By Dennis L. Rubin
Being in command of a fire department is an honor and a privilege. Most of the time, the work is exciting and challenging, but there are a few exceptions.
How do you deal with seriously bad behaviors from the members of your organization? What steps do you take to resolve the few negative issues that seem to pop up in just about all fire departments from time to time? Knowing that there is at least a potential that the chief may have to resolve a very tough situation involving the unacceptable behavior of a member or two, it becomes logical to learn more about ways to help resolve the problem before it takes on a life of its own.
After years of experience managing unthinkable personnel situations, necessity forced me to develop a 10-point step-by-step guideline process. I have used this systematic approach to move the department out of some very deep and difficult pot holes. As new “battles” were evolving, it became clear that each personnel case was very different. Not to be too dramatic, but the cases I am talking about were first-degree murder, rape, felony drug and weapons charges, and grand larceny, to hit just some of the highlights. However, every case had to be resolved using an appropriate, standardized system every time if we expected the case disposition to stand up to legal scrutiny. So, out of necessity, the process being presented here was developed to be efficient and effective in solving some very complex personnel issues.
In my estimation, about 99 percent of all firefighters are the best humans one could ever hope to be associated with at work or in any other setting. However, the one percent of the fire service population that this article speaks to is difficult characters to manage and cause about 95 percent of the organizational stress. The best way to avoid the “one- percenters” from harming your department is to eliminate them during the selection and hiring process. Only hire or vote-in quality people who will uphold the public trust and only bring credit to the department.
Even with the best selection process, there is always a possibility that a “bad apple” can slip through. The process reviewed here can be used in any setting that involves investigating or resolving personnel matters of any type, large or small.
Step 1 — Fact Finding
Once the organization or the chief becomes aware of a potential situation, the first step toward proper resolution must be sorting fact from fiction. Your challenge in fact finding is to get to the truth as accurately and as quickly as possible. There are many ways to obtain truthful information as it relates to personnel issues within your fire department. I suggest starting with having everyone involved in the issue produce a detailed written report describing their understanding of what happened. This report must include what part the reporter played in this event, if any. Next, search for all official public records that may exist such as (but not limited to) police reports, arrest records, protective and restraining orders and civil lawsuit complaints.
Many departments are looking closely at the electronic messaging world as a source of investigative information. Be careful when you decide to take this action. Make sure that your department has the authority to do so. Get an attorney’s opinion as to the legalities involved (of course, an attorney should be reviewing the entire process from notification to disposition). As a general rule, work-related devices and materials (text messages, e-mails, instant messaging, cell phone records) are yours to review and use as you, the employer, sees fit. On the other hand, personal electronic materials will require a subpoena for the electronic records that your agency seeks to review. Without obtaining the subpoena, the privately owned, most likely constitutionally protected, information that you gather will be thrown out of the court system. Further, you will open yourself and the department up for a civil lawsuit. Move quickly to gather the facts during an internal investigation, but use an abundance of caution. Sound legal advice dictates that you must ensure that you have the legal authority to take the action before you act.
After dealing with many cases in a “big city” fire department, I added a few police officers to the staff. Hiring them was a huge organizational step (i.e., funding, approvals, position description, and the like), but it was a necessary one. The police detectives have all of the skills, knowledge, abilities, training, and certifications to be investigators of facts. If, during the discovery of evidence, an indication arises that a crime had been committed, that does not present a problem. Instead of stopping the internal investigation to contact the police department and wait until an officer was assigned to the case, our internal affairs folks were the police. The police investigators are trained and certified to follow the proper procedures that could be required during an expanding internal investigation, such as Miranda Warning, Garrity Warning, Reverse Garrity Warning, and arrest powers.
Also, the police officers were focused only on obtaining the truth in each investigation case. They had not gone to recruit school with the members being investigated. The police officers had never worked in a fire company or battalion with the members being investigated. The cops never attended the bowling league, softball tournaments, or any social events hosted by the fire department. The police officers were not in the same bargaining unit as the firefighters and sworn to an oath of office that demanded finding the truth in every case of dispute. These facts made investigations a lot easier and eliminated much of the potential for problems to develop from internal investigations. Perhaps, a more realistic approach for smaller agencies might be to ask for police help on a case-by-case basis when the need warrants.
Time will always be of the essence, even in an internal investigation case. I am not sure how, but the media always seemed to know about seriously bad behaviors a day or two before I learned of them. When a reporter was camped out near my staff car (about four or five times), it was always about a “hot lead” regarding what someone in the department had been accused of doing. The media’s efforts were to always make the questions embarrassing for me and wanting my plan before any facts were gathered. The point here is, you must move quickly to get the information and develop your plan of action. Although time is a real factor, the highest priority is that in the entire process be accurate and thorough.
 The time that the organization becomes aware of a situation is a very important benchmark that must be recorded for determining statute of limitations.
MORE DENNIS RUBIN
- Managing the Information Flow at Large-Scale Emergency Incidents
- Chief Lessons: When the Cyberbully Attacks
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: It’s Not Just a Job.
Dennis 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.