A recent discussion I had with a fire officer centered on the performance of one of his assigned personnel. He was lamenting the fact that the individual did not carry his weight. I asked a couple of questions. Had the individual been a good performer who was going through a bad stretch or was the person a “day one deviation?” Also, had anything been done to try and correct the behavior such as training, retraining, or initiated discipline? The answers were that the person was a stiff while on probation, and nothing had been done to correct the behavior. I asked why not? Basically, it was a case where no one wanted to be the bad guy and deprive this individual of a job.
I asked why no one acted during the probationary time. Again, no one wanted to be the bad guy, and there was a sense on my part that the officer did not believe it was part of his job and that the probationary period was not considered part of the selection process. Obviously, there is a disconnect, and the organization needs to reevaluate its hiring practices so that similar cases do not slip through the cracks. It is very easy for officers to blame the administration for a bad hire and not consider that they also have a responsibility in the process. I realize that each instance has some inside information and there are reasons why certain people skirt the system and survive when they probably should be in a different line of work. But, what should be a concern is when everyone in a department knows of the slackers, and nothing is done.
Back to the officer—I knew he had a side business besides being on the fire department. I asked him if he would consider hiring the questionable employee to work for him. Not only no, but hell no!!! I also asked if he would want to have this individual respond to one of his loved ones. Same answer. The general question to the fire service is—why do we tolerate people who do not do the job? And, why don’t we hold their feet to the fire (no pun intended) and either get them to a minimum standard or initiate disciplinary action? I am not sure there is a simple answer, but part of the issue is the brotherhood/sisterhood that has the unspoken rule to protect each other, even though some don’t deserve protection. Somehow this cycle must break as many departments don’t have the staffing to carry slackers. Everyone must contribute and do their parts. Standards must be met by everyone.
This is not new. I recall earlier discussions with officers who told stories of firefighters either hungover or still drunk when working. The crews would send the firefighter to bed to sleep it off and would not report it to anyone. It was common practice. There were cases where the officers didn’t think the person was too drunk, so he would be allowed to respond to calls. This was acceptable in the organization and, in most cases, was known up and down the chain of command. Of course, when asked if the officer wanted that individual to respond to one of his loved ones, you know the answer. I know of a couple of cases where individuals tried to take action (chiefs, officers, and/or other firefighters) and were strongly opposed (in the case of the chief) or ostracized (officers and firefighters).
I understand the importance of loyalty and knowing that someone has your back during tough times. Those are very important in environments that require teamwork and total trust. But, there has to be a line that cannot be crossed in the interest of providing the quality of service that is so necessary in the lifesaving business. Individuals not meeting standards must be given the opportunity to raise their level of performance. All laws, rules, regulations, and labor agreements must be followed. But when there is no other choice, changes must be made. There must be a limit to our protectionism.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA). He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment and Fire Engineering editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.