Confronting Ethical and Moral Dilemmas in the Firehouse

Confronting Ethical and Moral Dilemmas in the Firehouse


If someone says they’ve “got your back,” it means they’re going to watch out for you, take care of the things you’re likely to miss, serve as a second set of eyes and hands–because when you’re in a precarious situation, you can’t easily see all the threats. This saying originated from soldiers operating in enemy territory–one soldier would scan the horizon for danger while the other observed the sides and the rear. Sometimes, they were literally back-to-back in a foxhole.  

But the saying applies to firefighters as well. Looking out for your partner’s safety, unconditionally trusting your crewmembers, being willing to risk your life for them–these are all hallmarks of our profession, and paramount to ensuring that everyone goes home while we fulfill our mission of saving lives and property.

It’s easy to take the “I’ve got your back” sentiment too far, though. Watching out for your brother and sister firefighters has nothing to do with avoiding, not mentioning or pretending not to see or respond to an immoral, unethical or illegal act.

A Police Department Example
Years ago, a Los Angeles grand jury stated that the police department needs to function “for the benefit of the public, and not as a fraternal organization for the benefit of fellow officers.” This is a powerful statement that may apply to some of our fire agencies.  

The grand jury’s comments stemmed from the 1951 Bloody Christmas incident (the subject of the novel and film LA Confidential). On Christmas Eve that year, a fight ensued when LAPD officers ordered seven men to leave a bar. Two officers were hurt in the brawl. No one was arrested at the time, but seven hours later, all seven of the men were arrested at their homes. Six were taken straight to jail, but the seventh was dragged by his hair to a squad car and driven to a park where he was savagely beaten by several police officers.

In addition to this beating, the following Christmas morning, a large number of police officers attending a departmental Christmas party got drunk (in violation of the LAPD’s alcohol policy). After hearing a (false) rumor that an officer had lost an eye in the bar fight, the drunken officers decided to seek revenge. The six prisoners were taken from their jail cells and lined up. As many as 50 officers participated in a beating that lasted for 95 minutes.

At least 100 people knew of or witnessed the beatings, but for almost three months, senior LAPD administrators were able to keep the attack on the prisoners out of the mainstream news. However, media pressure and a strong recommendation for an internal investigation from the judge ruling in the bar brawl case forced the department to act. Eight indicted officers were tried, five convicted. In addition, 54 officers were transferred and 39 were temporarily suspended without pay.

This is a classic story of wrongdoing, cover up and denial. Put another way: The LAPD took the “I got your back” concept a little too far.

What Does It Really Mean?
Although the Bloody Christmas incident is perhaps an extreme example, the fire service faces its own moral tests–including alcohol use/abuse, drugs in the fire station, sex with a co-worker or citizen, and verbal or sexual harassment.

Could these things happen on your watch? And when they do, why should your reaction not be to say, “I’ve got your back” and look the other way? Because of the potential for such activities to affect the department in the following areas:

  • Risk management
  • Legal obligations
  • Public trust
  • Professional leadership

Remember: “I’ve got your back” does not mean that I will lie for you, cover up, not tell the truth, or not do the right thing. It’s not a get-out-of-jail free card. “I’ve got your back” is situational. Yes, you have an obligation to do everything you can to keep your brother and sister firefighters safe. But you also have an obligation to the public, the agency and all of its members. An instance of unprofessional conduct, once discovered, could cause irreparable damage to your department, resulting in a loss of public support and therefore funding, which in turn could cost members their jobs. How is that keeping them safe?

Regardless of what should happen, many times firefighters and officers do choose to look the other way. Why?

One reason is what’s commonly called the bystander effect: People hope that someone else will intervene. But, you might argue, firefighters are trained to act–in emergencies, fire or medical, when confronted with elder and child abuse, etc., on or off duty. It’s the world that we operate in, and we’re very comfortable doing so, anytime, anywhere.

That may be true. However, like those not in our profession, when we’re confronted with circumstances outside the norm, or we face a situation for the first time, we may not act. We may not know what to do, or we may even be afraid to do something.

Unfortunately, we’re talking about situations in which intervention is necessary. A harsh quote from Martin Luther King Jr., comes to mind here: “The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.”

So What Should You Do?
When faced with unethical or illegal behavior on the part of one of your crew, there are three basic scenarios to consider:  

  1. You do nothing and nothing happens. This may seem well and good, but haven’t you just condoned the act? Not confronting it allows it to happen again.
  2. You do nothing, but the crime is later exposed. Now you’re accountable for not intervening, and you may even face repercussions for violating department policy.
  3. You do nothing and the individual is later charged, tried and convicted. If this happens, the department–and you–may face criminal charges as well. Then you will see how many have your back because you failed to do your job!

As you can see, a lot is resting on your shoulders to do the right thing in these types of situations–possibly more than when you’re leading a crew into a fire. Although our citizens don’t expect flawless emergency operations, matters of morality and ethics are absolute in the public’s eye. It’s one thing to have OSHA visit you due to a complaint or a safety infraction; it’s something altogether different to deal with the local or national media and the outrage of your community, not because of the initial incident but because you failed to act.

Thus, aberrant behaviors need to be confronted immediately. Don’t let them build and/or be ignored. Confronting the person is the only sure way to minimize the escalation or recurrence of an event.  

A useful tool we can use to address moral and ethical issues before they get out of control: “watchouts” and “standard orders.” These are built on the wildland fire commands of the same names, but they address ethical and moral dilemmas.

8 Ethical Situations That Shout Watch Out

  1. You’re faced for the first time with a troubling experience, one you either witnessed or were told about by a subordinate.
  2. You’re exposed to an event or a series of events you’ve never experienced before.
  3. An action or correct path is not clearly defined.
  4. You have an overwhelming sense of denial regarding what has occurred, or you don’t want to believe what you heard or saw.
  5. You recognize similar emotional defense mechanisms in yourself and the witnesses, perpetrators and victims involved.
  6. Policies or steps that relate to situations like this either aren’t defined or you’re unaware of them.
  7. You have a strong desire to “flee and forget” the situation, rather than to stay and “fight” through to a solution.
  8. You recognize the bystander effect is occurring in you and others around you.

8 Standing Orders for Ethical or Moral Dilemmas

  1. Intervene aggressively if witnessing an illegal event.
  2. Aggressively seek assistance.
  3. Initiate all actions based upon observed behavior or facts presented–not on personal bias, assumptions or rationalization.
  4. Ask probing questions.
  5. Retain control at all time.
  6. Stay alert, keep calm, think clearly, act decisively.
  7. Communicate immediately with your supervisor.
  8. Provide protection, direction and order.

A Final Word
Mark Twain wrote, “It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.” The American fire service demonstrates physical courage–“I’ve got your back”–on a daily basis. However, we must also cultivate the moral courage necessary to lead and protect our agencies and to ensure that all members are acting within the agency’s best moral and ethical interests.