To Discipline Is to Teach

BY MICHAEL HENNIGAN

Probably the biggest factor deterring fire service members from becoming leaders is the fear of disciplining a crew member. A good officer must demonstrate the willingness to do the “hard jobs,” and one of the hardest jobs for a supervisor is to discipline someone. Yet, my supervisor wants me, the captain, to have a well-trained and a well-disciplined company.

Discipline in the fire service is an absolute necessity! As an incident commander (IC) at a fire scene, I must have the utmost confidence that companies will execute their assignments. The success of my strategy depends on companies’ successfully executing their assignments.

Example: I am the IC at a three-story apartment building with fire on the second floor. I ask you to lead a hoseline to the third floor to protect personnel in their search efforts and in leading the line, but you decide instead to assist crews on the fire floor. Your decision left third-floor crews vulnerable when I believed them to be securely protected.

In the fire service, discipline begins in the fire academy. Recruits learn that the fire service is a scalar type of organization in which there is a formal line of authority or chain of command that identifies the superior and subordinate relationships in the organizational structure. The scalar chain supports the principle of unity of command, which holds that a subordinate report to one and only one supervisor. The system provides the supervisor with a clear position of authority to prevent a subordinate from receiving conflicting orders that often result in the dangerous act of “freelancing.”

Discipline must continue to be reinforced at the company level. Company officers must demonstrate their willingness to discipline a member when it is appropriate. Company members as well as department superiors expect leaders to enforce department rules and regulations and to discipline when needed.

Let’s clear the air over the notion of discipline as punishment. The root of the word “discipline” is from “discipulus,” which means instruction or knowledge. When we discipline a crew member, we are teaching acceptable behavior. We do this not because we are egotistical tyrants but out of necessity to keep everyone safe.

PROGRESSIVE DISCIPLINE

Most departments today have written policies and procedures regarding problem performance and how it is to be handled. Progressive discipline is the norm. Progressive discipline is defined as a series of disciplinary actions or steps in which each succeeding step is more severe than the preceding one, leading to improvement of performance or termination of employment. The progressive discipline system normally begins with the recruitment process and continues through orientation, training, performance evaluations, and daily supervision. A progressive discipline system consists of the following:

  • Verbal warning.
  • Written warning.
  • Suspension.
  • Termination.

The disciplinary procedure should follow four rules:

1. The employee must know the nature of the problem.
2. The employee must know what must be done to fix the problem.
3. The employee must have a reasonable period of time in which to fix the problem.
4. The employee must understand the consequences of inaction.

If a firefighter is not meeting standards and has performed well previously, the company officer needs to find out what has caused the change in behavior. If the reason is overwhelming personal issues, the officer needs to direct the firefighter to the appropriate assistance programs, peer counseling, or the department chaplain.

If the substandard performance stems from something related to the job, corrective action should be initiated at the lowest level, the company officer.

There are, primarily, three reasons for substandard performance:

  • Ignorance. The firefighter did not know what was expected or the standard to which the task was to be performed. This can be corrected through training.
  • Inability. The firefighter lacked the necessary skill level to perform the task. This can also be corrected through training.
  • Unwillingness. The firefighter knows what is required and has the necessary skill level but for some reason chooses not to perform up to standard. In this case, the firefighter will require counseling and may necessitate discipline if there is no change in behavior.

Officers must remember to match the discipline to the seriousness of the offense; in so doing, they must consider the following:

  • The severity of the offense.
  • The employee’s past performance record.
  • The employee’s length of service with the department.
  • The department’s past practice when dealing with this situation.

Administer discipline fairly, not equally. Fair means treating each employee appropriately, individually, based on the circumstances, performance, and contribution of that employee. Equal treatment requires good bookkeeping. Fair treatment requires good judgment.

Example: The company officer notices that the engineer/driver has not topped off the engine’s fuel tank before turning it over to the oncoming shift. In fact, on more than one occasion, the rig was below the three-quarter minimum standard. That morning, the officer approached the engineer while he was checking out the rig and asked him if he was aware that he failed to top off the rig on several occasions and had left the fuel tank dangerously low on more than one occasion. The engineer replied that he was in a hurry to get home and had just forgotten, but it won’t happen again. The officer pointed out the importance of topping off; it is the engineer’s responsibility, as outlined in department rules and regulations; and the crew’s safety depends on his diligence. Since the employee had a long history as a conscientious engineer, the officer encouraged him to continue the good work he has demonstrated in the past.

In almost every case, the substandard performance will stop here, but the officer must be prepared to take it to the next level, if necessary.

The Next Level

Things go well for several weeks before it is brought to the attention of the officer that the engineer failed to clean the power tools after the fire on the previous shift. (Note: It is not necessary to violate the same rule to warrant discipline. Any additional offenses will require punitive action.) The officer asks the engineer to come into his office. The officer reviews their previous discussion regarding the duties of the engineer, the engineer’s agreement to fulfill his duties, and the current failure. If the employee has a history of conscientious service, there is most likely an underlying issue that has changed his performance, and it is imperative that the officer inquire about the underlying cause for the change. If the cause is a personal issue, the officer must ensure that the employee gets the appropriate help, but this does not preclude the officer from administering punishment.

The officer will follow the four rules of the disciplinary procedure: explaining the nature of the problem, what must be done to fix the problem, the period of time in which to fix the problem, and the consequences of inaction. He must also inform the employee that his annual performance appraisal will have a reference to this counseling session and a note on his improved performance, if appropriate.

Many officers do not believe they have the authority to punish an employee. I disagree. If a counseling session is necessary, some “in-house” punitive measures are appropriate—e.g., inventory the truck, mop the apparatus floor, or wax the engine. A willful continuance of substandard performance will require referral to the next higher level of authority with a recommendation for suspension. Keep in mind that a recommendation for disciplinary action may need to meet legal or contractual requirements, such as legal or union representation.

It is imperative that every officer and every “acting” or “temporary” officer be familiar with the department’s personnel policies. Problems seem to occur more frequently when there is a “substitute teacher” in charge, and nothing will be more scrutinized by your superiors than your handling of a personnel issue.

Here are some tips to remember:

  • Neither a tyrant nor a pushover will be a successful leader.
  • Address issues early on. They seldom get better over time and usually only get worse.
  • Be prepared to deal with personnel issues. They will often occur without warning, and then it is too late.
  • Even the best crews will have someone who loses focus and needs reminding.
  • Never hold a grudge. When the behavior improves, put it behind you.
  • Catch people doing things right. Positive reinforcement can prevent poor performance.
  • A reprimand is about the behavior, not the person. The objective is to improve the performance.

No one should be deterred from a leadership position because of fear to counsel a crew member. The rewards of leadership are far greater than the occasional discomfort of having to discipline.

MICHAEL HENNIGAN retired as a battalion chief from the San Francisco (CA) Fire Department in 2005, after serving for 35 years. He has a degree in business from the University of San Francisco and teaches management, tactics, and leadership. His column “Captain’s Corner” appears at www.fireengineering.com.

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