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Another cheating scandal; more missing funds. Will it ever end?

Disclaimer: The links were chosen at random and are not an indictment of the fire departments mentioned. The links are examples of what has been a growing problem in the nation’s fire service.

Firefighter cheaters.

Firefighter thieves.

Firefighter drunk drivers.

Firefighter arsonists.

For the most recent example, go here:

The aforementioned articles have been the subject of many discussions among firefighters for the past several years. Though there are recent examples of more of the same, the problems have not been just recently uncovered. You can find discussions at the various firefighter discussion forums that date back to before the explosion of social media.

Take firefighters cheating on written exams. The motivation for cheating is that the test taker felt that he could not pass the exam without the added edge that cheating would give them. Underpinnings could be a bump in pay, bragging rights or assignment to an elite squad. To go a little deeper, this could be a person who has relied on cheating since their high school or college days. The fact that they were not caught strengthened their belief that they would never be caught. Their personal intentions would never allow for the idea that their indiscretion would be splashed over the front page of a newspaper, website or be the lead-in story of the 6 o’clock news and thereby damaging the public perception of the fire department. No; such a selfish act never considers the collateral damage that it causes.

Integrity is a key attribute for a firefighter. Trust by the community that they serve is very fragile. Whether it is a business or a private home; firefighters are entrusted to enter uninvited, mitigate the hazard and to leave without succumbing to the temptation of thievery. Think about it; a homeowner has just suffered the worst day of the life, are struggling with what the fire has taken from them, only to discover that their rare coin collection or family heirloom is missing. They mention it to a neighbor and before you can get back to the fire station, the rumors are already growing that firefighters stole something from the fire scene. The police are called in, a firefighter is arrested and charged and the worst nightmare of a fire department is realized.

Drinking and driving isn’t a problem until there’s a problem. It is less likely to happen in a career department than in a volunteer department because of a set schedule. Though volunteer departments don’t completely own this one, there are a higher percentage of volunteers that are being arrested and charged with DUI, because they were drinking after work, the tones dropped and they chose to respond while under the alcohol’s influence. The incident is magnified if there is an apparatus accident, where its driver failed field sobriety tests. The local paper throws down on FOIA and the next thing you know, the headline in the paper alerts the public to another dirty little secret. Then, someone posts it on Facebook, it goes out on Twitter, is re-tweeted and your next fire department fundraiser is a rousing fund-failure.

Although any bad behavior by firefighters will shake the moral ground; a firefighter that sets fires will rock the world of our communities and destroy the department’s image as the public’s protectors. It causes the sworn oath to ring hollow. It creates suspicion with every fire. What has taken decades and generations to build will take even longer to repair; even more so, if more than one firefighter was involved.

And then comes the excuses. From being “bored” to “hero worship” to “overtime pay” and on and on; there will be no rational justification for the firefighter who is arrested and convicted of setting fires.

Remember Coatsville, Pennsylvania?

It had a community living in terror and a task force desperate to solve the string of some 30 arson fires. It has been four years since Robert Tracey was arrested. I have to wonder if things are back to “normal” in that community. I am betting that it is not.

Not long ago, discussions on dealing with wayward firefighters centered upon “policing our own”. Some would bemoan news outlets for identifying a perpetrator as a firefighter or former firefighter, as if this would somehow make things better. Some of these forum scholars declared that they did not perform background checks nor did they verify firefighters’ driving records and wanted to deal with stuff “internally”. Let’s see; not smart enough to stop it before it starts and yet; smart enough to resolve deep psychological tenets of a fire-setter. Yeah; right.

And I can’t end this without giving a shout out to the deniers. They are the firefighters who believe that the actions of someone a couple of states over have no effect on their fire department. Tell that to the IAFC, who issued a white paper on firefighter bad behavior and to USFA, who has tackled the issue of firefighter arson.

Remember; when you ignore bad behavior, you reinforce it.

The opinions and views expressed are those of the article’s author, Art Goodrich, who also writes as ChiefReason. They do not reflect the opinions and views of, Fire Engineering Magazine, PennWell Corporation or his dog, Chopper. All articles by the author are protected by federal copyright and cannot be reproduced in any form without expressed permission.

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