Bad Apples and Bad Barrels

Bobby Halton   By Bobby Halton

The fire service has always been a bastion of tremendous moral strength not only for its members but for the communities they serve. Embodying some of humanity’s most noble qualities, firefighters throughout the years have provided selfless service and risked their lives and lost their lives in defense of their neighbors, their communities, and their oaths. Almost universally, you can find stories of incredible kindness and of unparalleled devotion and goodness in every fire service history. So it comes to us as a shock when we see behavior that goes directly against our moral sense.

The question becomes then, Are these the random acts of a few bad people, bad apples, or are they more indicative of a problem within that system? Both answers are correct in certain circumstances. The fire service knows that there are bad people, evil people, people who have no sense of right or wrong, of good or bad, or of just or unjust behavior. But how do we explain acts by more than one firefighter that defy our moral sense, assault our dignity, and besmirch the good name of the fire service?

We have seen some awful behavior recently: several firefighters getting involved with prostitution in the firehouse; an entire crew participating in sexually abusing mentally disadvantaged people; firefighters engaging in drinking while on duty, resulting in horrific accidents; multiple crews—12 firefighters—destroying and defiling a station over a transfer.

We might want to hope that these were just bad apples that happened to find themselves together. But were all of these men and women bad people? Probably not. We must question what could possibly make good people do evil things. We must try to understand it. It is imperative that we try to come to grips with what could possibly drive good firefighters to violate their oath. Psychologists have concluded that situational power can overcome individual power in given contexts. This does not absolve anyone from responsibility for engaging in immoral, illegal, or evil conduct.

Bad barrels exist, and so do bad apples. In one case, the system is the issue, and good people can find themselves acting in ways that defy their own deeply held moral code; the other is more a personal choice to do wrong. I think it is interesting to look at how systems promote good/heroics and evil.

There is an amazing amount of study devoted to how people live up to the expectations of the situation and their role in it, whether it be hero or villain. Much of it is the result of the Stanford Prison Experiment in the ’70s, which helps us understand how Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers Party controlled Germany and its good people, how good soldiers went bad in Abu Ghraib, the evil of the Peoples Temple in Guyana, and the most recent ethnic horrors of Rawanda. To a much less dramatic sense, we can help to understand how firefighters who knew better found themselves participating in behavior that as individuals they would have never even considered possible.

The key in changing behavior or preventing unwanted behavior requires that we understand what strengths; what virtues; what qualities, skills, and vulnerabilities firefighters bring to a given situation. We must understand what individual firefighters bring to a situation, what situational forces bring out of those firefighters, and how system forces create and maintain situations.

Every firefighter begins with a clean moral slate, an overwhelming desire to do good and serve their fellow man. Every firefighter is dedicated to being kind, innovative, and heroic. How then do these incredible individuals become disengaged? It often begins by dehumanizing potential victims, giving groups of people disparaging and dehumanizing names, such as “retard,” “loser,” and the list goes on and on. Agreeing to go down the wrong road has much to do with our need to belong or wanting to belong and our need for social approval, to be liked and respected. Those leading dissident behavior often help foster an “us vs. them” mentality referred to as groupthink.

For the fire service, it is the very system we live in that sometimes can be the enemy of our own moral sense. Our institutional authority that allows us to operate on the fireground can be misused off the fireground in evil ways. Oftentimes, a misguided superior will go unquestioned because of his rank. And then there is the evil of inaction, the fear that we all have of standing up to power, standing up to bullies, being the lone voice in opposition.

There are ways to combat evil and bad behavior. We must always be self-aware—who we are, what our position means to others, and what is expected of us. We must always be sensitive to the situation—those involved and how it is affecting us. And we must always rely on our inner senses—our intuition, our gut feeling that we get when we know something is not right.

It’s important to note that not all is doom and gloom today. There is a serious psychological movement, the Positive Psychological Movement, which studies the positive in human nature and how situations and individuals create heroes. The most important advice in battling evil came from the great coach Vince Lombardi, who once said, “There are a lot of coaches with good ball clubs who know the fundamentals and have plenty of discipline but still don’t win the game. They’re missing the third ingredient: If you’re going to play together as a team, you’ve got to care for one another. You’ve got to love each other.”

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