Discipline in the Fire Service: 4 Questions to Consider

by | November 15, 2019

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series of articles in which Curt Varone will address questions on important fire service legal issues. If you would like to submit a question, please email Shannon Pieper at spieper@lexipol.com.

I’m a new company officer and I’m trying to get my head around the whole process of disciplining a firefighter. Recently I was discussing with my battalion chief an action I wanted to take to reprimand a firefighter who received a citizen complaint for being rude. My BC warned me I need to follow the practice of “progressive discipline.” Do I really need to write someone up for an offense and let it happen again before I can take more serious action?

Your question brings up many questions, some of which are legal but most of which are philosophical. Let’s look at four of those questions.

What Is the Purpose of the Discipline?

First, whenever we discuss discipline, a very basic question needs to be put on the table and remain there: What is the purpose of discipline? In the classroom, we all know the answer: to change behavior. The importance of this question and its obvious answer cannot be overstated.

When we leave the classroom, real names get attached to real-life situations. We can become distracted from the changing behavior part of discipline and focus on the doling out of an appropriate penalty. In the classroom we know it’s not about the penalty; it is about changing behavior. Yet in the real world it becomes about proving the misconduct and assessing the penalty. My advice: Keep asking yourself that question whenever you have to make a discipline-related decision. Your question tells me you are focusing on the punishment. It’s not about the punishment, it’s about changing the behavior.

Does Your Fire Department Allow Company Officers to Issue Reprimands?

While common in years past, such a practice raises several troubling concerns. When a company officer such as yourself plans to reprimand a subordinate, you are serving as the investigator, a witness to what occurred, the judge and the jury at the same time. Discipline in the fire service involves a twofold decision: (a) whether an offense has been committed and (b) what the penalty should be. As a new officer, do you have any training on how to conduct an investigation, make a determination and decide upon an appropriate penalty?

Your question tells me you are focusing on the punishment. It’s not about the punishment, it’s about changing the behavior.

Is the Discipline Consistent with Previous Situations?

Third, there’s the issue of ensuring consistency in your disciplinary decision-making. Is your decision-making consistent with your past decision-making, and do you believe you can remain consistent going forward with other firefighters on similar facts? Just as important, is your decision-making consistent with how other officers in your department would handle the same situation?

The need for consistency goes beyond the appropriateness of a particular penalty. The fire department is a governmental employer, and as such needs to be attentive to principles of due process and just cause. Both require that an employer be consistent throughout the disciplinary process. Disciplinary decisions—such as when will matters be investigated, who will conduct the investigation, how will the investigation be carried out, the burden of proof applied, and of course the penalty to be imposed—need to be handled in a consistent manner.

Ensuring consistency is why most fire departments do not allow discipline to be administered by company officers. Company officers should no doubt be responsible for reporting misconduct. Once misconduct is reported, the fire department administration should be responsible for ensuring consistency in the investigative process and disciplinary outcome. It should not be a company officer responsibility.

Is a Warning More Appropriate?

Fourth, your question references the appropriateness of progressive discipline in the fire service, suggesting it is unnecessary to start the process with a warning to the firefighter about their behavior. While some offenses are so outrageous and unacceptable by their very nature that use of progressive discipline is unnecessary, most are not. In this regard it may be helpful to ask yourself: If your battalion chief received the identical complaint about you, would a reprimand without a prior warning be necessary for you to change your behavior? Might your behavior change by simply your boss making you aware of it?

When it comes to discipline in the fire service, remember the golden rule. Treat others the way you would want to be treated.

CURT VARONE has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer’s Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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