Leadership, Volunteer Fire Service

Taking Responsibility for Your Fire Department’s Public Image

National Volunteer Fire Council

By David Lewis

Writing for the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC)

For nearly 300 years, the American fire service has built its reputation on service to others. Public opinion polls suggest that, other than family, we are the most trusted institution in the nation. Unfortunately, the actions of a small number of fire service members is damaging the very reputation that those before us worked so hard to establish.

In 2010, the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association (CVVFA)1 assembled a team of experts to review actions affecting the reputation of the fire service and recommend actions to be taken by departments to reverse that trend. These recommendations are documented in the Fire Service Reputation Management White Paper. Building upon the white paper, the National Society of Executive Fire Officers2 developed the Firefighter Code of Ethics that serves as a model for all fire departments and personnel to establish a culture of ethical integrity and high standard of professionalism. The International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA) agreed to publish the code on the inside front cover of every IFSTA training manual in clear sight of every student who opens the book. The Code of Ethics now also appears in the front of every National Fire Academy course guide and is included in many fire service publications to serve as a reminder of our duty to maintain these ethics.

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Taking Responsibility for Department Integrity

Ten years after the publication of the Fire Service Reputation Management White Paper, it is prudent that we revisit the tenets of the document. This provides an opportunity to review progress and address further actions needed to improve the reputation of the fire service. This article takes a brief look at some of the primary issues identified in the white paper and what actions have been completed.

Cheating on Exams

Fire departments use testing and exams for certification, promotion, and training validation. Unfortunately, there are individuals that attempt to take advantage of the system through cheating. Techniques frequently discovered include acquiring a copy of the exam, hidden notes, or having a staff member alter the scoring to allow individuals to pass the exam. When cheating is discovered, it is not only an embarrassment to the individual, but also to the department. Many departments have altered their testing procedures to include independent proctoring or testing, electronic testing, or providing a sterile testing environment where no outside materials are permitted in the testing area. Still, we see documented incidents across the U.S. where individuals have cheated and departments have not implemented and enforced stricter testing policies. Organizations must establish written policies regarding the testing and assessment process and actively enforce these policies in the testing process.

Firefighter Arson

The arrest of firefighters for arson occurs with shocking frequency and often makes the top headlines of the news. Fire setting is a destructive act that represents the opposite image of the fire service mission. The public assumes that we are there to protect them from fire and when one of our own is guilty of violating that trust, the entire fire service image suffers. What may begin with the setting of small nuisance fires often escalates to fires of greater loss and potential injury/death of civilians or fire service personnel. In 2003, the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) published a technical report, Special Report: Firefighter Arson. In 2016, the National Volunteer Fire Council, in cooperation with the USFA, published the Report on the Firefighter Arson Problem: Context, Consideration, and Best Practices followed by a toolkit to help departments with recovery and prevention. Fire service leaders must recognize the scope of the problem, be alert for warning signs among the department’s members, and improve screening procedures for new applicants to the organization.

Theft of Fire Department Funds

Mismanagement of department funds for personal financial gain continues to be an area of concern for departments across the U.S. When a department’s funds have become compromised due to the theft by a member, it creates shock waves throughout the department and the community. In many cases, it can take years to restore the community trust to support the department’s fundraising activities. In some cases, the department may suffer such a large loss that they are forced to close and abolish the organization. Departments can reduce their exposure to financial loss by having checks and balances in place to oversee the financial management system. No one individual should have enough control of department funding to permit embezzlement to occur without oversight and controls. Oversight is not just about developing an environment of trust, but it also includes the implementation of commonly accepted financial practices.

Misuse of Department Equipment or Facilities

Fire stations, whether staffed 24 hours a day or not, are considered available 24 hours a day for emergency response. The department’s members are often given access to the facilities and equipment without supervision and may at times be the only individual in the station. Sometimes this leads to the temptation to use department equipment and facilities for personal use. Although some departments allow this on a limited basis, controls must be in place to ensure that the equipment is maintained and available for emergency response needs. There have been documented incidents where equipment has been broken or stolen by department members, making it unavailable for emergency response. To ensure that this equipment is available for emergency response needs, departments must have written policies in place that govern the use of equipment and facilities by its members. These policies must be backed up with enough oversight to ensure that they are being adhered to and no improper use is being conducted.

Misuse of Personal Information Technology

We live in an interconnected world, where everybody is constantly aware of what’s going on around them through the view of social media. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and other social media sites are now commonly used and anything that your organization does is likely to be commented on by the public in one of these media streams. Also of concern is how your own members communicate while on social media. It is critical that your department use social media to your advantage by controlling who may post information about the department. Although individual members have the right to post their own comments, any postings that may reflect poorly on the department must be controlled and prohibited. A strong social media policy must be implemented and enforced so that social media is a tool for the department to use in preserving its image.

Alcohol and Substance Abuse

There can be no more tragic story than to read of a preventable loss of life or significant property damage caused by a department member operating an emergency vehicle while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Unfortunately, these incidents can be found periodically in the nation’s headlines. Historically, alcohol use and department activities were interchangeable and widely permissible, with a blind eye often taken when a member had a few drinks before responding on an emergency call. Today, policies are more stringent and prohibit the use of alcohol prior to an emergency response. The leadership of an organization must constantly be aware of each member’s physical and mental capacity to respond to emergency incidents and enforce a policy of zero-tolerance when dealing with alcohol or drug abuse.

Harassment and Discrimination

The fire service has historically adopted a culture where it was acceptable to conduct hazing and new member initiation pranks. However, today’s fire service is much different. We must adopt an environment where harassment and discrimination are unacceptable practices and punishable by disciplinary actions. Harassment and discrimination not only tarnish the image of the department but may result in a financial loss. Fines and lawsuits have awarded substantial amounts to individuals who have been the subject of such behaviors. Leaders must take a strong stand on harassment and discrimination. It is not acceptable to ignore offensive behaviors as just jokes and thinking that they will pass. A strong policy against harassment and discrimination must be in place and enforced to ensure an environment that is welcoming to all members.

Ten Years Later: A Look Ahead

It has been 10 years since the publication of CVVFA’s Fire Service Reputation Management White Paper. Much like fire prevention measures are intended to reduce or eliminate fire loss, the recommendations of the white paper are intended to guide departments in reducing or eliminating the issues identified above. However, it is important to recognize that despite our best practices with either of these initiatives, there will continue to be reoccurrences of these types of incidents.

While much progress has been made in changing the behaviors of fire service personnel, incidents of the nature described above continue to occur. It is up to the leadership of each department to initiate an internal assessment of their organization and determine where policies may need to be implemented or enforced to prevent their department from experiencing these issues. Through a combination of enhanced and improved internal controls, increased vigilance and oversight, and a greater acceptance of personal responsibility, together we can preserve the long-standing tradition of the fire service as a trusted and dependable community service.

END NOTES

(1) The Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association was formed in 1901 by a group of fire chiefs from across Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia for the purpose of developing a mutual aid system for incidents along the Cumberland Valley Railroad. The organization still exists today as a multi-state organization expanding beyond the borders of those four original states and regularly meets to identify best practices to address common issues challenging the modern fire service.

(2) In 2014, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) established the Executive Fire Officers Section to assume the responsibilities of the National Society of Executive Fire Officers.

David Lewis is the Maryland director for the NVFC and is the vice-chair of the NVFC Homeland Security Committee. He is an active member of the Odenton (MD) Volunteer Fire Company, previously serving as assistant chief and as president. David is a past president of the Anne Arundel County Volunteer Firefighters Association and the Maryland State Firemen’s Association, a director with the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association, and an instructor for the National Fire Academy, the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, and University of Maryland University College.

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