LESSONS LEARNED FROM THE PENN STATE DEBACLE

By John K. Murphy
I am all about letting someone else make the mistake and learn from those mistakes. Sometimes we need to fast-forward our thinking and project what can occur in our departments that will embarrass us. Today we have a major "Lessons Learned" event with Penn State.


I have been reading all I can about the big problems hammering Penn State, their alumni, their coaches and the integrity of the institution in this nightmare scenario. Let me say up front that society and a large institution failed to protect these children and they are the first thing that needs to be taken care and to prevent these issues from occurring in the future to other vulnerable children.


As most of you are well versed in the intimate and gross details of this issue if you read the newspapers and grand jury account including the recent idiotic "non-confession" interview of Sandusky by Bob Costas; what effect could this type of behavior by either members of the leadership team or firefighters have on your department? Fortunately, it appears that all of the colleges across the country are not painted with the same Penn State brush but it does call into question the moral character and integrity of large institutions when the attempt to resolve these situations internally involving burying the issue deep in the bowels of the institution.


Are these institutions so big, they can bury these issues and remain pristine in the public view? It appears that they do until the top of the volcano blows off and spews all of the dirty secrets held by those institutes for a long period of time. Let look at some fatal errors made by Penn State, its leadership and the mentality of big institutions and how they apply to the fire service


There is a fairly accurate timeline of the pedophile Sandusky described in the CNN Justice [1] and I urge you to look at the timeline to see how far back this actually goes. I am sure that the child psychologists and others dealing with pedophilia will tell you that this behavior goes back even further in Sandusky’s life but has not been revealed at this time. In any event, we are now in the present time with numerous reports of inappropriate behavior involving a coach of a fine institution and children.


It appears by all accounts there is a massive failure at every level in the reporting, the investigation and early mitigation in 1998 of this issue from all levels to include:  the promise by Sandusky not to repeat that behavior, the district attorney advises investigators that no charges will be filed and the university police chief instructs that the case be closed.  The behavior repeats itself in 2000 and in 2002 with another young boy and a shower and some touching and observed sexual encounter on the campus. A graduate assistant coach observes this egregious behavior as well and reports it to Joe Paterno who reports it to his supervisor the President of the University and there it dies another untimely death. Now the judge who recently released Sandusky on an unsecured bond is a member of the board of directors for Sandusky’s Foundation and the debacle continues.


What lessons can the fire service learn from this incident?


First, there is not institution, service or Fire Chief that is so big that bad behavior can be covered up. Second on these types of incidents the observing party should ALWAYS report this behavior directly to the local police for investigation and the accused firefighter of fire officer be placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation. Should these actions occur off duty, the rule should remain the same. Third, your institution SHOULD NOT condone institutional silence and we need transparency at all levels. At times the firefighters are their own worse enemy in not reporting bad behavior be it domestic violence, alcoholism or drug use. Eventually we are all tarnished by this broad brush and you can do more for the individual and your department by reporting it early and get the firefighter into treatment or other corrective actions. Finally, have a policy and an Honor Code that allows for the reporting of this behavior without backlash. Your institution needs to have an "eyes wide open" position on these issues and fire departments should consult with your legal counsel on the best way to create a policy for implementation and enforcement.


There are enough shenanigans going on currently in our service to include embezzlement, "mooning" of students, driving drunk and killing civilians by our firefighters and Fire Chiefs. You are not too big to fail and what we see is the leadership team disgraced, terminated and a dark shadow falling over our fire institution. We do not need this additional problem so clean up your house by acting appropriately, act quickly and decisively and protect our fragile institution. That is your job.




[1] http://www.cnn.com/2011/11/16/justice/pennsylvania-coach-abuse-timeline/index.html

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