RECRUIT ACADEMY: A GUIDE TO PROCEDURES

DO YOUR JOB AS A RECRUIT TRAINING OFFICER, PRODUCE THE BEST FIREFIGHTERS POSSIBLE, AND HAVE THE COURAGE TO NOT LET RECRUITS WHO WON’T BE GOOD FIREFIGHTERS GRADUATE.

BY KATHERINE T. RIDENHOUR

The recruit academy is about to begin. All the logistical needs appear to be in order. But, is everything really in order? What if a recruit is not meeting standards and has to be terminated? What if the termination leads to a lawsuit? Would you and your academy staff be protected? What about your department?

It is in everyone’s best interest, of course, to have every recruit emerge from the academy successful, competent, and fireground ready. The premise of this article is that this is your department’s primary objective and the procedures outlined here will help to ensure that competent firefighters graduate from your recruit academy. However, they will also help you to terminate a recruit fairly when termination is your only option. My department’s legal counsel to the fire chief and other employment litigation lawyers have reviewed these procedures. All agree that the outlined practices are sound and current.

STAFF SELECTION: GOOD PRACTICES AND TEAM ATTITUDE
Correct selection of the academy training staff is crucial. Regardless of rank, all staff members directly involved with instruction are considered subject matter experts (SME). From a legal standpoint, SMEs represent the expertise of the department in terms of skills and experience.

The training staff should have a strong mix of personalities and competencies. Most critical is that there be consistency among instructors-consistency in how skills are taught on the drill ground, consistency in discipline procedures, and consistency in attitude. This point cannot be overemphasized. This means no “buddy/buddy'” with the recruits; the use of last names only; and no tolerance for foul language, jokes, or demeaning nicknames. And, no hazing! In hazing, there is a fine line between harassment and well-intended instructional pointers. Don’t jeopardize your job by not treating people with respect, regardless of where they fit in the organizational hierarchy.

All interaction with recruits should be based on official contact only. Off-duty contact should not be allowed. This means no going out for beers after drills, no phone calls at night (unless it is an emergency, of course), and no private meetings. The staff should keep a professional distance to remain unbiased and lessen contact that could later be deemed as inappropriate.

Instruct recruits from the first day at the academy that everything said to them is to be taken as a direct order. Hence, it is imperative that the staff’s professionalism be consistent and maintained throughout the academy. As mentioned before, all instructors, regardless of rank or time on the job, are SMEs; recruits consider them as officers in the academy setting.

The instructors’ primary roles are to coach, to mentor, and to teach to the best of their abilities. This point cannot be overemphasized. However, all instructors need to keep in mind that their job is also to evaluate performance. What percentage of the instructor’s time is spent as an instructor and as an evaluator? My department’s legal counsel states, “Academy instructors are evaluators 100 percent of the time.” So, whether formally or informally, you, as an SME, are responsible for continuously evaluating performance.

Confidentiality
Confidentiality is critical to staff professionalism. When nonstaff members ask how a recruit is performing-independently of what issues might be going on-instructors should respond, “All recruits are meeting standard.” Do not give recruits a bad reputation before they go into the fire station. This can become a liability issue. If a negative comment is made and it becomes known that it was made, this could be the basis for a defamation of character charge should the recruit have to be released from the academy.

Preknowledge of recruits is an area related to confidentiality. If department members or staff know a recruit prior to hiring, that can be detrimental if the recruit does not make it through the academy. If a termination were investigated, the department would have to prove that prior knowledge of the recruit did not affect the employment decision. Since the fire service’s best recruitment efforts involve people we know, this issue needs to be considered. Do not allow preconceptions to blur your judgment as an instructor, regardless of which family the recruit is from or what circumstances occurred prior to the recruit’s employment. Your job is to ensure that quality recruits graduate from the academy.

A point to keep in mind is that today’s workforce has the “little black book” mentality. We, as instructors, must be documenting their performance; trust me, they are doing the same to you and your staff-especially if they are not performing well and may be facing termination. Therefore, as a staff member, maintain an appropriate staff attitude and the proper level of interaction, and be professional, or you and your department may be exposed to allegations that involve liability.

STANDARDS, DOCUMENTATION, AND PAPERWORK NEEDED PRIOR TO THE ACADEMY
Prior to the start of the academy, make sure all paperwork relating to the academy process is in order. These documents lay the foundation and framework for all procedures. Review the paperwork and documents, and keep them current. The list begins with the following:

  • City/county policies and procedures.
  • Department rules and regulations, standard operating procedures or standard operating guidelines, and so on.
  • Fire service standards:
    -NFPA 1001, Standard for Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications;
    -NFPA 1500, Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, Chapter 10, “Medical and Physical”;
    -Department of Transportation (DOT) hazardous materials certification;
    -EMS certification standard (applicable to your department); and
    -Local/regional/national certification testing standards.

The Firefighter Job Description
This document should describe the summary of responsibilities and the essential functions of firefighting (a legal term). It should outline working conditions, the required qualifications, the required skills and responsibilities, and any required licenses/certifications. Included are the U.S. Department of Labor Job Code classifications under the Working Conditions/Physical Demands and Work Environment sections. This document must reflect exactly what skills/responsibilities you expect the firefighter to acquire/perform, as this information will be heavily relied on in a termination to determine the essential functions of firefighting. Notice the references to NFPA standards, department SOPs or SOGs, Administrative Orders, and OSHA.

The Academy Code of Conduct
This document represents the academy’s core values and basic rules. When recruits sign the copy given to them, they agree to abide by the Code. The Firefighter Performance Expectations identified at the end represent observable behaviors, which can assist in identifying and documenting poor attitude and undesirable traits.

The Recruit Academy Testing Policy
This document reviews the testing policy with the recruits at the start of the academy and outlines the various passing scores and criteria for academic, physical fitness, and state certification tests.

The Document List
This is a list of selected reference material handed out to the recruits at the beginning of the academy. Recruits sign to indicate that they have received, read, and understood the material, and that they are accountable for all academy procedures and policies. It is imperative to allow the recruits enough time to read this material and to give them opportunities to ask for clarification or answers to any questions they may have. (Editor’s note: These and other documents used in the Recruit Academy may be downloaded from www.fireengineering.com; click on “The Recruit Academy Process” in the “New from Fire Engineering” box. The forms may be adapted for your department. They are posted with permission of Aurora (CO) Fire Departmnt Chief Casey Jones.)

The training staff should require that the recruit sign for and acknowledge receipt of the aforementioned documents. Signing indicates that recruits have reviewed and agree to follow the procedures. Once the recruits sign this or any paper, give them a copy for their records, and file the original at the academy. Now, if terminated employees are asked in a court of law if they were given all the policies at the beginning and if they understood the academy’s expectations, they would have to answer yes, and you can prove that they did.

RELATIONSHIP WITH LEGAL COUNSEL
Lawyers typically are not firefighters’ favorite people; however, in an academy setting, they can be your best friends. Some departments do have a lawyer on staff; many cities and fire protection districts have attorneys or contract with an employment law firm. It is well worth your time to forge a relationship with the attorneys prior to an academy, especially before a termination. Develop, nurture, and insist on this relationship. Be proactive to protect your and the department’s interests. Even though most recruits are considered at-will or probationary employees and do not have the same rights as firefighters beyond probation, you still need to treat them as equitably as possible and to demonstrate fair practices.

The lawyer should be involved in the development and review of all policies, procedures, and disciplinary measures. The lawyer should teach a mandatory legal class to all instructors prior to every academy. This may seem redundant if you have little turnover in staff, but it serves as an excellent reminder of the staff’s responsibilities and allows time for questions and discussion on issues from past academies. This is also a good time to review all harassment/discrimination policies and any new procedures.

The lawyer should also teach the Harassment/Discrimination/Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) class to the recruits at the beginning of the academy. It is the employer’s legal responsibility to inform the employees of the avenues available to them should such issues arise. This is another lesson from the school of hard knocks: Do not “throw” this class in at the end of the academy or when you have an open slot in the schedule. This class sets the tone for the professionalism required in the academy and may help avoid future complications.

The best way to help the lawyers understand the academy requirements is to invite them to ride with on-line crews and get them on the drill ground to let them observe different skill events. Teach/show them the job. It is important that they understand what it takes to throw ladders and perform searches and so on. When they know what we actually do and what is required to be a good firefighter, they can defend our actions.

Work with the lawyer before you take any adverse action. Our lawyer is contacted once we begin to see a pattern of behavior that may lead to a termination. Frequently, the lawyer reveals a perspective not considered or suggests actions that may assist us in the long run.

Legal involvement is critical if EEOC complaints are filed against the department or if terminated recruits threaten potential lawsuits. Anecdotal information indicates that the average loss of recruits is approximately 15 to 20 percent per academy across the country. The best insurance your department has against being successfully sued over a recruit termination is to consistently follow policies and procedures and to have good, fair practices in place. The basis for success in terminations is using the process of Prescription Agreements to identify deficiencies in performance and to try to correct them in a fair manner (see Figure 1 above).

THE BIG FOUR: ATTITUDE, ACADEMICS, DRILL GROUND SKILLS, PHYSICAL FITNESS
Four traits and abilities make up the ideal recruit: attitude, academics, drill ground skills, and physical fitness. None is assigned a greater value than the other; all are equal. These areas must be defined in terms of performance prior to an academy if the recruits are to understand the expectations; if they do not meet the expectations, they should be terminated.

Attitude. Everyone knows how important attitude is in this job. No one wants to work with a jerk. The fire service needs people who respect traditions, chain of command, and fellow firefighters. We want people who are flexible, responsible, and competent. We want good people in the fire station and in front of the public. Attitude is critical. The questions are, How do you define attitude? and How do you document “bad” attitude? The Code of Conduct lists the Fire Fighter Performance Expectations, describable behaviors that outline the desirable (and expected) traits and characteristics (see Figure 2). The general areas are judgment, communication skills, adaptability/stress management, problem solving, initiative/motivation, integrity, community awareness, and interpersonal skills. Each area has a brief list of observable components that describe the expected behavior.

Can a recruit be terminated for a bad attitude? Yes. Attitude issues must be observable, identifiable, and documented on paper. The Fire Fighter Performance Expectations in the Code of Conduct define the standard for attitude; any deficiency in this area can be documented. Recruits have been terminated for attitude issues even though they were strong performers on the drill ground. Remember, our job is to provide our fellow firefighters and our citizens with the best employees possible. If we graduate a recruit who will be a problem for the next 20 years, we have failed in our job as instructors.

Do not minimize the importance of academics. The fire service demands the ability to learn and retain new material; write legible reports, which are legal documents; and process information to make life-and-death decisions. The academic testing policy requires that all tests be passed with an 80-percent score and that no more than three tests be failed. The reasoning behind this is that in the academic world, 70 percent represents minimum competency and 80 percent displays mastery of skills. In which category do you want your firefighters to be?

Academics. In one termination based strictly on academics, a city attorney reviewing the paperwork because of an EEOC complaint pointed out that this person’s grades were all very close to 80 percent (test scores were 76 percent, 78 percent, and 79 percent). He then asked, “The scores are so close; why is it important they meet the 80 percent mark?” It wasn’t the fact that the person was a point or two from passing; the point was that this person missed 20 to 24 test questions, and who could say whether those questions would have meant saving his life, a fellow firefighter’s life, or a citizen’s life on the fireground? That ended the discussion. Academics represents critical skills a firefighter must possess.

A final note on academics: Develop or purchase validated written tests. It is rare to find a fire instructor who is an expert at writing tests. Spending the money for validated tests is a sound and legal investment.

Drill ground skills. They constitute the basis of firefighting. All recruits must be proficient at performing the basics of the job before graduation. Lack of drill ground skills is usually the cause of the majority of terminations. Most of these terminations are because of a lack of strength or endurance, poor instruction, or the inability to learn the basic skills and then to multitask those skills.

Physical fitness. Recruits must enter the academy with a high fitness level, or they may not be able to complete academy requirements. Giving the entry-level physical agility test as close to the start of the academy is one way to help ensure they possess the necessary strength. Lack of good instruction can also cause recruits to fail. It is imperative that instructors possess the skills and methodology to reach the recruits as well as the desire to teach.

Another area commonly seen in terminations is the inability to multitask. An individual may be able to successfully perform individual components of a skill but may not be able to “put it all together” to perform an entire evolution. In the academy setting, no department has unlimited time to teach people to be firefighters. By the end of the academy, recruits must be ready to take their place on the real fireground.

Everyone understands the importance of physically fit firefighters, and the physical fitness standard must define the level of fitness expected. A commonly used standard is NFPA 1500, which mandates a physical fitness program and a physical performance assessment. Fitness and performance testing should be validated if used for employment decisions.

One of the most critical benchmarks for the academy is to ensure that recruits have successfully passed the validated fitness test prior to live fire training. Live fire training should not be introduced into the academy until all individual skills have been evaluated and the recruits have demonstrated that they are physically fit enough to fight fire. Legal counsel wholeheartedly supports this criterion. Do not put recruits in a live fire situation until they are able to function at basic skills and they possess the necessary strength to fight fire. The liability associated with this issue is too great to ignore. Typically, live fire training is introduced in the academy after the midway point.

Identify and define in writing each of these Big Four benchmarks, standards, and expectations prior to documenting poor performance in these areas. A critical point regarding the Big Four is that all documentation should be defined in terms of safety issues. Deficiencies or poor performance in any of these areas needs to be related back to safety. If a recruit is not performing skills well, it is a safety issue. If the recruit is not performing up to academic standards, it is a safety issue. If the recruit is not physically fit enough to perform the job, it is a safety issue. And if a recruit has a “bad” attitude, it is a safety issue. Safety is the bottom line: You are guaranteeing that all recruits have met the standards, can perform the job, and are capable of protecting our communities. Everyone has a vested interest when it comes to safety issues-in and out of a court of law.

PERFORMANCE PARAMETERS FOR EVALUATIONS
Competence, confidence, and consistency-the “Three Cs of Performance Parameters”-are used to evaluate recruits’ skills and performance.

Regardless of the grading system you use, the bottom line is that the recruit must perform skills competently: All skills on the Job Sheet can be checked off. Recruits must perform skills confidently: They do not hesitate when performing, they execute the skill at an acceptable rate of speed, and they do not stop during the evolution. And, recruits must perform consistently: Just because they are able to perform the skill one time does not mean they are proficient at the skill. Many times a recruit will pass the evaluation and not be able to perform the skill the next week. All too often, instructors work very hard to get a recruit to the evaluation or test day. The recruit passes and then still has problems after that. If a recruit cannot perform skills consistently, that is a red flag that must be dealt with swiftly, or termination will be evident, regardless of whether the recruit was successful on the test day or at evaluation time.

Do not include scores or time frames in the Practical Skills (drill ground) Evaluation criteria. Use times as pass/fail criteria only if those times are validated. Validation requires sample testing of the incumbent firefighters. Avoid qualitative grading of performance in terms of percentages or letter grading. Recruits either pass or fail practical skill stations. The reasoning behind this is that recruits can be terminated (as long as appropriate training has been given) if they are not performing the essential functions of firefighting safely.

When evaluating practical skills, be cautious about what is committed on paper. Instructors should document only deficiencies or problems on the evaluation forms; they should not write comments such as “good job” and “excellent work.” Encourage instructors to verbally praise good performance; however, the evaluation form should reflect only pass/fail grades. In the case of a failure, the reasons should be accurately and succinctly described.

All standards, benchmarks, and procedures should be in place when the academy starts.

PRESCRIPTION AGREEMENTS
On the first day of the academy, the training staff explains to the recruits the expectations and procedures that will prevail throughout the entire academy process. The Prescription Agreements (scripts), the backbone of the process that ensures instructor/student accountability, are introduced. These sheets identify and define areas of deficiencies in performance that are not meeting standard. Prescription Agreements outline in an objective, fair, and legal manner the problems a recruit is experiencing and how to correct them.

There are no secrets between instructors and recruits when it comes to the documentation procedure. Recruits must know exactly how they are performing, especially in problem or deficient areas. All deficient areas must be identified and dealt with quickly. The recruit should not be given verbal reprimands; document everything pertaining to below-standard performance in writing.

Implement the documentation process from the first day so problems can be tracked from the start. In many cases, instructors realized near the end of the academy that many problems began at the start of the academy, but they did not have the documentation to prove it. Using Prescription Agreements consistently from the start gives the academy instructor an overview of deficiencies in performance and a legal basis for terminating employment.

The documentation procedure used in the recruit academy setting must be simple, easy-to-use, and concise. No instructor wants to be haunted by a weighty paperwork trail at the end of each day. The one-page Prescription Agreement process is brief and to the point. In the business world, a script would be called a written performance improvement program; in an academy, it is the backbone of documentation procedures.

The Prescription Agreement is outlined as follows:

  • Define the Concern/Area Needing Improvement.
  • Identify the Standard/Job Sheet/Code of Conduct, etc. not being met.
  • Outline the Instructor Action Plan designed to improve performance.
  • Outline the Recruit Action Plan designed to improve performance.
  • Document the action plan process with dates and times.
  • Record that the deficiency has been corrected and signed off by the instructor.

A layperson should be able to understand the written documentation and the reasons for its importance. Keep comments brief and accurate-no lengthy dissertations. From a legal standpoint, short and concise documentation is advised. If you get called to a deposition or to court, you will have plenty of time to discuss the specifics.

Once you have written the script, meet with the recruit as soon as possible-typically at the end of the day the event occurred. Always have two instructors (the lead instructor or drillmaster and the staff member who witnessed the problem) pres-ent during this meeting; never allow a recruit to misconstrue or misinterpret your words. This is a safety measure for you and your staff.

All areas defined in the Big Four (academics, drill ground skills, attitude, and physical fitness) can be documented on a Prescription Agreement. Examples of reasons for citing a recruit are the following: failing a test; not having all proper PPE at drill stations; being tardy; displaying disrespect to a fellow recruit or instructor; and the inability to perform a skill competently, confidently, and consistently.

The Prescription Agreement should be written as soon as the instructor becomes aware that there may be a problem. If an instructor is debating about whether one should be written, it should be written. A wise saying, “Script early; script often.”

My department’s legal counsel has reviewed many Prescription Agreements; none have ever been deemed too insignificant or trivial. Typically, when tracking an individual recruit’s prescriptions, you will see a pattern develop that shows poor performance in many areas if the recruit is not a strong performer. If you decide on termination, you may find many such scripts in that individual’s file. However, terminations have also been effected with only one Prescription Sheet; it depends on the severity of the infraction (examples that would be incontestable are cheating on a test and threatening another recruit or staff member).

Prescription Agreements are invaluable tools from a legal and an instructional standpoint. The real essence of a script is that it allows you and the recruit to come to an agreement that there is a problem and to prescribe an action plan that can assist in overcoming the problem.

Build into the academy daily calendar a scheduled time for dealing with Prescription Agreements. Typically, we use the time in the morning (up to a half hour) when the other recruits are doing daily cleaning chores or setting up drill stations. This allows for hands-on practice if the prescription deals with skill issues. Sometimes only one practice session is needed to get the recruit caught up with the class or to improve technique. More than one scheduled session may be needed at times. The recruit must make progress during these sessions and eventually must be able to demonstrate mastery of the skill competently, confidently, and consistently at a time designated by the instructor.

Prescription Agreements are not just for deficient practical or drill ground skills. A script can be written anytime a recruit is not meeting expectations. For instance, a recruit may always be the last one to help with cleanup or extra duties. Informally counsel the recruit once you see this behavior; after that, write a script that cites the recruit is not performing to best effort and is displaying a lack of teamwork, as identified in the academy Code of Conduct. The action plan may be to tell the recruit to be the first to volunteer for cleanup duty or to encourage the rookie to become the leader in getting the team to finish all assigned work.

A script may also be written when a recruit neglects or forgets a safety issue. It may not necessarily be a safety skill; the recruit’s action plan could be to write a page on the importance of safety as it relates to that situation. Some Prescription Agreements can be thought of as minor course corrections to ensure recruits’ success in the academy and during their career.

Once the instructor deems that the recruit is performing to the desired level, the instructor signs the Prescription Agreement indicating that the recruit has completed the requirements. Prescription Agreements do not follow recruits once they graduate from the academy; they are only written performance improvement plans that become obsolete when the academy ends and the recruit graduates or scripts become the basis for termination procedures.

COUNSELING SESSIONS
There are formal and informal counseling sessions in the academy setting. Informal counseling can include areas that range from being a great cheerleader and coach to your team of recruits to advising rookies that they need to make some minor course corrections to be more successful. A good rule to follow is to praise in public and discipline in private; document in writing any type of discipline or deficiency. When counseling informally, do not say things that could haunt you. Under the heat of the moment, don’t say things that would best be left to cool-headed documentation on a Prescription Agreement. Do your job as an officer/instructor, demonstrate professional behavior, and do not lose your cool because of a recruit’s performance or behavior.

Formal counseling involves periodically evaluating the recruit in writing at regularly scheduled intervals during the academy (usually every two weeks). Once again, two instructors should be present. Since overinflation is the number one problem with evaluation, be certain you are being objective. Remember, praise in person, but be cautious about praising on paper. Problems or deficiencies need to be documented on paper; leave positive, motivational comments verbal.

Be consistent in formal periodic evaluation procedures. Ask all recruits the same questions. Ask if they have any problems they want to discuss. This is the time to inform the training staff if the recruits are experiencing any problems that could hamper their performance. Always be cognizant of what they say as they are leaving. Good interviewing techniques show that individuals who have something bothering them will bring it up on the way out the door. Document any unusual comments once the recruit leaves. You may be surprised to find that what comes out of their mouths is important to have in your records.

Use Pass/Fail or Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory designations in the evaluation process. Either the recruits are meeting academy expectations or they are not. If a Prescription Agreement has not been completed for a specific area and is still open during the evaluation period, it means that the recruit has not met the standard; the recruit should be given an unsatisfactory rating for that area.

The recruit should leave the formal evaluation meeting knowing the answers to these five questions:

  1. What am I doing well?
  2. Where do I need to improve?
  3. What documentation supports this?
  4. What help do I get?
  5. What are the consequences if I don’t improve?1

The evaluation should be clear with regard to the recruit’s strengths, weaknesses, progress, and performance.

AVOID MAKING CONTRACTS
During the academy, it is imperative that all instructors understand that they are not allowed to enter into verbal or written contracts with recruits. For example, once you promise a recruit a test retake in a performance evaluation (skill test), you may be obligated to give that retest. However, you may decide that this recruit is at the point of termination prior to the retest and is no longer eligible for retesting. Sometimes, when recruits know termination is imminent, they may fake an injury during a drill station or physical fitness training. The injury generally is nonspecific, like a muscle strain, and hard to diagnose. The recruits can then prolong employment. We have learned these lessons through experience.

Instructors should not tell recruits “Don’t worry; you won’t get fired” or “We’ll get you through this academy.” You cannot see the future or determine what the recruit will do tomorrow; therefore, don’t get in a position that might jeopardize the staff by making promises that can be construed as verbal contracts. You are responsible for determining when a recruit is not performing satisfactorily and is not demonstrating improvement or progress. It may sound harsh, but your job is to protect your department from incompetent firefighters.

TERMINATION GUIDELINES
Terminating a recruit from the academy can be the most difficult decision of your career. The fire service hires good people; you may be firing someone you would want to work with in the fire station but who would be a liability on the fireground.

In a nutshell, the greatest areas of concern that can leave you and your department vulnerable to liability in a termination are (1) not following procedures and (2) inconsistency in procedures. It is imperative that the entire process of identifying standards, creating procedures to deal with performance issues, and having sound termination practices is in place. Implement those procedures designed to assist you with protecting your department from liability in recruit terminations.

Ultimately, the department chief has the authority to terminate an academy recruit. It is the training staff’s job to explain the documentation procedures to the chief so that the chief can trust your decision. What if the chief does not want to terminate a particular recruit? The bottom line is that all deficiencies, performance issues, or problems this recruit exhibited are directly related to safety-the recruit’s safety, fellow firefighters’ safety, and citizens’ safety. Safety should never be jeopardized, regardless of the political implications. If the chief hesitates to dismiss the recruit because of political ramifications, remind the chief that the greater liability would be in a loss of life because this recruit could not perform the essential functions of the job.

Once the decision has been made to terminate a recruit, there should be no delay. Your training staff has reached the conclusion that this person is no longer capable of successfully finishing the academy and can no longer take the liability if this recruit is allowed to continue and were to become injured or cause another recruit to be injured. Compile all the documentation (Prescription Agreements) and send it through the chain of command to the fire chief. Typically, the chief will meet with the training academy chief and go over the documentation with the lawyer. The lawyer would then draw up the termination papers.

At this time, it may be appropriate to offer the recruit the opportunity to resign instead of being terminated. Resignation can be offered when the recruit is being let go for a temporary reason such as a family illness or crisis. This is done on a case-by-case basis; normally, you would not extend to the terminated recruit the opportunity to reapply to your department at a later time.

Set the termination meeting as soon as possible. Once the decision to terminate is made, the recruit must be pulled from doing any drill ground or physical fitness activity; you cannot afford an injury at this time. At the meeting, have at least two staff members pres-ent-the training chief, the academy coordinator or the drillmaster; it would be appropriate to have a secretary take notes. These meetings can be the toughest experiences of your career. Following are some guidelines to make them go more smoothly.

  • Schedule a short meeting, and keep it short. Now is not the time to discuss the issues; you are beyond that. Don’t let the recruit take control of this meeting. You have made your final decision. Plenty of time has already been spent counseling the recruit.
  • Prepare and plan what to say. Let the training chief take the lead in the meeting. The chief should state clear, specific reasons for the firing while remaining calm and professional.
  • Be aware that some states require that a severance check be given to the terminated employee at the termination meeting.
  • Keep all employee records a minimum of three years.
  • Determine who will handle any further communication with or regarding the terminated recruit and how it will be handled.
  • Once the meeting is over, allow the recruit to retrieve personal belongings, if appropriate, and have two staff members escort the recruit off the premises. You have the legal right to gather the belongings and have them delivered if you have concerns about the recruit’s potential actions after the meeting. (1)

Unfortunately, we must be aware of workplace violence issues and have plans in place to protect ourselves. If members of the academy’s staff will be packing the recruit’s personal belongings, inventory them, and have your fire investigator or a police officer deliver them, or send them by mail. Do not have academy staff members deliver the belongings.

  • Stop the rumor mill regarding the termination immediately. Do not let recruits or staff members speak unprofessionally about the terminated employee. The major challenge will be the rumor mill out in the fire station. However, if you followed earlier recommendations for avoiding defamation of character charges, you will lessen the effect of the rumor mill.
  • Inform the rest of the rookie class. It is best to let the drillmaster or academy coordinator do the talking. Once again, plan the speech. It is critical to maintain the terminated recruit’s privacy. The class does not need to know the specifics of why the recruit was fired (in actuality, they grasp the situation); you can speak in generalities. Also, make some positive comments about the recruit. Most importantly, try to have the meeting end on an upbeat note. The remaining recruits are usually pretty shaken up at this point and need some reassuring. This is the time to focus on the future and to be the good coach and mentor and inspire them to keep working hard and graduate.

* * *

The reality is that you, your training staff, and your fire department may face legal action after termination. Do not let this keep you lying awake at night. Having gone through it, my best advice is to do your job as a recruit training officer, produce the best firefighters possible, and have the courage to stand up and not let recruits who won’t be good firefighters graduate. Using the procedures outlined in this article can protect you and your department if a complaint or lawsuit is filed. No one enters the training academy with the firing of recruits as the primary focus, but preparing for such an eventuality and using a consistent process will keep you, your fellow firefighters, and your community safer.

Reference


  1. Source: “Fundamentals of Personnel Law for Managers and Supervisors,” a SkillPath seminar, Nov. 23, 1999.

KATHERINE T. RIDENHOUR, a 16-year veteran of the fire service, is a truck company captain with the Aurora (CO) Fire Department. She has taught various subjects in recruit training academies around the state as well as college-level fire science courses. She has been in the Training Division and has been lead drill master for recruit academies. Ridenhour is a rescue specialist with FEMA’s Colorado Urban Search and Rescue Task Force One and was assigned to Aurora’s Technical Rescue Team for seven years. She has a bachelor’s and two associate’s degrees. She is an instructor in Aurora’s Officer Development and Fire Officer I programs. She is a member of the board of trustees of Women in the Fire Service, Inc.




Figure 2. Rocky Mountain Fire Academy Firefighter Performance Expectations

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JUDGMENT

  • Makes reasonable and safe decisions when attempting to accomplish a task or solve a problem

COMMUNICATION

  • Uses appropriate tone of voice
  • Articulates in a clear, logical, and understandable manner
  • Displays confidence
  • Is persuasive and makes a positive impression
  • Demonstrates appropriate nonverbal communication techniques

TEAMWORK

  • Effectively works with others in order to accomplish tasks or solve problems
  • Offers help to team members when needed
  • Consistently demonstrates safety practices for self and others

PROBLEM SOLVING

  • Approaches problems in a safe, logical, and well-thought-out fashion
  • Seeks proactive solutions to problems

INITIATIVE/MOTIVATION

  • Accomplishes tasks or goals without being ordered, coerced, or motivated by others
  • Demonstrates desire for personal and professional development
  • Accomplishes tasks or goals with a “safety first” attitude
  • Takes on additional tasks or duties

WORK ETHIC

  • Actively seeks academic and technical knowledge form self-improvement
  • Is reliable in following safety practices in all situations

ADAPTABILITY/STRESS MANAGEMENT

  • Remains calm in stressful situations
  • Adapts behavior in order to deal with changing situations in a afe manner
  • Adapts behavior in order to accomplish individual and/or organizational goals
  • Recognizes symptoms of stress in self and seeks to deal with stress appropriately

INTEGRITY

  • Is sincere and honest when dealing with others
  • Keeps commitments
  • Respects personal property of others
  • Portrays professional image in speech, actions, and appearance
  • Obeys all policies and procedures of the City of Aurora, the Aurora Fire Department, the Aurora Civil Service Commission

    INTERPERSONAL SKILLS

    • Relates to a wide variety of individuals in a positive and effective manner
    • Handles interpersonal conflicts effectively
    • Is courteous and respectful

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