Disturbing but Not Surprising News from the Cincinnati Fire Department: Firefighters Gone Wild

Nearly nine months ago, I stumbled upon the idea of creating a database to look at the legal issues confronting the fire service. No one really had the information I was looking for – and the idea fascinated me. The initial results from the database will be published in the September issue of Firehouse magazine.

In the process of looking at the various cases and legal issues facing fire departments, fire chiefs and firefighters – I became aware of what some are calling an epidemic of misbehavior by firefighters. Two separate newspapers in different parts of the country have used the term: “Firefighters Gone Wild” to describe their local problems. What is clear to me is that it is not a localized problem and while the extent of the problem is still not totally clear – it is clearly disturbing.

The Cincinnati Enquirer is running a series of articles on the numerous misdeeds of the Cincinnati Fire Department over the past 5 years. According to the Enquirer, some 129 firefighters have been disciplined between 2005 and 2010, including more than 70 firefighters who are/were facing criminal charges. The Enquirer is citing data provided by the fire department for the various violations and disciplinary actions. The department has 840 firefighters – so 129 cases is more than just 1 or 2 bad apples. Click here to see a listing of the 129 cases.

The headline from the August 16, 2010 edition of the Enquirer asked the question: Does Cincinnati Fire Department Need a Culture Change?

Fire Chief Robert Wright, who has been the chief for the past 13 years, is due to retire next year and City Manager Milton Dohoney is saying publically that he is looking for a cultural change to clean up the fire department. He says the city administration plans to start from the top and also look for an option to possibly bring in a female as the next fire chief.

Maybe that kind of Disney-like solution – a human relations “hail Mary” –  will get some head-nods from  the public and maybe it will fly with the press, who tomorrow will move on to some other headline grabbing scandal to sell newspapers. But to those of us deeply concerned with the future of the fire service – we have to realize the solution is going to require more than a politically correct game of musical chairs at headquarters.

My research shows the misbehavior problem is clearly not limited to Cincinnati. It is a nationwide problem. There are AT LEAST a dozen major fire departments struggling with misbehavior problems just as large or larger than the problem in Cincinnati and my sense is the only reason I cannot say there are dozens and dozens of departments is that I haven’t dug deep enough yet…. or other departments have thus far been able to keep the issues out of the press.

Rather than searching for women fire chiefs to magically lead the fire service out of the desert – we need to understand and address the cultural issues that are driving the problem: the reluctance of officers to be officers, the polarization of the workplace that makes fire chiefs the enemy of rank and file firefighters and the last place where firefighters would report wrongful conduct (I call it the Robin Hood Syndrome but that is for another blog), and the institutional tolerance of misbehavior by many firefighters and officers.

I recall the words of a salty old captain that ring as true today as they did 30 plus years ago: We keep our own house clean kid, or someone is gonna come in here and clean it for us. He was not talking about housework.

And I will cite again the words of Jim Collins from How The Mighty Fall:

“Whenever people begin to confuse the nobility of their cause with the goodness and wisdom of their actions… they can … easily lead themselves astray.”

Take heart – Cincinnati Fire!!! You are not alone. Sadly.

About Curt Varone

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) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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