Courtroom Concerns for the Firefighter
LAWS AND LEGISLATION
Firefighters are frequently being called upon to give testimony on fire-related matters. Following a few rules of courtroom demeanor can play a large part in the final outcome.
On many occasions, the firefighter will be called upon to testify in court. In this role, he can be the pivotal figure supplying essential information about a violation of a local fire code; in the prosecution of a suspected arsonist; or in the defense of an action taken during firefighting operation.
For the novice, the mere idea of testifying can be quite an ordeal. Firefighters, unfortunately, do not receive training in “courtroom atmosphere and demeanor” to properly prepare them for this experience. This situation can no longer be tolerated. In today’s society, firefighters are being called to court more frequently than in the past and, therefore, must be personally prepared to understand what they will face and how to handle themselves.
Firefighters must remember that they are professionals, trained in their craft, and they should take comfort in the fact that they have the knowledge to testify; this is as important a part of their professionalism as firefighting.
Courtroom testimony will be a great deal easier if the firefighter acquaints himself with some basic rules of courtroom demeanor. Always remember that your appearance, actions, and speech can have as strong an effect as the facts you present.
- Be on time. You will probably be subpoenaed to appear in court, and the time of your appearance will be noted on the subpoena. Tardiness can reflect a negative attitude, indicating that you do not really care about the case.
- Be concerned about your appearance. Most departments require that you appear in court in the type of clothing in which you perform your duties. Whatever the case, you should be neat and clean, and if civilian clothing is worn, it should be conservative.
- Your appearance should command respect and have you appear as a person in control of himself. Casual or sloppy attire, i.e., jeans, open collars, and the like, are not acceptable.
- Be courteous. This may be difficult at times, particularly during cross examination by the defense counsel; but no matter how difficult, always be polite. Take your time with every response. Make sure that you thoroughly understand the question before you attempt to answer it. Use the appropriate terminology and titles whenever possible, e.g., “sir,” “ma’am,” and “your honor.”
- Be factual. Always remember that you have sworn to tell only the truth. Nothing will bring discredit to your testimony faster than being caught in a lie. Answer only the question asked. Do not ramble or become carried away with your testimony.
- Be comfortable. This is extremely important and includes a number of important points: Maintain a good posture and sit up straight in the chair; place your hands where they will be most comfortable, either on the arms of the chair or in your lap; make it a point not to fidget so that you will have an air of authority and self-assuredness; be certain that you establish and maintain eye contact with the questioner, as this helps you avoid gazing at ceilings or floors or out of windows and assists you in maintaining your train of thought. Also, eye contact presents a psychological advantage regarding your expertise in the case.
- Never volunteer information. This is perhaps the most important point and is a common error for the newcomer to courtroom procedures. Many cases have been lost because a firefighter or a law enforcement officer has offered too much information, thus allowing the case to be weakened by the introduction of new evidence. If you do not know the answer to a question, say so. If you do not recall all of the circumstances of a situation, say so.