Fire Commentary: Ethical Decision Making

By Paul H. Stein

Imagine this scenario: You are a new officer and have just finished your shift. One of the firefighters scheduled to work today has called in sick. You replace him. On the way home, you stop at the local home supply store to get some gardening supplies. On the way out of the store, you see the firefighter who called in sick. He has a load of wood that he is returning to the store.What would you say or do, if anything?

This hypothetical workplace dilemma arises often, and the way it is handled could have a major impact on your career and personal relationship, as well as on the vital twin assets of reputation and credibility.

The media bombards us with bad decisions by talented multimillionaires like Paris Hilton, Kobe Bryant, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, as well as a parade of politicians, priests, police officers, firefighters, corporate executives, and college coaches, but it’s not only the bad people who make bad decisions. If we are not vigilant, any one of us can find ourselves compromising our principles in a moment controlled by impulses like self-indulgences, fear, self-interest, or ambition.

Good intentions and moral rhetoric are no match for strong temptation and our capacity to rationalize. We must fortify our moral aspirations and ethical leadership with discipline and good judgment.

Most will say the firefighter you saw at the home supply store made a poor decision. Some would say it’s no big thing–it happens all the time. Some would say it wasn’t the right thing to do, but take no action; and some will say it wasn’t the right thing to do and take action. How do you feel about the firefighter’s decision? What would you do about it? Let me know. We will print as many responses as possible.

I believe most of us would say the firefighter made a poor and unethical decision. When he was observed at the home supply store, he and you were put in an uncomfortable situation. He abused the department sick leave policy and probably violated the department’s rules and regulations. His decision could lead to some type of discipline. The reality is that he acted inappropriately.

My mother used to tell me to stop and look both ways before I cross the street. That is also a good thought to have before making a decision. We should stop, think, and ask ourselves if we are making a good choice. The following are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Is my decision in line with the organization’s mission statement?

  • Will my decision affect others?

  • Is there another option?

  • Could I jeopardize important relationships?

  • Is it the ethical thing to do?

It’s often said that our choices reveal our character. It is also said our choices shape our character. In turn, our character shapes our destiny.

So, how would you define character? I believe that character is simply ethics in action. Successful leaders focus on building a sustainable ethical culture that nurtures and promotes integrity, competence, accountability, and encourages trust and respect while discouraging dishonesty.. I believe the officer who has character would say something to the firefighter at the home supply store.

This is certainly easier said than done. There is no such thing as the perfect fire officer or firefighter. We all make mistakes. We say and do things we regret. The important thing is that we learn from the mistakes we make. Sometimes emotion and ego get in the way of changing the unrewarding decision and the course we are traveling, and we keep right on trucking and digging a deeper hole–we “cut off our nose to spite our face.”

There are those who rationalize poor behavior and explain why it wasn’t their fault. An example of this would be a firefighter who fails a promotional exam and then blames the exam maker or says the department has it out for him or the exam was developed for a favorite child. Or, how about the lazy firefighter who comes to work to rest or to just do the bare minimum? He rationalizes this behavior in his mind and lets us all know about it. Most of us will just listen and not challenge the unacceptable rationale of the complaining firefighter. People of character will not let this rationalization slide. Organizations of character would also not let this behavior go unnoticed.

This is such a vital point. Everywhere we look we see evidence that we’re becoming a nation of unaccountable victims, whiners, and wimps all too ready to pass off responsibility to someone else. Satirist Ambrose Bierce poked fun at this tendency when he defined responsibility as “a detachable burden easily shifted to the shoulders of God, Fate, Fortune, Luck, or one’s neighbor.” The parade of recently indicted CEOs added a new object of blame to this list (“It was the people who worked for me!”) as they claim to be victims rather than perpetrators of frauds that enriched them.

Everywhere we turn, we see people blaming personal shortcomings and social ills on circumstances beyond their control or on an irresponsible media, greedy businessmen, corrupt politicians, irresistible economic pressures, and every manner of psychological syndrome. Yes, even poor fire department leadership sometimes shares the blame game.

What temptations we resist and surrender to are always a matter of choice. The choices we make are reflections of our character. Some will say it was a minor error and not a big problem when the firefighter abused the sick leave policy. What would happen if your battalion chief was also driving by the home supply store and saw both you and the firefighter? If the battalion chief confronted you, what would you say? Would you cover up? As with Watergate and President Nixon, sometimes the cover-up ends up being worse than the underlying offense.

The bottom line is that each of us can be as ethical with our decisions as we are willing to be. We need to think about our decisions in terms of simply being right or wrong and how they impact relationships and our credibility and reputation.

Paul H. Stein is a retired chief officer of the Santa Monica (CA) Fire Department. His 31-year career includes 25 years of experience as a supervisor. He has served as a line officer, battalion commander, fire marshal, and training officer. After retirement, he served nine months as an interim fire chief in Lakeside, California. Stein has served as the fire technology coordinator at Santa Monica College, an instructor for the California Fire Academy System, and a former adjunct faculty member for the National Fire Academy. He has an associate’s degree in fire technology and a bachelor’s degree in management and is a master instructor for the California Department of Education.

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