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Fire Department Administrative Investigations and Firefighter Discipline

Length of Seminar: 2 Days
Instructo: Curt Varone

Course Overview:

Fire and emergency services stand at the crossroads. We have always been the good guys, ready to risk our lives for our neighbor. However, things have changed. The taxpaying public demands accountability, even from its heros. The media sensationalizes the smallest of stories involving firefighters. The digital age results in photo and video evidence of nearly every conceivable act of wrongdoing being captured for all to see.

The day when a fire chief could hope to manage indiscretions and improper conduct quietly behind closed doors is gone. Heightened public sensitivity to official wrongdoing makes the risk from false and unfounded allegations just as dangerous to emergency organizations and the careers of its leaders, as truthful allegations. Legal complexities make the investigation of complaints of wrongdoing a critical aspect of the progressive fire and emergency service organization. Yet time and time again we see fire departments struggling to properly address allegations.

Let’s look at some examples:

A black firefighter is served dog food as a firehouse prank by a Hispanic firefighter. Discipline is imposed on the member responsible, as well as two officers. The black firefighter sues for race discrimination and receives a $1.5 million settlement. The two officers sue for due process violations related to their discipline, and receive $1.7 million each.

On duty firefighters take their fire apparatus to a Porn Star Costume Ball being held at a local hotel, and engage in the festivities, including drinking. Two are later accused of sexually assaulting a woman on their apparatus.
An officer places a white pillow case over his head and makes racial threats toward a black firefighter. The captain is terminated. The firefighter sues for race discrimination and receives $360,000. The captain sues alleging wrongful termination and receives $200,000 settlement.

Two firefighters who are drinking on duty engage in an altercation resulting on one firefighter hitting the other firefighter in the head with a chair, causing severe injuries. Officers in the station who were also drinking attempt to cover up the incident.

Improper conduct cannot be ignored, and allegations of improper conduct must be properly investigated. This program will provide the essential elements of a reasonable and responsible Professional Standards system.

The course will cover:

  • Five common complaints about fire service disciplinary processes
  • Six steps to create the ideal professional standards system
  • Three key questions to be answered in any due process proceeding
  • The challenges associated with “Conduct Unbecoming” allegations
  • Five steps in the investigative process
  • Four policies that every fire department needs (but probably don’t have)
  • Enhancing interviewing skills
  • and more..

Course Objectives:

  • Respecting the Weingarten and Garrity Rights of firefighters
  • Three important rules for interviewing the complainant
  • Tips for dealing with a hostile or angry witness
  • 7 Essential components of due process
  • The Code of Silence: Addressing it in a reasonable manner
  • Three necessary components for establishing the chain of custody of evidence
  • Seizure and documentation of evidence
  • Use of photo and video to document evidence
  • The law governing workplace search & seizure, including the 2010 US Supreme Court decision in City of Ontario v. Quon
  • Chemical testing of employees: pitfalls and precautions
  • Drafting the investigative report
  • The two major disciplinary models, and knowing when to use each
  • Understanding what the pre-disciplinary hearing is and isn’t
  • The three burdens of proof
  • The corrective action balancing act: determining what penalty is appropriate for a particular individual
  • How to prevent disciplinary actions from being overturned
  • Use of last chance agreements
  • How to handle resignations and retirements in lieu of disciplinary action
  • Effective use of pro-active tools to help firefighters avoid rule violations

The program includes practical exercises to reinforce the lessons learned, including exercises on conducting a preliminary investigation, developing an investigative plan, interviewing skills, complying with firefighter bill of rights laws, and determining the appropriate type of disciplinary hearing. Get the most up-to-date information available! Learn how a Professional Standards system can enhance your fire department. Sample forms, cases, firefighter bill of rights legislation, and course book included.

From the Instructor:

One of the things that bothers me the most when I read some of the bizarre firefighter misconduct cases is knowing that more often than not the bizarre behavior did not just happen one day out of the blue. It occurred because various forms of seemingly innocent misconduct were tolerated over the course of years and years. Yet when people see the misconduct described in the newspaper in black and white it seems so outrageous”.

Besides the damage to an organization’s reputation, these cases also represent a tremendous drain on the attention of the fire department administration. Instead of the fire chief focusing on leading the organization, and determining where the organization needs to go, the chief is stuck meeting with lawyers and HR staff, and spending day after day in depositions and in court”.

During the course of my career I have represented dozens of firefighters who were wrongfully accused of misconduct – so I understand as well as anyone that an effective Professional Standards System must be capable of competently investigating all allegations of misconduct, and where appropriate vindicating personnel who did nothing wrong”.

 

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