As leaders, we face ethical challenges every day.  Ethical frameworks exist to provide some systematic approach to govern decisions.  While the study of ethics frames this question in “How should we live our lives?”, I want to examine right now the “What am I going to do?” question, especially as it relates to the individual in a company leadership position.

Frameworks used in ethical decision making are used to seek a rational justification as to why we act and decide a certain way. While ethics sometimes seems to be based in religion, there are certainly non-religious individuals who make reasonable and just decisions, just as there are very devout individuals who make poor and unfair decisions.

In the fire service, many suggest that their values are rooted in commonly accepted rituals and tradition, much like a religion. Unfortunately, however, there are widely-divergent aspects of religion that run counter to what society may consider acceptable.  One such example would include the ritual stoning of an individual accused of adultery.

I tell new firefighters about the “traditions” our own department used to have and then add the caveat- “If I ever catch you doing that stuff in our department, you will be standing tall before the man.”  As we grow and understand more, we realize that these rituals may have created (and in some cases, did create) lasting and unfortunate effects. Our organization has grown past those kinds of behavior, or at least, we have made it well known that the behavior is not and will not be tolerated. This did not happen overnight; it truly is an evolutionary process. Those of us who understood the behavior to be wrong modified our stance. Those who continued to permit the old behavior finally moved on and more mature individuals filled that leadership vacuum.

I certainly understand that wetting the rookie after their first fire is a relatively benign activity. Sadly enough, there are officers who still haven’t evolved past being “one of the boys”. The slippery slope that evolves to tying someone down and giving them the “Code Red” originates at that “wink and nod” to the less egregious behavior. Horseplay, hazing, and bullying are not tolerated for many reasons, not the least of which, it really does go against the very thing we are most proud of in our jobs: protecting the vulnerable.

As a company officer, it is not always popular, in fact, it never is popular, to stop the troops and ask them to reflect on the actions they are about to take that may exceed ethical behavior. But firehouse pranks are pranks, and when they turn mean, there’s no real way to stop the landslide that comes shortly after. Not only that, but I had firefighters who didn’t take it as well as they dished it out, so it was easier to simply say, “Everyone knock it off”.

There will always be in our ranks, those who don’t get it. Those who think that sending firefighters into lost causes is okay, those who think not softening up an exterior showing fire before entering is acceptable, and treating others like scum because of how long they have been on the job is standard procedure. I’m not a hypocrite- I have done all of those things.  But then I grew up.

Doing the right thing is more important than getting along. Treating others fairly and with respect is tantamount to training them. You can’t get respect without giving respect. But more importantly, it is the ethos of our society that says we should treat others as we ourselves would want to be treated. And if your decisions don’t face up in that harsh spotlight, you might want to consider an alternative track.


  • Bob Ridgeway says:

    An excellent and thoughtful article and thanks for sharing. After serving as a Company Officer and then for 22 years as a Fire Chief, I have always believed that good and ethical behavior in the fire service starts and stops with the Company Officer. Many of the horror stories we read about in fire service blogs and articles regarding employee misbehavior would not have occurred at all had that work environment been overseen by a competent Company Officer. As Alan Brunacini used to say; “There will be 4 personnel on every fire truck, and at least one of them will be a consenting adult”. Departments nationwide would do well do review their promotional processes and insure that those they promote to supervisory positions are truly ‘the best and brightest’ within their departments, and not just the good ol’ boys who have breathed the organizational air the longest.

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