Firehouse pranks often can go too far. In one example, members of the Macon-Bibb County (Ga.) Fire Department staged an armed robbery to haze rookies. Fire Chief Marvin Riggins called the act "notoriously disgraceful," suspending several firefighters and demoting a sergeant for their parts in the hazing, which they recorded. The organizer, Capt. Stephanie Burke, received a two-shift suspension concerning "management and behavior of her assigned personnel" and station morale. The firefighters violated several departmental policies, including General Order No. 26, which prohibits hazing, initiations, and/or other types of physical confrontations.
Yet even with such policies in place, the chief couldn't prevent the hazing. So how can chief officers stop such behaviors?
Alisa Arnoff, partner at Chicago-based law firm Scalambrino & Arnoff, said education and policy should be used to prevent liability, avoid bad press and prevent poor morale resulting from hazing and pranks. Arnoff’s firm specializes in labor and employment law, among other other specialties. FIRE CHIEF spoke with her to learn how chief officers can avoid hazing at their department.
You say chief officers play the role of “conduct cop” at the firehouse. What do you mean?
They are the ones with responsibility for making sure reports are made and investigations completed if there is wrongdoing found. As leaders, they must make sure it is remedied because usually human resources are offsite at city hall and not onsite handling the situations.
Looking at the Macom-Bibb story as an example, what does it show about the need for hazing training for chief officers?
We have the video as what not to do. (See below.) What came out of the investigation was that command was involved in the incident. What was somewhat unusual was that it was a female captain who asked a senior firefighter to bring in the cap gun and get his friend to play the robber. Text messages went back and forth about the plan. If someone is at the command level engaging in this type of conduct and doesn’t understand why it is in appropriate, there is a problem. Your captains and chiefs aren’t setting the example.
What can the fire chief or a chief officer do to ensure anti-hazing training is taught throughout the ranks?
Equal employment opportunity (EEO) training really needs to be part of the promotional process. When interviewing, it is important to get an idea of a candidates understanding of harassment, what is appropriate, what isn’t appropriate, and ask how they would respond to a situation to get an idea of the seriousness in which they take those things. Chiefs really shouldn’t be interviewing anyone unless they are trained by human resources because they may not know the appropriate questions, such as asking questions to a female candidate about their family plans. However, this resource can be limited for volunteer departments, who still can be sued if they get any state of federal funding if they violate the law.
From a legal perspective, chief officers may ask the following questions:
- What familiarity do you have of the EEO policy?
- Do you know where to find it?
- What is your understanding of what is appropriate and what is not?
- How would you feel about having to discipline somebody who you might have worked side-by-side with for five years but now you are enforcing the policy?
- What is your understanding of what sexual harassment is (such as flirting)?
What about after the promotion to chief officer?
Once they are promoted, the training has to be part of what they do. If they are coming up from an environment where it was OK to haze, or the captain looked the other way, it is going to continue to happen. So, a newly promoted person has to be provided a mentor, someone they can go to and ask questions about dealing with situations. It can be a simple as asking whether it is appropriate to go out with beers with crew members.
What policies should a chief have in writing?
Chiefs must make sure they have a discrimination and harassment reporting policy that makes sense to them. The policy must define what is unlawful. Chief should make sure the policy is in plain English, not in legalize, so it is clear. You want to make sure it identifies what types of things are unlawful, who to report it to, and include an anti-retaliation provision. Make policies available, like online. Have it in multiple places, especially when working with unions. Members often look at the union contract as the bible, so they must know they are bound to the department’s policies under the management rights policies, a law that gives managers the right to make policies firefighters must follow.