THE CHIEF’S PROBLEM IS THE CHIEF!

BY RICHARD MARINUCCI

Most of the problems facing a fire chief are created by others-employees, bosses, elected officials, and citizens, for example. But what happens when the chief has to deal with a self-inflicted “wound”?

A few months ago, actor Mel Gibson found himself in a public relations nightmare. While intoxicated, he made comments about Jewish people that created quite a backlash against him. Of course, the potential damage to him is mostly a loss of publicity, prestige, and popularity. Although there is a possibility of financial loss, my guess is that he can’t spend all the money he has. Another example of someone in the public eye (but the outcome had minimal effect) involved President Bush and his comments to U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair that were picked up by an open microphone.

But what would the outcome be if it were the fire chief who made inappropriate comments? It could mean the loss of credibility and even the loss of the job (which, unless you had Mel Gibson’s bank account, would be significant). How you handle a case like this will most definitely affect the outcome. On top of that, you do not have access to the publicist, hired help, and spin doctors to assist you with damage control. You most likely will be on your own.

Now for the problem. You are at a social function on a Friday night. You are mingling, as is your practice, and you settle in on a discussion with a few men who have expressed interest in the fire service and your career. Nothing is unusual, and you are really enjoying yourself, having a few cocktails along with everyone else (not to the point of being intoxicated but “relaxed”). You are in a comfort zone and start telling stories. As you gain control of your “audience,” you “add” a little to make the stories more entertaining. Everyone is having a good time.

You reach a point where a reasonably serious question arises: What changes have you seen in your career? One of your answers is the addition of women to the fire service. This piques one of the men’s interest. He probes and asks if women have the physical ability to do the job. This is not unusual; you have been asked this question many times. You respond with the standard answers: Women must meet the same standards as men, they work very hard, they have accomplished much, and many women have been promoted to chief in large and small departments.

This does not satisfy the group. They want your personal opinion. The alcohol is doing its job of relaxing all of you. You believe that you have their confidence and it will be harmless to tell them what they really want to hear from you. Your thinking is that they will continue on this subject, so by offering an “off the cuff” comment, you can move on to another topic. You make a statement that you would not make while “on the job,” and it is inappropriate. Everyone laughs and, as you expected, the discussion moves on.

THE REPERCUSSIONS

Monday morning, you receive a call from the Human Resource (HR) director. She wants to have a meeting with you. You go to her office. When you arrive, your boss is also in the office. As you sit, the HR director tells you that a complaint has been filed against you regarding sexual harassment. Apparently, someone overheard your comments from the previous Friday and did not like them. Further, a formal complaint was submitted. Now what?

So much of what happens next depends on your work history and your relationship with the boss and HR director. If they know you, like you, and trust you, they will be on your side. If you have no other complaints, that, too, will be helpful. If you have other issues within your community, this matter could have the potential to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

If the situation is not good, there is not much more for me to say than “dust off your resume or file your retirement papers.”

So, let’s assume you are in good standing. Start by telling your side of the story, being truthful all the way. Hopefully, you were not too intoxicated so that you forget some of the details. Take this seriously; do not attempt to downplay the situation. Relay the information as best you can recall. Understand that because you placed little significance on the comments you made, your recall may not be too good. It is sometimes hard to remember things that occur in passing. But do your best. When you are finished, inquire as to how your story matches with the complaint. If it is not too far off, the next step is to offer to apologize to whoever complained and whoever else might have been offended.

If your history is positive, most will consider your comments out of character and give you the benefit of the doubt. Ask if you are allowed to face your accuser so you can make it right. Also inquire as to the status of possible media exposure. If that could happen, prepare to respond when called. If you get a positive feeling from the meeting and you believe you will be supported by your boss, work together on developing the best course of action.

If it appears that you will be left out on a limb by yourself, consider retaining counsel. You do not need to use it, but you may get some good advice if things get worse. You may have to take your lumps and move on. If you have a solid background, you will be given the benefit of the doubt. Try to move on as quickly as you can and get back to the job of running the department.

Speaking of the department, if word has reached your organization, you will have some damage control to do. Women in your organization will be offended. The men will be in one of two camps, both of which can affect the department. Some men will empathize with the women and also question your representation of the organization. You will need to address this group. Other men might think that you were just “telling it like it is,” which can create issues between the men and women firefighters. This also cannot be ignored.

SOME SUGGESTIONS

This can be a very tough issue and can be a career-ender. The best thing is not to let it happen. Like everything, the easiest problems to solve are those that don’t happen. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Always do things right. A good history will help you when you do make a mistake. Sole issues seldom last for long.
  • Avoid situations that can lead to “brain freeze”-not-thinking, “heat of the moment” comments. You are on duty 24/7 and are expected to represent the department most professionally.
  • Know your audience. Do not get into controversial issues (not limited to women in the fire service) with “new” friends.
  • Be aware of your surroundings. Assume you are always on camera-and in today’s world, you might be!
  • Though not always possible, sometimes it is nice to have someone around to kick you when you start to get a bit out of character (like a spouse).
  • As with virtually all problems, relationships are extremely important. Always work toward building strong relationships with everyone.
  • Control your alcohol intake. Alcohol has been the downfall of many. If people are suggesting you have a problem, take them seriously.
  • If you made a mistake, apologize immediately, and without prodding.

We are all humans and subject to mistakes. Do your best not to make any mistakes, avoid situations that may contribute to lapses in judgment, and address accusations head on. Here’s hoping you never have to remove your foot from your mouth!

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.

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