The Role of Ethics and Morality in the Fire Service

The Role of Ethics and Morality in the Fire Service


What drives your decision-making?

In 2003, I assisted facilitating the California Public Safety Leadership and Ethics Training Project, a leadership development project authorized and funded via a grant from the California Community College Chancellor’s Office. This endeavor was a multi-disciplinary effort incorporating the needs of law enforcement, fire service personnel and corrections personnel into a unified leadership program. The program today is international and provides participants an opportunity to earn a certificate in leadership jointly issued with the Phi Theta Kappa International Honor Society.

During the course, participants complete a “value card” exercise in which they identify their most important values. Over time, we learned that the values most important to law and fire were trust, honesty, integrity and teamwork. This is very predictable given our role in society.   

Because we had access to many inmates through the corrections partners involved, we conducted the same value exercise on them. Trust, honesty, integrity and teamwork didn’t even make their values list. In fact, values many of us live by were almost non-existent in the prison population. Our moral compass usually tells us something is wrong. Convicted prisoners apparently didn’t have that same internal guidance.

Why do our values matter so much? All decisions are driven by our values.

When the Moral Compass Fails
You don’t have to look far to see the need for ethics and morality. In the business world, specifically Wall Street, we can look at Bernie Madoff. Prosecutors estimate the fraud he was responsible for was close to $64.8 billion; 4,800 investors lost their investments entirely. Others went to jail as well and one of Madoff’s sons committed suicide. It’s not just individuals who lack ethics but companies as well. Morgan Stanley lost billions of investor funds based upon persistent and systemic illegal and unethical practices.

However, to me, it’s even more insidious is when famous cultural figures, such as athletes, lose their way, because they’re role models for our youth. Lance Armstrong, long after winning seven Tour de France races and repeatedly lying to investigators and the public, finally admitted to taking performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). In fact, a two-year investigation revealed that 21 out of 22 top cyclists admitted taking PEDs during that timeframe. Remember your mother’s advice: “Just because everyone does it doesn’t make it right.” Nor is this an ethical defense! William Penn articulated similar sentiments: “What is wrong is wrong even if everyone is doing it. Right is still right even if no one else is doing it.”

Along these lines, I have doubts that the greatest hitter of all time, Barry Bonds, will be able to get into the MLB Hall of Fame. But Bonds, like Armstrong, really just hurt himself with his unethical behavior; his goal was personal gain and fame. Further, we need only look at Coach Joe Paterno to see how some ethical lapses can have effects far beyond the individual. Paterno apparently passed the loyalty test with a long-time friend, but not the ethical test. He was accused of turning a blind eye to behavior he knew was wrong and criminal. On a much lesser note, he effectively destroyed a successful football program and, in turn, changed the career prospects of the players.   

It’s interesting to note that Paterno was admired for his insistence that his players do well academically, long before it became popular or required. In fact, this was something that I greatly admired in Coach Paterno. In short, he valued education. However, being well-educated doesn’t mean that you’ll always lead an ethical life. How prophetic are these words written 100 years ago by Teddy Roosevelt: “To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.” President Obama echoed this in a recent speech to a graduation class at the Naval Academy. Referring to the upswing in reported sexual assaults in the armed services, he instructed the new officers that it takes more than just physical courage to lead; it takes moral courage to do the right thing.

The Public Trust
The citizens we serve hold the fire service in very high esteem—so much so that we are consistently identified as the most respected profession. This respect is based upon the public trust, which in turn is based upon our professional ethics and morality—our values. As a fire chief in several communities, I found customer satisfaction surveys for the fire service always started at 96% and went up from there. After we published the results in one community, the president of the Chamber of Commerce jokingly stated, “With ratings that high, the only place to go is down.”

From a business perspective, he is probably right. It’s hard to maintain high ratings as you follow trends, seek out new products, and leverage ways to increase profit margins. However, our profession is based upon character. We hire for character (ethics and morality), which doesn’t change with the times—and that in turn makes it easy to sustain such high marks.

Let’s be clear: Although being ethical in general leads to success, it doesn’t mean you won’t suffer career setbacks. As a leader, you can make ethical decisions and still be out of a job by failing the loyalty test when your boss asks you to do something unethical or illegal and you refuse. But worse by far is failing the ethics test, corrupting your legacy and entire organization by not doing what is right. When you’re faced with a loyalty vs. ethics test, it tests your character. It requires the same courage we face daily as firefighters.

Ethics & Morality
We often use the terms ethics and morality synonymously. The reason for this is ethics comes from the Greek word ethos, which means “character.” Morality is from the Latin moralitas, also meaning character. However, there is a difference. Subtle as it may seem, the philosophy of morality is ethics. Morals are beliefs, practices or teachings regarding how people conduct themselves, while ethics refers to systems, principles or a philosophy or theory behind them. You live according to your morals, but you adhere to your ethics while doing so.
What is ethics? Simply stated, ethics refers to standards of behavior that tell us how human beings ought to act—as friends, parents, children, citizens, businesspeople, teachers, professionals and so on. Digging deeper, ethics seeks to resolve questions dealing with human morality—the concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime.

Sometimes it helps to identify what ethics is NOT, as outlined by Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics:

  • Ethics is not the same as feelings. Often our feelings will tell us it’s uncomfortable to do the right thing if it’s difficult.
  • Ethics is not religion. Many people are not religious, but ethics applies to everyone.
  • Ethics is not following culturally accepted norms. Some cultures are quite ethical, but others become corrupt (think Nazi Germany).

When it comes to morality, we refer to the “moral code” of a person or group, a system according to a particular philosophy, religion, culture, etc. An example of a moral code is the Golden Rule. Because ethics is also known as the foundation of moral philosophy, to truly comprehend morality you need to understand the Five Sources of Ethical Standards (

  1. The Utilitarian Approach: Do what does the most good or does the least harm, or, produces the greatest balance of good over harm. The utilitarian approach deals with consequences; it tries both to increase the good done and to reduce the harm done. This approach was use by President Truman as a decision matrix before using the atom bomb.
  2. The Common Good Approach: Life in community is a good in itself and our actions should contribute to that life. This approach also calls attention to the common conditions that are important to the welfare of everyone. This includes the system of laws, effective police and fire departments, healthcare, a public educational system and public recreational areas.
  3. The Virtue Approach: Ethical actions ought to be consistent with certain ideal virtues—truth and beauty, honesty, courage, compassion, generosity, tolerance, love, fidelity, integrity, fairness, self-control—that provide for the full development of our humanity. This approach encourages you to ask, “What kind of person will I become if I do this?”
  4. The Rights Approach: Ethical action is the action that best protects and respects the moral rights of those affected. Humans have an inherent dignity based on free will. In the debate over gun control, those who advocate that the Second Amendment prohibits stricter gun regulations are drawing on this approach.
  5. The Fairness or Justice Approach: All human beings should be treated equally—or if unequally, then fairly based on a defensible standard. Example: We regard it as fair that we pay people more based on their harder work or the greater amount that they contribute to an organization.

When faced with an ethical dilemma, its helpful to consider these five standards as part of your decision-making process

A Call to Courage
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 on a daily basis. However, we must also cultivate the moral courage necessary to lead and protect our agencies, ensuring that all members are acting within the agency’s best moral and ethical interests.