responder/victim relationship to promote their business is a violation of our values is another. And when someone clearly asks you or your colleagues, “Who do YOU recommend?” which is sometimes more of a nod and a wink toward impropriety, ensuring they are pointed toward a very ambiguous source like the Yellow Pages or other local advertising to make their own decision is imperative.

We have a tough enough time maintaining the trust of our customers in emergency service these days, with all the cynicism toward public servants. Let’s not give the haters any more stories to use against us. Hold yourself and your colleagues to a high standard of integrity.  It’s bigger than you or your department; it affects all of us.

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