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How do our ethical and moral codes get derailed while we engage in our beloved career on a daily basis? The recent accusations against a Metro Fire Chief Officer for taking equipment, kickback and other  “stuff” gets this individual before a court to answer these charges, possibly with jail time as a remedy and the total destruction of a hard earned reputation. Already the members of the court of public opinion have ruled on this issue that you are GUILTY for not only stealing but breaching the public trust. It seems on a weekly basis we are seeing fire chiefs, chief officers or other ranking members of both career and volunteer organizations getting charged with stealing, embezzling, stalking their members, domestic violence, public drunkenness and other breaches of the fire services moral and ethical codes.

I know I am probably preaching to the choir and your fire services attorneys constantly preach to the choir about maintaining the integrity of our profession. When you fail, you fail yourself, your family and your community. Most of us get that – it’s those violators that do not, and tarnish the reputation of our institution with the broad brush of, “we are all the same.”

OK, I get it. We are only human and succumb to the temptation of the moment – use the gas card to fill up your personal vehicle; have a couple of beers at the local tavern and drive your department vehicle home; take a few hundred dollars in cash from the slush fund; start a phony company and bill for nonexistent services; take the big screen TV home for your personal use; pay yourself extra income because nobody will notice it as you manage the books; up to attempting to coerce a sexual relation with your employees; stalking and harassing your employees and other actions that embarrass not only you, but me and my brother and sister firefighters.

There are numerous guidelines for developing fire based ethical and moral code and code of conduct and can be found at FEMA and the Firefighter Code of Ethics[1]; National Firefighter Code of Ethics[2], Model Code of Ethics for Fire Districts[3], and the seminal document entitled Fire Service Reputation Management White Paper published in 2010 by the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association[4]. There are many excellent examples also found in all of the military colleges (West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy) and all civilian colleges.

The question is: what good are these guidelines if your firefighters are going to ignore the tenants of those documents?

It is my belief that these moral and ethical codes start at the top, beginning with the leadership of the organization and those values must be taught on a regular basis to your firefighters and staff. There is a saying, “Trust but Verify” attributed to President Ronald Regan when dealing with the Russians on an arms control agreement and the meaning is obvious – there was an equal level of distrust between governments. I do not say that we should distrust our firefighters and staff, but to ensure our ethics and conduct codes are being followed. We have not reached a nuclear Armageddon in the fire service, but lapses in moral or ethical judgment can affect your organization with a similar outcome to include: internal distrust of those in a leadership position; a lack of public trust; failure at the ballot box for funding important services or a precipitous change in leadership of the entire organization.

Does accepting a free cup of coffee, free meal, vendor supplied sports tickets or other “perks” of our profession violate a Code of Conduct or ethical standard? I say it’s the little things that may lead to the bigger things. It’s our nature to be honest. However, is it true, if you can get away with the small things, will you will try the bigger things? Some behaviorists say we are honest by nature but an opportunity may be too good to pass up. They also say, the greater deviation from your moral center, the less likely you will succumb to the temptation. The exception is when you have individuals with a total disregard for the rules then the little things lead to the bigger things as they test the limits of getting caught.

As a former chief officer managing large and small organizations with career and volunteer staff my suggestions are: to have a written Moral and Ethical Code and Code of Conduct and enforce that code; train your supervisors to lead by example and be aware of the temptations placed before our firefighters on a daily basis. Be quick to eliminate those temptations and adequately discipline those who violate those Policies.

As a fire service leader, it’s your call when faced with the inquiry, “Hey Chief, the local vendor gave me two tickets to the football game, can I take them?” 

It’s your call Chief, make the right one.

John K. Murphy JD, MS. PA-C, EFO, Deputy Fire Chief (Ret), has been a member of the career fire service since 1974, beginning his career as a firefighter & paramedic and retiring in 2007 as a deputy fire chief and chief training officer. He is a licensed attorney in Washington State since 2002 and in New York since 2011. Mr. Murphy consults with fire departments and other public and private entities on operational risk management, response litigation, employment policy and practices liability, personal management, labor contracts, internal investigations and discipline, and personal injury litigation. He serves as an expert witness involving fire department litigation and has been involved in numerous cases across the country. He is a frequent Legal contributor to Fire Engineering Magazine, participant in Fire Service Court Blog Radio and a national speaker on fire service legal issues.

For more information please contact me at 206-940-6502 or at john@murphylawgroup.org  

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