Our mission is to protect the community and our firefighters with all of the training, equipment and protective gear money can buy. Of course there are the smaller and less affluent fire districts barely responding to calls for service or emergencies and all-volunteer fire organizations are equally challenged to place sufficient firefighter resources in the community for response.
One of the common factors for all departments are the laws and statutes that dictate their conduct and behavior. There are many state and federal laws that affect our fire service that are in place to protect our services but too many times we violate those laws starting “legal fires” that never seem to be extinguished.
In most cases, emergency response and fire suppression are not the issues causing our fire departments to get sued; but the violation of the laws that cost us our reputations, loss of jobs for some firefighters and fire chiefs and a lot of money being paid out to plaintiffs through litigation affecting our fire services.
As fire chiefs, fire officers and firefighters you need to be aware of your legal leadership responsibilities and liabilities; you must understanding your professional and personal accountabilities while managing and avoiding risk and create a safe work environment for your employees.
Fire and EMS Departments are a different employer and leadership is responsible for all activities in the organization. We are held to a higher standard by society and this standard applies equally to volunteer, combination and career fire and EMS organizations. We have to remember that your staff is your greatest asset and your greatest liabilities. High risk issues facing the fire service include: harassment and discrimination, promotional bias and reverse discrimination; violations of federal laws including age discrimination, pregnancy discrimination, disability, leave time and pay issues under FMLA and FLSA, customer service issues including abandoning patients, medical malpractice and equipment failure. We also find ourselves charged with criminal acts that become career ending occurrences to include theft and embezzlement, domestic violence, dealing drugs and child pornography and other similar issues.
Much of what guides our conduct and behavior is “hiring right” through an extensive hiring process and also in a strong set of Polices to include Codes of Conduct and Ethical Standards. Much of what vexes our departments is bad conduct by firefighters and other staff violating those Polices, creating a hostile work environment, discrimination and harassment of each other or discipline conducted improperly.
We also have to remember there are some limitations in our ability to express our First Amendment rights on social media sites with the caveat that “free speech” in government is not all that free.
My colleague Curt Varone, who manages an extensive data base of litigation in the United States, has provided statistics revealing who is suing the fire service. His studies reveal that fire departments, fire chiefs, chief officers and company officer are more likely to be sued by a subordinate or colleague and a firefighter is more likely to be sued by citizens than by a colleague with the highest frequency of litigation against firefighters being EMS related or while driving apparatus.
A common truth in our service indicates that Fire Leadership, Fire Fighters and EMS Providers acting within the discretionary scope of their job are generally immune and egregious actions outside this scope, such as failing to rescue on duty or committing a non-duty violation, that are and should be cause for alarm.
This article is the tip of the iceberg for my presentation at FDIC on Tuesday April 24, 2018 entitled Preventing Legal “Fires” a four hour Pre-conference presentation.
This class is designed to provide the attendee a discussion forum on policy formation and the use of policy, how SOP/SOG’s can complement your basic policies which are bright line, hard and fast practices with flexibility offered with guidelines found in SOG’s; develop a set of Ethical Standards and Codes of Conduct complimenting your policies and SOG/SOP’s and discuss the protections found in our Constitution.
We will also discuss prohibited conduct affecting our most important resource, the firefighter, and discuss progressive discipline that will correct behavior, deter others from behaving badly, provide a safe workplace and if necessary terminate recalcitrant employees. The class will also discuss training liabilities and the factors that create a safe and unsafe training event to include driver training.
Finally, we talk about documentation that is your cornerstone of an affirmative defense if your department is sued by your firefighters or a member of your community. Many times when working with departments who are being sued, I ask to review their documentation and many times the answer is “what documentation?”
This class is designed for your use at your department. I encourage you and your leadership team to attend this class and potentially avoid multi-million dollar settlements. It is worth four hours (4) of your time during this outstanding conference.
See you in Indianapolis at FDIC in April 22-28, 2018.