The fire service has a long history of attracting youngsters to their fire stations and fire halls. Tiger Schmittendorf’s "Run to the Curb" tells the stories of people who grew up wanting to be firefighters. Many a current fire chief and officer can relate stories of hanging around fire stations as kids, helping clean rigs and chasing fire trucks on bicycles. This is a colorful industry that conjures images of heroes who, with lights and sirens blazing, save lives and rescue cats.
Because of this level of awe, you have a moral responsibility to prevent illegal activities.
The recent firing of Penn State Football Coach Joe Paterno over his knowledge that former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was an alleged sexual predator was the topic of a several discussions last week at the’ Volunteer Combination Officers Section annual meeting.
The Penn State news reminded several volunteer fire chiefs who knew Gary Scott — former fire chief of Campbell County (Wyo.) Fire Department — who currently is serving 24 years in federal prison for 10 felony convictions of taking children under 18 across state lines to molest them. He also was sentenced to an additional 14 years in prison on county charges.
Scott started Campbell County’s fire cadet program, which many fire departments across the country use to teach area youth about emergency services and the value of donating time to their community. In hindsight, many of the fire chiefs remembered that Scott frequently was accompanied by an Explorer Scout late at night and traveled to conferences with a cadet or scout, yet not one chief thought twice about it — until he was arrested and the ugly stories came out.
And unfortunately Scott’s isn’t the only tragic tale. After the Paterno story broke, I did a Google search and found that in the past year alone, a fire captain in Davis County, Utah, was charged with multiple counts of sexual abuse of a 6-year-old autistic girl; an assistant chief in Buckner, Ill., was charged with aggravated sexual abuse of a girl under 13 years old; and a fire chief in Clearwater, Fla., was arrested for raping and molesting a girl starting when she was 8 years old.
Because the fire service is one of the most respected and honorable professions out there, we sometimes forget that firefighters are human beings, and human beings are flawed.
In an article in Newsweek, Oklahoma Football Coach Barry Switze said that a coach “knows the environment of a football coaching staff,” so others should have been aware of Sandusky's alleged actions. Similarly, the fire service is a family — when a family member is doing something wrong, you try to stop it; when I family member needs help, you provide it or find someone who can. You don't cover it up or enable the actions.
While many fire departments have junior firefighters, cadet programs, and Explorer programs it might be a good idea to take a page from Penn State’s headlines to review the guidelines within your department about interaction with youngsters in and around fire departments. We all have a duty to protect the youngest in our society, always and everywhere.