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Your Call: Discipline 101 for officers

Here’s the scenario: As the officer, you pass by an office and notice two firefighters surfing the Internet. Unfortunately, they are looking at websites that are inappropriate and against your town’s policy. As the officer, what should your actions be?

November 14, 2008
By Steve Kraft

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Here’s the scenario: As the officer, you pass by an office and notice two firefighters surfing the Internet. Unfortunately, they are looking at websites that are inappropriate and against your town’s policy. As the officer, what should your actions be?

Although this issue may seem simple for some officers, I believe there are several ways in which it can be handled. If your municipality is similar to mine, all staff are required to sign an Internet acceptable-use policy before getting access to a computer and the Internet. This policy states that users won’t search inappropriate sites, won’t use the Internet for personal business, can’t listen to or view non-work related music and/or videos, etc. The consequences of abusing the policy can be quite severe, up to and including dismissal. As such, some officers might suggest that a zero-tolerance approach should be followed and the firefighters should be reported, which may lead to dismissal. I disagree.

I disagree because, as an officer, it is important to realize that your firefighters will make mistakes. They will do things that are wrong, just like you did. There are several reasons why we do silly things, including peer pressure or a simple lapse in judgment. Because firefighters will make mistakes, I believe the officer needs to consider several factors when deciding on the appropriate action. These factors include:

  • The content being viewed (needless to say, certain content would require immediate actions);
  • Whether the firefighters have been caught looking at inappropriate sites before? (If yes, were the firefighters dealt with and were they explained what the consequences would be if it were to happen again?)
  • Whether the firefighters have been disciplined before, for similar things?
  • The “normal behaviour” of each firefighter.

I suggest that officers consider these factors because I believe past experiences need to be considered when dealing with all firefighters. Your reputation follows you and if you don’t think it does, I suggest you talk to other officers or firefighters who have been around for a few years. We all know who’s been in trouble before, who will be in trouble again and who made an uncharacteristic mistake. I believe a good officer does treat people differently, based on their past experiences. Now, if you’re still not convinced, let me explain further. If I’m willing to accept that everyone is going to make mistakes, then that means I’m willing to deal with the firefighter one on one the first time the mistake is made. My belief is that if I handle the situation correctly the first time, in most cases there won’t be a second time. Show respect for your firefighters and they will show respect in return. Unfortunately, if they make the same mistake again, then a different approach needs to be taken because they either didn’t learn the first time or they didn’t take you seriously.

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Let’s assume this is the first time these firefighters have been caught looking at inappropriate websites, and the content of the sites is adult material. The minute I noticed them, I would ask them what they are doing. If they try to make excuses, I would tell them to stop and I would let them know that I saw exactly what they were looking at. I would say something like “you guys know what you’re doing is wrong; why are you looking at those sites?” Chances are they won’t say anything. Really, you are asking a rhetorical question. You’re not expecting an answer – you’re making a point. 

As the officer, you need to tell them do not condone their actions. By looking at these sites the firefighters were putting themselves and the officer in a vulnerable position and you need to stress that you don’t appreciate being put in this situation.

I would remind them about the town policy and then I would review it with them. I would remind them that they signed the form so they know they are violating a town policy. I would also tell them that this is serious and it could possibly result in termination.

I wouldn’t belabour the issue, as I believe you can make your point within a few minutes. Simply tell them this is the first time you have noticed this type of behaviour from them and because of that you are willing to chalk this up as a mistake – after all, we all make them. But make sure you tell them what the consequences will be if they are caught again. In this case, I would tell them I would get a chief officer involved the next time. I would also make sure they know you are going to document this occurrence; however, the documentation will stay with you, providing it doesn’t happen again.

I wouldn’t approach this issue much differently than any situation whereby my firefighters are acting inappropriately. It doesn’t matter what policy is being breached; the most important thing is to deal with the action to ensure it doesn’t happen again. To simplify:

  • Bring the inappropriate behaviour and/or breach to the firefighter(s) attention;
  • Tell them what your expectations are;
  • Provide additional training, if necessary;
  • Tell them what the consequences will be if a similar situation occurs in the future;
  • Document the actions you took.

Of course, the caveat to all this is that any behaviour or actions that are illegal or unethical need to be addressed more severely. If you catch a firefighter stealing or you witness sexual harassment, these situations are not categorized as a “mistake” and the firefighter(s) should not get a second chance. These issues are serious and should be dealt with immediately in the presence of a higher ranking officer.


Steve Kraft is a deputy chief and 19-year member of the Richmond Hill Fire Department in Ontario. He has completed the certificate in fire-service leadership through Dalhousie University and is a graduate of the fire-protection technologist course at the Ontario Fire College. He is a certified community emergency management co-ordinator and is enrolled in the University of Western Ontario, where he is completing his diploma in public administration.

Here is the Next Scenario

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