Commentary

Commentary: Disciplinary Learning Opportunities

Two firefighters
Photo by Tim Olk

Once again, the fire service finds itself at odds in a debate regarding the well-intentioned efforts of an Atlanta fire captain, who pulled a 95-year old woman from a June 2019 house fire and the subsequent disciplinary action he received as a result. Whether you agree or disagree, there are sound arguments on both sides. Granted, it does not appear all the facts in this matter have come to light to fully understand the actions and thought processes involved, but let’s try to objectively discuss some of the key learning points this circumstance can offer firefighters.

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PROGRESSIVE DISCIPLINE

Let’s first discuss standard operating procedures and guidelines (SOPs and SOGs). Fire departments use SOPs/SOGs to establish rules and regulations to address everyday matters that can set clear expectations and offer direction to personnel. SOPs/SOGs are also created to improve the safety and coordination of firefighters during common and unique operational procedures like structure fires, active shooter incidents, and the like. Medical SOPs/SOGs can be used to establish proper medical procedures for a given medical event, and so on. However, one of the primary reasons a fire department establishes policies and procedures is to protect the fire department and the jurisdiction from liability.

Now let’s discuss firefighters, those everyday heroes who run toward danger while others run away or just stand there and record the incident on their phone instead of rendering assistance.  Thank God for firefighters and other first responders, because the public needs dedicated people they can trust to come to their rescue when duty calls. Tell a firefighter he has the responsibility of search, and like a dog in heat they will charge into the danger zone and carry out that duty to save lives. Similarly, an aggressive engine company will work to get to the interior of a structure to put water on the seat of fire.

The Atlanta fire captain was responsible for search and rescue, which is what he did, what his duty calls for, and what was expected. He located the victim in the living room of a well-involved home and was able to remove her. In his effort to make a split-second decision to jeopardize his well-being under extreme fire conditions, with no discretionary time, he made a gut call to rapidly enter the structure, locate the woman, and pull her out. While a great effort, the woman unfortunately was pronounced dead on the scene.

The captain was, no doubt, well intentioned, but his methods were called into question for a number of reasons. Management accused him of violating established policy against freelancing, as he entered the building without the crew he was supervising. Freelancing can lead to uncoordinated actions, an inability to effectively account for the captain and his immediate crewmembers and becomes an unknown to the incident commander. At around the same time, the incident commander had ordered an evacuation of the structure and declared the operational strategy was shifting from offensive to defensive; this means everyone out of the structure and remain at a safe distance from the fire building. The incident commander likely considered the captain’s actions to be defiant of a direct order and being insubordinate. 

On the one hand you have a captain that was doing his job, to go toward the danger and attempt to save a life. On the other hand, you could make an argument that the captain violated established policy and procedures by freelancing. Again, the facts of the matter will dictate exactly what the circumstances were, what charges were brought, and how they were justified.

Now, had the rescue resulted in a save, would the department have taken such action? Did the incident commander get emotional and personally offended by the action of the captain, to enter the building following his order to evacuate the building? Did the incident commander truly understand what the captain was dealing with at the time he gave his order to evacuate? What if the building had collapsed or an event had occurred that killed or injured the captain or others? We can “what if” and speculate all day, but the end result is each circumstance can be played out from one side of the argument to the other. 

Do we want firefighters to second-guess themselves and pause to determine if their well-intentioned actions will get them in trouble or not, or do we want them to do their job? I think most of us would want them to do their job without the fear of retribution. However, there must be policies and procedures in place to set expectations and to maintain effectiveness, efficiency, control, safety, and to reduce liability. Policies that are on paper and not enforced are just words on a page. They need to be binding and members who violate policies should be held accountable; this helps keep order and establishes the expectations. Will there be times when seconds count and you only get one shot? Yes!  And we have to be wise in our decision making to balance those unique situations.  Sometimes good sense needs to prevail.

Disciplinary action should be balanced to fit the violation and be progressively applied.  If the captain had a clean record, then perhaps a verbal and/or written letter of reprimand would have been more appropriate.  If he had a record of similar repeated behavior which was previously addressed, then I can understand a stronger level of discipline. His record is an unknown at this point. Also, disciplinary action must be consistently applied.  It’s easy for a department to say each circumstance is addressed individually, but like violations should be addressed consistently and with the same predictable level of discipline.  

When I review the video of this particular incident, I believe the interior conditions were such that they were not survivable at the time the victim was pulled out, and the deteriorating conditions had created structural instability. I imagine the incident commander had similar concerns, which was probably one of the reasons he ordered an evacuation of firefighters and switched the operating mode to defensive. Now those are my opinions, and hindsight is 20/20. I commend the captain for his actions, as we want all of our firefighters to have the same determination when it comes to saving lives. I also commend the incident commander for having the forethought to recognize deteriorating conditions and a significantly lowered survivability profile as well as the recognition to change his strategy in an effort to preserve firefighter life safety.

Whatever caused charges to be brought against the captain, once this action was in motion, the fire department upper management and the jurisdiction must follow through on the process to allow it to run its course, or otherwise be accused of a cover-up or preferential treatment. Whether we agree or not, I believe there was sufficient evidence to indicate the captain violated established policies/procedures, regardless of his well-intentioned efforts. When we agree to be employed by a fire department we sign to declare our agreement, which holds us accountable, to abide by the policies and procedures established by the department/jurisdiction.

Policies and procedures frequently come with accepted practices, the fine line between following the protocol and going outside of it in what we believe is well intentioned or acceptable behavior. The practice of a policy is the informal behavior that is often allowed or simply not enforced. You can argue a particular practice is a department policy when it is not enforced and becomes part of the department’s culture, but it’s a difficult argument. When it comes to bringing charges against an employee, bet that the jurisdiction will apply every violation of policy against the accused, directly or indirectly. The human resource department for the jurisdiction will most likely also attempt to paint a negative picture of the accused. In their effort, they will only address violations against written policies.  They will not mention the accepted practices to policies that may exist in the culture of the organization.

I understand a department taking disciplinary action against an employee for violating rules and regulations. The department and jurisdiction must maintain accountability by setting clear expectations, and examples. Does it suck that a fire captain or any firefighter suffers disciplinary action for doing his or her job? Yes. However, some departments afford a grievance process to employees who have been brought up on charges. Keep in mind, the grievance process may have limitations on what matters are grievable.

An employee may elect to request a fact-finding investigation as part of a grievance process. The grievance process can provide an opportunity for the accused to argue against the charges being brought. Some grievance processes can allow a grievant to take their matter to a fire trial board, a civil service commission, and sometimes even as high as the circuit court to be heard and a final decision rendered. Trust me, from my own experience, if you are making an argument against an established policy, you will probably not win your argument, because the policy exists. In some cases the convicted employee can make an effective argument and have charges dropped or reduced. I’m not sure what the captain may have had available to him or his intention to argue his case, but it’s important to know your department’s policies so that you are aware of your recourse should you ever be brought up on charges for carrying out your duties. In my experience, the accused is often guilty as charged when they are alleged to have violated policies or procedures, in which the accused must prove their innocence. This is counter to being innocent until proven guilty when you have allegedly broken a law.

When done correctly, a fact-finding investigation leading to charges should be done in a relatively short period of time following the alleged incident.  If a department takes upwards of six months or more to complete an investigation and to bring disciplinary action, something stinks.  The longer the period of time, the quicker factual details of the incident become blurred, and the more it seems like a witch hunt to tarnish the reputation of an employee or to make an example of them.

We can take sides and debate our feelings, speculations, and the facts of this incident, but what will that bring other than continued arguing and frustration? My intention is to bring awareness to the learning opportunities a situation like this provides. Firefighters have a duty to act and should train and know their department policies for carrying out those duties. Firefighters have to follow orders and established policies and procedures to maintain effectiveness and efficiency, added safety, control, and to eliminate opportunities for freelancing and unaccountability. Departments and jurisdictions have to establish policy and procedures to manage daily activities and situations to enhance safety of the workforce, and to protect themselves from liability. If you violate the rules, expect to be brought up on charges. If brought up on charges, know your department and jurisdictional policies and procedures for protecting your rights and arguing your case. If you are wrong, admit it, learn from it, and move on.

Situations like this one are unfortunate and not fun.  We often only notice the side we support in such matters, but these situations require a big-picture view, which allows one to see how complicated they can be.  There are often no clear-cut decisions that can be made.  Well-intentioned or not, sometimes actions are called into question and we end up with a situation like Atlanta. Take them for what they’re worth—learning opportunities.

Nick SalamehNICK J. SALAMEH is a 36 year veteran of the fire service. He was a Fire/Emergency Medical Services Captain II and previous Training Program Manager for the Arlington County (VA) Fire Department, where he served 31 years. He is a former Chair of the Northern Virginia Fire Departments Training Committee. Nick is also a contributor to Stop Believing Start Knowing (SBSK).


This commentary reflects the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Fire Engineering. It has not undergone Fire Engineering‘s peer-review process.