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Seen It All?: Just when you thought nothing could surprise you

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A friend who's a fire chief in a West Coast city recently called me, saying, ˙I thought I had seen it all until Ú.Ó As he started to tell the story, I thought I had heard it beforeƒbut not quite like this.

A battalion chief had come into the chief's office, also saying, ˙I thought I had seen it all until Ú.Ó One of his firefighters claimed another crew member was posing nude on a match-making Web site and that everybody who solicited dates on the site was fully nude in their pictures. When the chief officer asked how he knew about it, the firefighter was quick to dispel the suspicion he was searching porn sites, explaining that he had heard about it from a nurse at a receiving hospital and then checked the site. The firefighter reporting this claim had also told others, and the rumor set off alarm bells throughout the station and the entire department.

The battalion chief reported the claim to the fire chief, who, along with the battalion chief, visited the alleged porn site and confirmed the rumor.

How have I heard about this before? Several years ago, a volunteer fire chief in Florida posted pictures of himself on a dating Web site, wearing a uniform shirt but nothing from the waist down. The fire chief who oversaw all the volunteer fire departments in the county brought the involved fire chief up on charges under the auspices of rules and regulations of the county fire department.

Facing disciplinary action, the volunteer fire chief resigned. Five months later, he was back with the department but with the new title of president and (self-dubbed) ˙administrative chief.Ó The county fire chief issued a ˙cease and desistÓ letter to him, but he refused, saying posting photos of himself was not illegal and, in his opinion, not immoral.

Expect It

These cases are clear examples of the challenges EMS managers can face when they think they've ˙seen it all.Ó Presented with this kind of scenario, many questions naturally come to mind: Are your employees entitled to solicit mates via a Web site? Do the facts that the Web site is sexual in nature and users are nude change the equation? What if they had posted their profile on a more conventional match-making Web site, like one that's regularly advertised on TV? Would your response be different?

Answering these questions helps you separate your own morality from the ethical standards set by your agency. With each possibility considered, you can move forward to address the situation.

First, you have to consider whether an employee violated any rules or regulations by participating on a match-making site. Possibly, your agency has a rule that an employee's conduct shall not be unbecoming on or off duty. Other ˙catch-allÓ organizational rules I've seen stipulate an employee is to always maintain the public confidence by their actions on and off the job. If you have these rules, you must determine if participating on a match-making site that allows nudity is ˙unbecomingÓ or jeopardizes the confidence of the public.

But what if your organization has no rules governing an employee's actions off the job? Can you even consider any charges against the employees?

One of your first actions should be to get written statements from the employees involved. These statements are necessary parts of the investigative process. You should also speak with your agency or city attorney, who can advise whether any department rules or regulations have been violated.

It's important not to jump to conclusions or make a quick judgment. You're not commanding a multi-casualty event that requires split-second decision-making; you have discretionary time. Use that time and make sure you have all the facts before making a decision.

Conclusion

In the case of the firefighter who was advertising himself on a pornographic Web site, his department determined his actions were ˙unbecomingÓ and took disciplinary action against him. The other department that reinstated the fire chief was eventually decertified as a county response entity (with no reported connection to the fire chief's conduct).

Both cases highlight the need for a careful balance between the rights of your employees and the rules of your organization. Thoughtful decision-making with legal counsel will help you render a fair decision.

Nothing seems to surprise me anymore, and I'm cautious to say, ˙I thought I had seen it all until Ú.Ó Whenever you get to that point, it seems something else happens that will amaze you.

Gary Ludwig, MS, EMT-P, is a deputy fire chief with the Memphis (Tenn.) Fire Department. He has a total of 30 years of fire and rescue experience. He's chair of the EMS Section for the International Association of Fire Chiefs and can be reached atwww.garyludwig.com.

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