DAVID B. FULMER
As fire service leaders, we often find ourselves in situations that require us to discipline our personnel. Therefore, we must understand the disciplinary process and its components. The degrees of infractions personnel may commit require different levels of discipline. It would not be equitable to have one level of discipline enforced evenly across the board for all infractions.
The process may have many names, such as progressive discipline, but the simple fact is that the process is a stair-step approach to enforcing your organization`s policies and procedures. It allows the employee and the employer to progress through the phases, escalating the discipline as the infraction(s) escalate. The progressive discipline model is a five-step process that consists of verbal warning, verbal reprimand, written reprimand, suspension, and termination.
Why discipline? In the 16 years that I have been involved in the fire service, I have been part of career, paid-on-call, and volunteer organizations. Many had strict disciplinary policies; others had no policies. Many of us have witnessed the effects of too much or not enough discipline. When organizations allow personnel to act in ways that do not reflect the organizational goals and objectives, morale and public image may be affected.
Many departments comprised of paid-on-call or volunteer members are under the impression that their members cannot or should not be disciplined because they donate their time or do not work full-time. The simple fact remains that organizations of all kinds have rules and regulations in place to ensure that a consistent level of participation is carried out in an efficient, an effective, and a professional manner. Discipline is one tool for regulating behaviors and actions that do not coincide with what is expected from an organization member. It is a tool that can be utilized in the professional growth and development of many organizations. But what does it consist of?
Verbal warnings are usually sufficient to curtail behavior or actions that are not desirable or that violate the organization`s policies or rules. These infractions would normally involve actions that did not directly affect the public`s perception of the organization or violate any local, federal, or state statutes that place personnel in immediate danger.
A verbal warning advises the firefighter that his actions are unacceptable and will not be tolerated by the organization. The issuance of a verbal warning is not recorded or placed in the personnel file in most organizations. There can be several reasons for the firefighter`s undesirable behavior. One might be a lack of training: The firefighter may violate a department policy because he did not know it existed. It could be that the firefighter lacked judgment, which led to his doing something socially unacceptable to the organization.
Many organizations use this process on an everyday basis. Some use it in the wrong manner. In countless instances, the employee receives a verbal barrage from his immediate supervisor, on many occasions, in the presence of peers. Verbal reprimands, as all disciplinary actions, should be conducted in a setting with the supervisor and the firefighter. Whenever possible, the counseling session should end on a positive note and reinforce the importance of policies/procedures or correct actions.
Case Study #1. Assistant Chief Jirka witnesses part-time Firefighter Clinton wearing his self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) without using the waist straps. This is a clear violation of the department`s SCBA policy. The chief approaches Clinton and reminds him to fasten his waist straps. On returning from the call, Jirka pulls Clinton to the side and asks if he knows the department`s SCBA policy. He goes on to explain that the straps are an important component of the apparatus and the dangers of not fastening the straps. He then encourages Clinton to keep up the good work.
In this instance, a firefighter`s actions were not in line with the organization`s expectations. The infraction was a minor violation of a rule and warranted a low degree of discipline. The firefighter received a short counseling session to correct the behavior.
A verbal reprimand, in many cases, is the result of several verbal warnings that have not been taken to heart by the firefighter. This step in the disciplinary process is more structured than the warning, in that the employee is provided an opportunity, with the immediate supervisor, to be counseled and coached to achieve the desired outcome. The supervisor may find it appropriate to issue a corrective action plan the firefighter may use to bring his behavior/ actions into the acceptable parameters of the organization. The firefighter must be able to clearly recognize why his actions, behavior, or attitude is unacceptable prior to leaving the counseling session. He must also understand that further displays of such actions will result in appropriate disciplinary measures. In these instances, a short narrative of the events as they transpired are recorded and placed in the firefighter`s personnel file. This written document could be used in future disciplinary actions involving the firefighter. The length of time this infraction remains active may vary from organization to organization; it is normally for one calendar year.
Case Study #2. Captain Ballew is en route to the fire station and is approaching the intersection of Neil Street and Curtis Road when he witnesses Firefighter Weber roll through a four-way intersection against a red light. As Weber`s assigned officer, Ballew knows that Weber had been issued several verbal warnings for reckless driving. On completion of the call, Ballew informs Weber that he wishes to set up a meeting with him. Weber and Ballew meet and discuss the incident. They both agree that he had been warned on multiple occasions and that the deficiencies in Weber`s driving have not improved. Weber and Ballew agree on a corrective action plan, which includes Weber`s attending an emergency vehicle operators course and undergoing remedial training on the department`s driving policy and procedures.
A very serious infraction of departmental policies and procedures may result in the employee`s being temporarily suspended from the organization. This course of action is very serious, as it affects the organization`s overall effectiveness by taking one of the players out of the picture. Suspensions are used in instances where major infractions of departmental policies and procedures or federal, state, or local statutes have been violated. Among them may be repeated insubordination, driving under the influence of alcohol, and theft or other criminal activities. For less serious infractions, suspension may be used as a “wake-up call,” if you will. During this time, employees are banned from participating in the organization for a set amount of time in hopes that the time away from the job will reinforce that the organization will not tolerate such actions. Supervisors should facilitate a corrective action process that will modify the employee`s actions and bring them into compliance with what is acceptable.
Employees may be suspended with work and commitment, in which case they are not permitted to participate in emergency responses (the “fun” stuff) but must attend regular training and participate in station maintenance.
They also might be assigned a special project to complete during the suspension period. An example would be having the driver of an apparatus involved in any kind of contact review the department`s related policies, make the proper recommendations, and then give a presentation to the general membership and the board(s) of directors demonstrating that the corrective actions were investigated and implemented.
In instances involving major infractions of departmental, federal, state, or local statutes, suspension is normally used until the outcome of investigations, legal or civil litigation, or termination procedures is determined. In those instances, it might be wise to seek legal counsel before suspending an employee. This will minimize the chances that you or your organization will violate the firefighter`s rights.
Case Study #3. Firefighter Randal comes to the station from the local bar to drive the fire apparatus to a structure fire. While returning to quarters following the incident, he backs the apparatus into a parked car in the fire station parking lot. In accordance with department policy, Randal is given a test to determine if he is under the influence of alcohol/drugs. A test conducted by the local police department reveals that Randal is under the influence of alcohol and has exceeded the legal limit. Randal is advised on the spot that he is suspended pending the outcome of an investigation. Randal is also asked to be in the chief`s office the following morning for a meeting. In that meeting, Randal is advised that he is being suspended for driving under the influence. He is also told that the police department may issue citations for the offense. Pending the investigation, the violation could warrant termination. It could also warrant placing the firefighter in a rehab or treatment program if a problem exists.
The most severe form of discipline any organization can impose on a firefighter is to separate that individual from the organization. Being terminated not only affects the firefighter but the fire department as well. In the business of emergency response, we invest a considerable amount of time and energy in human resources. A tremendous amount of training time goes into qualifying an entry-level person to respond to emergency incidents. When disciplinary problems require the discharge of personnel, a valuable amount of time and money walk out the door with the employee.
This is not to say that fire departments should not use this process but that it should be used only when deemed absolutely necessary. It is no easy chore to discharge a firefighter regardless of whether the individual is a volunteer, paid-on-call, or career member. Again, it would be advisable to seek legal counsel to ensure that all applicable laws are followed and the firefighter`s rights are not violated.
Case Study #4. Firefighter Smith has not shown up for his duty day. He phones Lieutenant Sweeney and tells him that he is in jail for domestic violence. Smith is released from jail pending a trial. While he is awaiting trial, he is placed on suspension because an investigation is ongoing and a crime such as this violates the caregiver standards adopted by the state, which are applicable to Smith, since he provides medical care as part of his duties. Several months later, Smith is convicted of a felony for domestic violence. He is then terminated because he can no longer hold an emergency medical technician`s license and, therefore, cannot complete his assigned duties.
In this instance, Smith was ultimately subject to the highest level of discipline. Had he been found innocent, he would have received only the suspension pending the investigation.
Progressive discipline is a very useful tool for fire department supervisors, officers, and administrators. It can be used by metro departments down to the smallest rural volunteer fire departments. This process is systematic but yet flexible enough to fit most circumstances. The important aspect of a progressive discipline policy is to have clearly defined policies, procedures, and standard operating guidelines and to make sure that they are made available to all firefighters.
DAVID B. FULMER, a 16-year veteran of the fire service, is chief of the City of Fitchburg (WI) Fire Department. Previously, he was assistant chief for the Village of Savoy (IL) Fire Department and a program coordinator for the Fire Officer`s Programs at the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute. He has an associate`s degree in fire protection and a bachelor`s degree in technical education from the University of Akron, Ohio, and a master`s in public administration from Governors State University. He is in the National Fire Academy`s Executive Fire Officer Program.