Serve with Integrity: Do what is right when others say it is wrong

It has been said that character is the architect of achievement. Achievement is concerned with setting and meeting high standards.

Integrity is adherence to a moral code, reflected in transparent honesty in what one thinks, says, and does. Over the recent years, I’ve gotten in a little bit of political trouble for my inability to be inauthentic. I have few demands of personnel I serve with. I expect firefighters to check out their equipment; understand the various aspects of their tools and equipment; and participate in hands-on training, including air-consumption drills. I’ve gotten into trouble for allowing my character to affect my service. You may be asking, “Trouble? What kind of trouble?” The kind of trouble that ends careers: political trouble. Yet, I maintain that sometimes the right thing to do is what others think is wrong. It is a sign of integrity. We work in the life safety business. Our duty is to identify vulnerabilities and take steps to reduce threats to people and property; in doing so, we may put ourselves at risk.

Part of our character as leaders in the fire service is to put ourselves at risk to protect others. I came to the fire service more than 20 years ago after serving in law enforcement. One of the reasons I left law enforcement was that I arrested and ensured conviction of a high-ranking political figure. As I was traveling to the upper floors of the jail with him for booking and processing, we were alone in the elevator. He said, “Your career is over. You’ll never get promoted again. I’ll be out (of jail) before you’re done with your report.” I replied, “I’m thinking it’s time to move on anyway.”

His statements turned out to be somewhat true: The chief of police bailed him out of jail. In the morning when I went to brief my supervisors, as was the common practice, I was told, “We don’t want to hear about it.” In the end, he was convicted. I knew I could never trust that police chief. It was evident that he was controlled by political constituents. Still, I maintained my integrity. Had I failed to exercise my roles and responsibilities, the offenses incurred by that individual could have been a breach of duty or failure to satisfy ethical, legal, and moral obligations expected from the community of the officers in their service. I had many job offers follow and decided to try the fire service.

During my fire service interview, I remember the fire chief asking me, “Why should I hire you?” I replied, “One word: integrity.” To this day, it is that quality that guides my life and service. It is due diligence that is expected from our communities, organizations, and peers. It is the measure of responsibility and prudence that should guide our service.

I was correct in my assessment of the transition to the fire service. There are a lot of similarities in our industry, organizations, culture, and individuals. This includes a certain sect I have experienced that expects me to look the other way and allow poor performance in training and service. It is a very difficult road to navigate. I certainly appreciate the diverse knowledge, skills, and attitudes each individual has to offer. Part of my role as a company officer is to find the value in each individual and cultivate these values to strengthen the crew and increase our safety through participation in daily duties and responsibilities. The difficult part is when employees find excuses not to avail themselves of the training and service and build relationships with supervisors or political alliances in an effort to demonize an officer attempting to fulfill his role.

Take away the personalities, study the issues, and consider our craft and commitment to our community. In the fire service, if we allow lower standards of performance and choose to look the other way in firefighter performance, knowledge, skills, and attitudes, we put at risk our crew members and the public we serve. Then when you walk into those closed-door meetings with your supervisors asking you to lower your standards and ignore poor performers and threatening you with career-ending action, be confident, for if you stand on your honesty and integrity, you are minimizing your risk of civil liability, organizational embarrassment, and loss of life. It is your role and responsibility to support, guide, mentor, train, hold accountable, and even discipline employees—all in the spirit of safety. To be deliberately indifferent is to intentionally disregard one’s legal duty, another’s safety, or even someone’s rights and expectations. Moreover, to be negligently indifferent implies that you were aware of the risks or vulnerabilities in the case of an employee’s inability, lack of application, or desire to perform the roles and responsibilities and you chose not to act to correct those measures.

I’ve had those closed-door discussions where supervisors tell me I am wrong to have certain employee expectations. I’ve stood seemingly by myself before review committees and through the stress and fear extended even to my family as I’ve been tried. Through it all, I’m still standing, knowing the charges were politically motivated and found to be untrue. I admit I make mistakes, but I strive to consider pathways to gain employee participation and performance. Still, I maintain we must serve with due diligence. Your crew may not have the security to share their support with you, but when they return home to their family alive and safe after the shift, that alone shall be your solace. When I walk away from this job, I will walk away knowing that I tried to do the right thing: protect the men and women I served with and the community I was charged to protect.

Terry Ritter

Lieutenant, EMT-P, AD, EFO

Madison (WI) Fire Department

Paul Combs cartoon


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