Tailboard Talk: The Chief Made Me Do It! Stopping Deviant Behaviors

Photo by Tim Olk.

By Dane Carley and Craig Nelson

A person we will call “John” works at a fire station about four miles from a freeway. There are stoplights every two or three blocks on this stretch of road, and they are not timed well; drivers often catch most of them when they’re red. One day, John was running late for work, so he drove 50 miles per hour (mph) down this road, which is 10 mph over the posted speed limit. John hit all green lights between the freeway and the fire station. When he left work and drove home, he did so at 50 mph and, again, all the lights were green from the freeway to the fire station.

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John takes this freeway a lot, so he has become increasingly familiar with its traffic patterns. He has noticed that many others drive 50 mph on this road, mostly in the mornings when everyone is heading toward the freeway from their neighborhood near the fire station. John also realized that many people who live in that neighborhood also drive 50 mph on this freeway instead of the posted 40 mph speed limit to increase the odds of catching all green lights. These people pass police officers occasionally, but no one slows down because it is rare that a police officer will pull over a car driving 50 mph. It’s as if the police officers have figured out the same thing about the stoplights.

John often wonders why city engineers did not “time” the lights to stay green for those who are driving 40 mph if that was the speed they determined as being safe for that stretch of road. Or, if 50 mph is a safe driving speed, why didn’t the engineers change the speed limit to 50 mph? Is there some unknown political pressure on the engineers regarding a 40 mph speed limit even though they know the road is safe with a 50 mph speed limit? Many (if not all) of you can relate to such a situation in your city. This actually serves as a great example to help illustrate the term “normalization of deviance.” Imagine that John and others from those neighborhoods around the station are members of your fire department. The police are the “officers” (captains and battalion chiefs) of your fire department. The traffic engineers are the “chief officers” (assistant chiefs, deputy chiefs, and chief).

The people who learned that they could catch all green lights by driving 50 mph did so in a couple of ways. First, they simply tried it. In John’s case, it was because he was running late. It worked well for him, so he kept doing it. Second, word of mouth. In other words, other drivers started doing the same, and they eventually told their friends. As more people realized that this way of driving worked—even though it was illegal—they kept doing it.

The police officers did not correct this behavior; by not doing so (or even ignoring it), they condoned it. It’s possible that even the officers began driving 50 mph. This is similar to a department’s company and battalion officers not correcting undesirable behaviors. Once others who may have been hesitant to drive 50 mph saw others driving 50 mph and not suffering any repercussions, they all drove 50 mph. Even those most resistant to change will likely do so after seeing the officers drive 50 mph. This is normalization of deviance.

This example is about more than just getting away with something once. It is more than just one person or even a crew; it is about the continuation—the building of—a behavior. This behavior spreads to others when they see the “pioneers” get away with it, especially if that behavior makes their lives simpler (even if it is, ultimately, just a short-term gain). Normalization of deviance is also different than just “getting away with” something because a person who feels like he got away with something implies that he knew what he was doing was wrong. With normalization of deviance, most do not even think about the fact that they are getting away with something because it has become such a normal behavior despite that behavior being “wrong.” In other words, he has become blind to the fact that what he was doing was wrong.

The traffic engineers were most likely oblivious to this situation until they witnessed it themselves while they were out driving on this road. Perhaps the traffic engineers even noticed a patrol officer not stopping any motorists even though most of the cars were driving well over the posted speed limit. The traffic engineers, like chief officers, had several choices to make once they became aware of this problem. The first would be ignoring the problem altogether. Second, the engineering department could request that the police department enforces the speed limit but not change the stoplight sequencing. Third, the engineering department could reevaluate its position on the posted speed limit. Fourth, the engineering department could simply adjust the stoplights to stay green for those driving 40 mph. 


Ignoring the Problem

Although it may be possible for a traffic engineer to ignore such a problem, chief officers cannot ignore a problem once they are aware of it. Ignoring a problem is no different than condoning poor behavior.

Condoning deviant behavior in one place will likely lead to other areas where members’ deviant behaviors will be normalized. Furthermore, it erodes chief officers’ credibility. In other words, chief officers who ignore deviant behavior in one place do not have the credibility to address it in another. For this reason, it should not be the chief’s first choice or, in most cases, ever a choice.


Enforcing the Current Rules

Just as the traffic engineers could ask the police department to enforce the current rules without changing the stoplight sequencing, chief officers can order captains and battalion chiefs to enforce the fire department’s rules without changing the root cause of the deviant behavior. However, this will lead not only to more frequent behaviors but also more subtle, deviant behaviors.1

Imagine if the police department tried enforcing the speed limit without the traffic engineers changing the stoplight timing. Drivers would outwardly complain about the ridiculousness of the stoplight timing and question the traffic engineers’ competency to post one speed limit but time the stoplights for another speed. If this scenario is allowed to exist long enough, it could lead to letters being sent to the city council; a “black eye” for the city in the media; or personal attacks by the drivers on police officers, traffic engineers, and so on. In other words, the deviant behaviors could expand beyond speeding if the city attempts to enforce the rules as they exist because the rules send a mixed message that is perceived as unfair (often labeled as a “speed trap”).

A fire department is no different. Members build a psychological “contract” with the department that outlines their expectations of what the department should provide them to better perform their job. Each member will build a slightly different contract in their mind based on their values, life experiences, and so on, but the basis of any psychological contract the members build will be an expectation of the department treating them fairly. (1)

When department policies conflict with its actions, i.e., the posted speed limit conflicts with the timing of the stoplights, the members recognize this and react to it. Enforcing the rules as written without adjusting the department’s actions will break this psychological contract and can contribute to even more deviant behavior. This scenario can be challenging because members measure their department’s actions against things such as the department’s espoused values, the fire service’s history and culture, the members’ perception of the community’s expectations, company-level and personal values, or any other expectations of what members thinks their department should do. It is important that several members perceive an injustice that has led to the normalization of deviance and that simply enforcing an existing rule (or worse—writing a new rule to enforce) is not going to fix the problem; in fact, it will likely add fuel to the fire. Enforcing a rule should not be the chief officer’s second choice, but his hand may be forced by external forces such as political pressures.


Reevaluating the Department’s Position

The traffic engineer should recognize that the stoplights are sending a mixed message when compared to the posted speed limit. Once this problem is recognized, the traffic engineer should evaluate the city’s position to determine if the posted speed limit is the best choice. If there are no extenuating circumstances influencing the speed (e.g., political pressure) and if 50 mph is a safe speed, the traffic engineer could recommend changing the posted speed limit.

Likewise, a confident and smart group of chief officers will recognize that there is a disconnect between policy and practice when they observe deviant behavior has taken root in the companies. When this is recognized, the chiefs should find the root cause for the behavior and determine if that behavior is a better way to serve the public even though it goes against the department’s current policies, listen to those operating in the street, and see if they have a more effective way to provide a service.2 If there are no extenuating circumstances (e.g., political pressure or legal obligations), the chiefs should change the policy to support the behavior and reinforce it in the firefighters in training since it provides the same or a better level of service when compared to the original policy in a way that is more useful for the companies.


Adjust the Policy to Support the Desired Behavior

Last, the traffic engineer may find during the reevaluation of the situation that the 40-mph speed limit is the desired speed limit. This may be the result of political pressure or safety, but there are valid reasons to keep the speed limit at 40 mph. The best tool the traffic engineer has to reinforce the desirable behaviors from drivers, then, is to time the stoplights so that those driving 40 mph are not stopped at every intersection.

The chief officers have a similar ability to guide desirable behavior within their department. It is possible that administrative decisions and policies encourage deviant behavior; in other words, the firefighters perceive that the chiefs’ decision made them do it. Just as the poor timing of the stoplights encourages drivers to drive 50 mph instead of the posted 40 mph, policies can encourage deviant behavior. If this is the case, the most effective way to encourage the desired behavior is to align the policies in a way that causes the desired behavior to be easier to perform than the deviant behavior.



  1. Carley DA (2010). “Organizational and group influences on an individual in a fire department company.” St. Cloud State University. St. Cloud, MN: Unpublished graduate program paper.
  2. Carley DA and C. Nelson (2017). “No time for playing cards: Higher reliability organizing for the fire service.” Tulsa, OK: PennWell Corporation.


Craig Nelson works for the Fargo (ND) Fire Department and works part-time at Minnesota State Community and Technical College – Moorhead as a fire instructor. He also works seasonally for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources as a wildland firefighter in Northwest Minnesota. Previously, he was an airline pilot. He has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership.

Dane Carley entered the fire service in 1989 in southern California and is currently a captain for the Fargo (ND) Fire Department. Since then, he has worked in structural, wildland-urban interface, and wildland firefighting in capacities ranging from fire explorer to career captain. He has both a bachelor’s degree in fire and safety engineering technology, and a master’s degree in public safety executive leadership. Dane also serves as both an operations section chief and a planning section chief for North Dakota’s Type III Incident Management Assistance Team, which provides support to local jurisdictions overwhelmed by the magnitude of an incident.