Ethics are principles concerning right and wrong behavior that govern how we conduct ourselves. Morals are standards of behavior based on those ethical principles. Ensuring the highest standards of ethical behavior is central to the fire service mission and to managing a fire department effectively.
Ethical behavior almost appears to be a logical extension of the culture of firefighting, given the fire service’s shared mission to serve society positively.
Firefighters exhibit physical courage every day, so doesn’t it follow that they would also display moral courage and strength of character? Isn’t ethical behavior part of the shared mission of fire departments, exhibited in the rituals, traditions, and everyday experiences of being a firefighter?
Moral, selfless and trustworthy
The fire service has a tradition of putting the common good above the individual good, an approach that advances the idea of moral and selfless behavior. The public image of firefighters as selfless servants of the common good certainly supports the idea that departments display the best ethical code and highest moral convictions.
Successful fire departments are built around integrity, trust, ethical behavior, transparency, and open communication
Successful fire departments are built around a culture of integrity, trust, and ethical behavior, not to mention transparency and open communication among personnel. Trust is especially relevant among team members when there is a common goal that can be a matter of life and death.
Hopefully, ethical infractions are more the exception than the rule in the fire service. When there is sexual misconduct, drug use, theft, or cheating in a fire department, the transgression generally makes its way into the media.
As much as such incidents tend to sully the reputation of the broader fire service, we can take comfort in the fact that they are the exception rather than the rule. News articles focus on the unusual, not the day-to-day. Heaven forbid such activities to become accepted practices to the point that they are no longer newsworthy!
Transparent reporting of misconduct
If and when there is a moral or ethical lapse in a fire department, transparent reporting of the misdeeds to the public is critical to ensuring ongoing public trust.
The offenders should be held accountable, as should leaders who perpetuated an environment in which misdeeds were tolerated. As we all learned from Watergate, the coverup is often worse than the crime.
Code of conduct
Many fire departments have unspoken expectations about how fire personnel should conduct themselves. Those expectations are part of the tradition of firefighting, but shouldn’t they also be explicitly spelled out, if only to make it easier for newcomers to grasp their nuance and understand their importance?
Ethical and moral conduct
Departments can promote the best behavior and standards among their members by explicitly defining a code of ethics and stating their core values.
Ethical and moral conduct should be incorporated into every department’s policies and SOPs
Ethical and moral conduct should be incorporated into every department’s policies and standard operating procedures (SOPs). Top managers of a department should lead by example and embody faultless role models for every member of the department, but especially the newbies.
In the best-case scenario, fire departments consider issues of ethics and morals often and seek out ways to communicate those core values up and down the department’s ranks.
Expressing core values and expectations often can ensure they are not taken for granted or even ignored. Especially useful is to consider practical ways ethics and morals can be incorporated into the everyday operation of a department.
Code of ethics
As a starting point, or to provide more food for thought, consider the National Society of Executive Fire Officers’ Firefighter Code of Ethics, which includes this observation, “Character is defined by decisions made under pressure when no one is looking when the road contains land mines, and the way is obscured.”
Here are some other points excerpted from the Firefighter Code of Ethics – more food for thought:
- Conduct personal affairs in a manner that does not improperly influence the performance of duties or bring discredit to the organization.
- Avoid financial investments, outside employment, outside business interests, or activities that conflict with or are enhanced by a firefighter’s official position or have the potential to create the perception of impropriety.
- Never harass, intimidate or threaten fellow members of the service or the public and stop or report the actions of other firefighters who engage in such behaviors.