Dealing With Seriously Bad Behaviors, Part 4

By Dennis L. Rubin

In this series, Dennis Rubin has advice for chief officers having to deal with cases of extremely bad and/or criminal behavior by fire department employees.

Step 8 - - Communications Plan (Action Plan Component)

The last part of the action plan is to determine who, when, and how will you tell the other stakeholders of the department about what has happened. This step is much different from the notifications that should be made in Step 3 of this procedure. The earlier notifications are to the folks that have some direct or indirect involvement in the case's resolution and will require timely notification. During the course of the investigation and the deliberative process, keep the information which surfaces confidential. There will be a lot of pressure to get the word out as soon as you can about the actions that being taken, but resist the temptation to tell too much too soon.

Check in with your legal department or legal advisor to ensure that any and all information that the department will be releasing has become public information. Once you are clear to release the information and you understand what facts can be released, it is time to notify everyone else connected to the department, including the members, the community and the media.

Just as a quick reminder, the situations discussed in this article are bad cases that will have a high level of community interest. A press release that points out what has been determined and what action was taken is always a good start. Of course, this is making the assumption that the case is now closed and the informational has become public information. Consider a press conference to openly discuss the press release and to give the media the chance to ask questions about the situation. My experience has been that the more information access that you provide to the media, the sooner the issue is "old news." If the topic is "secretive," the media will have a little something in each day's news until the issue is resolved. We had an alleged prostitution ring operating in a firehouse, resulting in a great deal of interest being expressed by the media. The press conference was held at the "Best Little Engine Company in Northeast," and because the firehouse was open to reporters and they could see it for themselves, the story was over in just a few days.

If the case is significant enough and the media is demanding information, hold a press conference or send out a press release mid-investigation, but the trick always will be to not release any information that would cause harm to the ongoing investigation. This is a difficult process (as was mentioned earlier) and best avoided in the first place, if possible.

Step 9 - - Policy Review

When the case is closed and the resolution has been implemented, review the related policies, procedures, and training programs that support the documents involved in the case. One department had reoccurring discipline issues involving the delivery of emergency medical service (EMS). After a review of the related policies and protocols, all were found to be in order. In fact, our medical director was diligent in implementing the "best practice" EMS protocols to ensure that we on the cutting edge when it came to delivering evidence-based medicine. Where we fell down was in training and certification efforts. We started continuing education with all paramedics and transitioned that into national registry emergency medical paramedic certification. The initial and ongoing comprehensive EMS training program was missing in the system. As we continued to properly train and certify our EMS personnel, the medical care-related discipline cases slowed down considerately.

This policy review may determine the need to revise a policy or implement a new policy that was omitted. Further, consider having a comprehensive training plan in effect for initial and ongoing training on every policy and procedure that a member in the department is expected to follow. A lack of or inadequate training on the department's policies and procedures is often failure point and the cause of many discipline issues that confront an agency.  

Step 10 - - Measure the Results

The final step in dealing with seriously bad behaviors is to measure the results of the resolutions that have been implemented. The goal will be to implement a solution to prevent this or a similar situation ever occurring again in the department. Thus we all learn as an organization, and we avoid repeating the behavior that caused the trouble in the first place. I had a six-month discipline report prepared, redacting the names of the members that exhibited the behaviors, and it was distributed within the organization. This did a couple of things for us. First, the executive staff along with the labor organization could look for trends and patterns of the infractions that were being committed by our troops. We spotted a lot of domestic violence cases, alcohol issues, and driving-under-the-influence arrests. Knowing that these trends existed, more help was added to the system to prevent these behaviors from occurring. Additional training and counseling was provided to our members. The mere fact that we were talking about the cases helped folks to understand the seriousness of the problem and to avoid these problems.

The second dimension that was learned from these reports was to answer to the question of who was committing crimes and offenses. This goes back to the questions about the organizational hiring practices (remember, never hire idiots and thugs). This step was critical to eliminate people with the propensity for bad behaviors for the hiring pool was the right step for the organization--it was resoundingly the right thing to do.

Some other items to watch carefully post-resolution are the appeals process. I would guess that most department that terminate an employee will have to face judicial scrutiny to determine if the process was used correctly, if the investigation was preformed properly, and if the punishment fit the crime. The mere fact that the system is being challenged is not an indicator that there is a problem. In fact, when you prepare for resolving a bad behavior situation, prepare for a legal challenge. Most likely one will be headed your way after the case is completed internally. You need the judge's ruling or the jury's decision to track and make sure that there are no glitches in you investigation or disciplinary process.

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It would be wonderful to think that your fire department will never need this step-by-step process to resolve bad behaviors. However, in this day and age it is not practical to think that it can't happen to your agency. Regardless of the type (volunteer or career) and size of the department, this is an ever-present potential issue that you may have to address. Keep these points in mind in case a bad personnel situation presents itself one day.

MORE DENNIS RUBIN

If you enjoyed this information, Dennis Rubin has written a book that has more details and case studies about being a fire chief in a fairly busy city--Washington, D.C.--to be published by Fire Engineering near the end of the year: D.C. Fire.

Dennis L. RubinDennis L. Rubin is the principal partner in the fire protection-consulting firm D.L. Rubin & Associates. His experience in the fire and rescue service spans more than 35 years. He has served as a company officer, command level officer, or fire chief in several major cities, including Dothan, Alabama; Norfolk, Virginia; Atlanta, Georgia; and Washington, D.C. He served on several committees with the International Association of Fire Chiefs, including a two-year term as the Health and Safety Committee chair. He is a graduate of University of Maryland.

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