Unlike public safety agencies, most fire departments don't have internal affairs divisions. A professional standards manual can help agencies handle disciplinary matters.
To operate effectively, fire service and police departments rely heavily on public trust, but personnel employed by these public safety agencies are fallible. They make mistakes and, in some cases, commit criminal acts.
Most police departments have established professional standards divisions, usually referred to as internal affairs, to handle complaints involving departmental personnel. In contrast, most fire departments operate without professional standards or internal affairs divisions. Depending on the fire agency, investigation of professional standards issues may be assigned to the supervising battalion chief or fire captain. These officers often have neither training nor a formal protocol to follow as they conduct investigations, reach conclusions and formulate recommendations. In the absence of an independent professional standards division, inconsistencies in procedures and dispositions are likely.
Like other government agencies, the fire service is being subjected to more public scrutiny then ever before. This close scrutiny raises a myriad of liability issues, including a growing number of lawsuits resulting from internally generated complaints, such as internal theft and sexually harassment, and externally generated complaints, such as a citizen complaining of being improperly treated by a firefighter.
In response to the pressing need for formalized processes for responding to professional standards issues, this study was designed to develop and validate a prototype model for professional standards divisions in the fire service. It is hoped that the availability of this model will expedite the implementation and facilitate the establishment of professional standards divisions throughout the fire service.
The primary focus of the resulting manual is to improve fire department operations through the development of professional standards in areas such as safety, citizen-complaint procedures and discipline. The manual is essentially a one-stop document to address these items.
Constructing the model
To construct a professional standards manual that fire service agencies could implement with only minor revisions to incorporate agency-specific content to meet local requirements, two challenges had to be overcome:
- Anticipate issues and concerns unique to fire service operations and
- Construct a model that was sufficiently generic to accommodate a variety of specific local requirements.
To ensure that the proposed model satisfied these criteria, the manual was constructed in a series of five steps.
Interview with professional standards expert. As a first step, Timm Browne, chief of the Palos Verdes (Calif.) Police Department and an expert in the field of professional standards/internal affairs, was interviewed. With his input, critical processes were identified, potential distinctions between police and fire service operations were highlighted, and fire service — specific requirements were targeted.
When comparing fire versus police agency requirements that pertain to professional standards protocol, many items were discussed, including work cultures, disciplinary procedures, and job description and equipment differences. However, both adhere to due-process disciplinary procedures when dealing with employee misconduct and rules violations. When developing the generic manual for the fire service, an entire section was incorporated to address this mission-critical item.
Review existing professional standards or internal affairs procedures. To establish parameters for successful professional standards programs, representatives of six fire service agencies and five police/public safety agencies were interviewed. Professional standards and internal affairs documents also were obtained from several local agencies and reviewed. The procedural document currently used by the Costa Mesa (Calif.) Police Department appeared to offer the most relevant elements for a fire service professional standards model.
Revise to conform to fire service operations. Costa Mesa's procedural document was revised to conform to fire service operations and terminology. Provisions that applied to situations exclusive to police operations were deleted and replaced with provisions drafted to accommodate fire service operations. Inapplicable terminology was deleted and replaced with terms familiar to firefighters.
Revise to eliminate agency-specific content. In a second revisions process, all agency-specific content was removed to create a generic model. Deleted content was replaced with non-specific place-holder language designed to preserve the integrity of the model and facilitate the future insertion of appropriate content by implementing agencies.
Review by fire service and legal authorities. As a final step in the construction process, the model's applicability was tested. In what might be described as a simulated implementation, fire service — and agency-specific content was inserted into the model. The customized manual was reviewed by the Costa Mesa fire chief and the city attorney, who approved the proposed model as acceptable for local implementation.
Validating the model
To ensure that the proposed professional standards manual would serve as a viable model for other departments, it was subjected to a validation process, which consisted of a review by four fire service officers. Reviewers' comments were summarized for incorporation into the proposed professional standards model.
Fairfax County (Va.) Fire and Rescue employs 1,167 suppression personnel located in 35 fire stations. Rick Daniele, who commands the Professional Standards Section, reported that the section handles about 50 cases per year, two-thirds of which are generated internally. The unit was established in 1984 and, according to Daniele, has a record of no overturned cases.
“The Professional Standards Office helps the department in the area of professional standards by ensuring that investigations are completed in a consistent and highly professional manner,” he says.
Los Angeles City Fire Department has approximately 3,000 members. Internal Affairs for the LAFD is handled by the Administrative Justice Unit, which is led by Bttn. Chief Donald Austin. With two captains and an executive office specialist, the AJU handles an average of 70 to 80 cases per year. The two captains conduct formal investigations on cases that reach the AJU. The investigators are assisted by field advocates, who are assigned to cases on an as needed basis.
Phoenix Fire Department is staffed by 1,500 firefighters and operates a Performance Auditors Section that handles internal affairs, reviewing about 25 cases per year. The section is lead by Chief Paul Thorton, who oversees one full-time and one part-time investigator.
According to Nicole Munson, the full-time investigator, citizen's complaints that don't involve allegations of serious violations are investigated by the on-duty battalion chief assigned to the geographical area of the complaint. If the complaint is significant or if it involves a criminal charge, it is referred to the section for investigation and processing.
Costa Mesa Police Department employs 150 sworn police officers and 25 staff personnel. The department has had a Professional Standards Unit in place for over 10 years, staffed by one full-time lieutenant and a sergeant who assists on a part-time basis. Lt. Dale Birney, who currently commands the unit, says that “the PSU handles approximately 60 cases per year. Cases which originated internally mainly stem from rules and regulation violation allegations. Externally generated cases are usually citizen complaint allegations.”
According to Birney, the PSU has enhanced the department's professional standards by ensuring consistency in the investigation process, raising professional standards within the department, and giving the public and members a high level of trust.
Huntington Beach (Calif.) Police Department employs 100 sworn officers and 20 staff personnel. The Professional Standards Division has been existence for more than 10 years and is staffed by two full-time sergeants led by Sgt. Cory Bright.
“This unit handles approximately 40 incidents per year, while internal affair incidents that are lesser in severity average approximately 90 per year and are handled at a supervisory level,” Bright says. “The origination of internal incidents is largely due to rules and regulation issues, while incidents that originate externally are mainly citizen complaint — related.”
According to Bright, the division has helped the department by ensuring that professional standards incidents are reviewed in a consistent and professional manner.
Newport Beach (Calif.) Police Department employs 150 sworn personnel, including about 75 civilians, and has had a Professional Standards Unit for over 17 years. Two full-time positions are assigned to the unit, which is currently headed by Lt. Mike Hyams.
“The unit handles approximately 40 incidents per year,” says Hyams. “The cases that originate externally are mainly violation of rules and regulations. External cases are usually citizen complaints that can range from rudeness, to unlawful arrest, to excessive force.”
Hyams believes the unit has helped the department by raising the bar of excellence in professional standards. “The unit is also a safeguard against misconduct and gives the public confidence that operations are conducted in a professional and ethical manner,” he says.
Reviewing the model
Once the model was constructed, it was submitted to the following reviewers: Chief Cameron Phillips, Garden Grove Fire Department; Chief Alfred Nero, Brea Fire Department; Chief Donald Heiser, Encinitas Fire Department; and Division Chief Randy Scheer, Newport Beach Fire and Marine. These chiefs lead typical, mid-sized departments in Southern California with an average staff size of 90. Their comments are excerpted below.
Will you use the Professional Standards Manual for your department? All four reviewers say they could use the manual in their fire department.
According to Heiser, “This is an excellent tool that could be used for any city department (i.e., public works, recreation), not just the fire department.” Phillips said, “We could use parts of the manual, for instance in the area detailing traffic-collision incidents.”
Would you make any significant changes to the manual? None of the reviewers said they would make any significant changes to the manual.
“The only possible change to consider would be to build in a procedure that would encompass a situation where a chief officer was charged with an offense,” said Scheer. “Currently, the manual states only chief officers sit on the board.” Heiser noted, “The only changes I would make would be those that would reflect my city's policies, procedures, and culture.”
What did you dislike about the manual? All of the reviewers made positive comments after reviewing the manual.
“I like the way the manual outlines a path for each situation,” said Phillips. “[But] what I like, I also dislike. I like the way things are detailed, but parts of the manual are overly detailed and busy.” Heiser said, “I really like the standardization. It gives you a process to investigate any incident. In addition, as you go through implementing it through city legal and personnel, it further validates it as it is being reviewed by many different departments. More then anything else, it becomes a validated document.”
Do you anticipate any significant problems? All reviewers identified a need to meet and discuss the manual with labor groups before implementation. Phillips said, “I would start with meeting with the labor group. I would jointly work with labor, legal and personnel.” Nero added, “I would begin with a meet-and-confer process with the union to get their buy-in.”
In the real world
Typically, only large metropolitan fire departments currently have professional standards units in place. On the other hand, internal affairs or professional standards units are common in police and public safety agencies, regardless of department size.
Agencies with internal affairs or professional standards units reported similar frequency rates for internal and external incidents. The most common type of externally generated incident was citizen complaints, such as rudeness and excessive force, while almost all internal incidents were the result of rules and regulations violations, including harassment and tardiness.
Without exception, agency representatives reported that their departments' professional standards units had improved operating effectiveness. Their comments suggested that the process of developing and implementing a professional standards unit may have a positive impact on the organization. Developing and implementing a professional standards unit appears to focus attention on ethical issues and reinforce quality standards for professional conduct. Once implemented, a professional standards unit assists employees in making appropriate ethical decisions, thus reducing the incidence of punitive disciplinary actions that result from poor decision-making.
For example, the Sacramento Fire Department has been dealing with serious misconduct and disciplinary issues that involved 24 firefighters. In September 2004, Deputy Chief Rich McKinney requested a copy of the Professional Standard Manual.
“Upon receipt of the manual,” he says, “the Sacramento Fire Department customized it to reflect the needs and culture of the department. This modification process included a review and ratification by the city's fire department, police department, firefighter labor group, personnel department, city manager's office and city council.”
According to McKinney, the Sacramento Fire Department will be fully implementing a Professional Standards Unit with a battalion chief and full-time administrative assistant. Overseeing both the fire department and police departments' professional standards units will be a public safety accountability officer who works for the city manager. This officer will serve as an independent third party to ensure all cases are handled in a professional manner.
“Currently, all full-time and acting battalion chiefs are going through professional standards and internal affairs investigation training,” McKinney says. “The professional standards model … gave us the foundational document we needed to develop our Professional Standards Unit. It will ensure our fire department members understand and adhere to the departments rules, regulations, and professional demeanor that they are expected to follow.”
When implementing a professional standards model, it's highly advantageous to identify and incorporate dominant values shared by the entire organization. In the case of fire service agencies, it's critical that fire administration and employee labor groups work together to develop professional standards that encompass the shared values of a diverse work force.
Christopher P. Riley, MS, CFO, is a battalion chief with the Costa Mesa (Calif.) Fire Department. To request a copy of the Professional Standards Prototype Manual contact him at email@example.com.