BY RICHARD MARINUCCI
The fire service is full of outstanding people. In my own department and through my travels, I have found the best people are part of the fire service. Almost all the time, firefighters are hard working, dedicated, and very trustworthy. Further, we are frequently considered one big family. For these and other reasons, it is often hard for us to believe that one of our members may go astray (just as we would think about one of our own personal family members). We want so much to believe that no one will ever get in trouble that we don’t prepare for the day when it will happen. This is not to say that it will necessarily happen to you in your career or that you will have to deal with it. If you don’t, count your blessings. Regardless, it is part of the preparation for chief officer to anticipate issues so that you can act appropriately should they occur. This introduction leads us to the discussion of this month’s problem.
Assume you are the chief (or in charge in the absence of the chief). You have just received a call from a police detective in a neighboring community informing you that one of your members has been arrested. The charges are assault and battery on a female friend, malicious damage to a hotel room, and assault on a police officer. You, in turn, request a copy of the police report. It states that your member, a firefighter and a member of the U.S. military reserves, was involved in a serious altercation. The report states that during a drinking binge, your employee assaulted a female acquaintance (employee is married but not to the acquaintance), damaged the hotel room where they were meeting, and subsequently threw a pen at a police officer during questioning. The report states that he is to be arraigned on the charges.
You contact the employee to get his side of the story. He has not offered any information to date. When confronted with the accusation, the firefighter first says his attorney has advised him not to discuss the matter. However, the employee proceeds to say that it is a huge misunderstanding and he will be cleared of all accusations. He says he is unaware of any charges.
As chief, what would you do?
Your initial reaction to this can be anger, disbelief, or a combination of the two. Depending on your relationship with the employee and contacts with the police agency, you may have differing viewpoints based on the prejudices you have. In your mind, is the action out of character for the employee? Is the police agency reputable or often perceived as bashing the fire service? Nevertheless, you need to proceed methodically within department procedures and established laws.
The first step is to inform your boss. No surprises on this one. In addition, contact your experts on this issue, human resources, city attorneys, and your union representative, if applicable. You may want to talk to your police chief to try to gain some insight. He may be able to get additional information about the neighboring department and its reputation.
Consult your rules and regulations as well as your labor agreement. You do not want to take unauthorized action. Proceed with the steps allowed by your policies. If a suspension is allowed, this would be encouraged until the matter is resolved. While the preference would be to do it without pay, you may need some advice as to the correct practice in your region or state. If you cannot suspend the individual, placing him on an administrative assignment may be your next best choice.
Next, schedule a follow-up interview with the employee. Inform the employee that he may have representation of his choice (legal, union, for example) and that discipline may result, up to and including discharge. Besides yourself, include a representative from human resources and another fire department officer. Before the meeting, place another call to the arresting agency to clarify any questions you may have and find out if anything else has occurred. Also, check the employee personnel file for other pertinent information.
In the interview, confront the accused with the information you have. Most likely, you are headed to a dismissal. However, you must proceed logically and unemotionally. This is a fact-finding mission. Stay on the issue at hand, and do not allow unrelated factors to find their way into the meeting. Stay professional and on task. In most cases, there will be few deviations from the facts, though the employee may deny all. Remember, there are a lot of people in prison who never did anything wrong!
On occasion, you will get lucky, and the employee will resign. Regardless, you must proceed as if you are preparing to dismiss. Follow your own rules and regulations and any applicable laws. Document everything in great detail. Review your reports with your legal department and human resources, and make sure they agree with your action. Sometimes you may not agree with them, but they are unattached to the employee and aware of legalities, so they may offer rational options. If the employee is considering resigning, give him a deadline. If the deadline is not met, take action to dismiss. Collect all department-issued equipment, and inform the employee of the discharge. If you have any concerns regarding safety, have your personnel with you, or even consider a police officer. We generally don’t want to think like that, but in this day and age, we need to be safe.
Dealing with the employee may be just one of the actions required. You can expect media coverage. While you would not likely see a headline stating that a plumber or carpenter was arrested, you often see a firefighter identified by occupation when something goes bad. Have a plan on how you will deal with this. Discuss it with your boss and legal department. Know what you can and cannot say.
You also most likely will have your internal rumor mill rolling. Often, there is nothing you can say. Legal issues and disciplinary matters such as this are generally not for public disclosure while under investigation. Regardless, do not let the rumors get out of control to the point of affecting your operation. You may issue a generic statement regarding the situation and the fact that an investigation is underway.
Another issue that may land on your desk is a family issue. Depending on your organization and relationships with your employees, you may know the wife. She may want to visit with you to find out what is happening. This is not generally a good situation and should be avoided if possible. You generally do not have an issue with the family, but that does not mean it will not try to work its way into your domain.
Review your rules and regulations, especially as they pertain to off-duty activities, illegal actions, and arrests. You should have a rule requiring good behavior on- and off-duty. There should be a statement that requires members to report to you when they have been arrested. This can help in two ways-it may prevent the surprise call from the police, and it may also give you more leverage to dismiss if the member fails to notify you. Legal advice on the drafting of the language is always recommended.
Take the time to review your hiring practices. Sometimes we find that this is not the first indication of a problem employee. Do a good background check. If there is any indication of a problem, explore further. Do not hire potential problems. They rarely get better, and there is usually an abundance of qualified candidates.
Like so many problems, good relationships with others can help you. We mentioned human resources and the legal department. Just as important is your relationship with the police department and your police chief. Although it may not be possible to know all the agencies in your area, there is a good chance that your police chief does. He can help you in your discussion with the arresting department and offer you insight into what all the charges and actions mean.
Be prepared for possible legal action. It could come from many angles-the employee, his spouse, his girlfriend, the damaged hotel, or anybody who thinks your department may have money! You prepare best by following procedures and the law and documenting all the steps you have taken. Do not create future problems by failing to follow due process.
No department wants to think it has an employee who may step outside the law. I hope it never happens to you. But people make mistakes. You need to prepare just in case it happens to you. You also need to do what is necessary to prevent problems, and that includes maintaining good hiring practices, good policies, and good relationships. ■
■ RICHARD MARINUCCI has been chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department since 1984. He was president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs in 1997-98 and chair of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as senior advisor to Director James Lee Witt of FEMA and acting chief operating officer of the United States Fire Administration for seven months as part of a loan program between the City of Farmington Hills and FEMA. He received the Outstanding Public Service Award from the director for his efforts. Marinucci has three B.S. degrees: in secondary education from Western Michigan University, in fire science from Madonna College, and in fire administration from the University of Cincinnati. He was the first graduate of the Open Learning Fire Service Program at the University of Cincinnati (summa cum laude) and was named a Distinguished Alumnus in 1995.