Flags, Stickers, and the Same Old Same Old

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Today’s burning question #1: My fire chief is an imbecile. He has suspended a bunch of us (myself included) because we refused to remove American flag decals from our fire helmets and lockers. First of all, I am a combat veteran and I fought for the flag. I think it is outrageous that I cannot display the flag on my locker or helmet. Its really pretty typical of our idiotic chief. He doesn’t support us and takes the city’s position on everything – they are reducing our pensions, reducing our health care, cheating us at every turn. The chief is just awful and needs to go. So now I am suspended… do I have a case? I mean like can’t we sue him personally?

Today’s burning question #2: I am a fire chief and received a complaint about inappropriate and offensive photos and stickers on lockers and helmets. Rather than try to evaluate which photos and stickers are acceptable and which are not (which could lead me into a censorship quagmire), I decided to prohibit all photos, signs or stickers on lockers and helmets. My thinking is let’s keep the workplace looking professional. Personal stickers with slogans for this and slogans for that detract from the image we need to project. So I made the hard unpopular decision. My firefighters resist virtually everything I try to do and several have flat out refused to remove the stickers. I suspended them. Its not like the new policy was a surprise – they had plenty of warning about the need to remove the stickers. It comes down to this: who is going to run the department, me or them. Oh, by the way, the stickers that the firefighters refused to remove are of the American flag. In fact they removed all the stickers except for the American flag stickers, but the policy says all stickers are prohibited, no exceptions. I kind of feel like they are testing me on this… you know… pushing my buttons… trying to make me back down. I’m on solid ground, right?

Answer: LET ME REPEAT: All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental… including anyone in or near Maywood, Illinois.

The burning questions above come from 41 years in the fire service and 29 years as an attorney representing firefighters, chiefs and unions. It has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with what is really happening in the Maywood case… I have no knowledge of what is going on there outside of what has been published.

As for the law, that does have something to do with the Maywood case: the fire department has the right to establish reasonable, non-discriminatory uniform regulations on a broad range of things including patches, pins and stickers on uniforms and turnout gear. The department also has the right to regulate the posting of signs, photos, posters and stickers on lockers. A fire department’s policy can require the flag to be worn on a uniform (many do) or it can prohibit the flag (or anything that is non-regulation) from being worn (absent a state or local law to the contrary). Like it or lump it, the department has that right.

To me, however, there are really two issues: what is the law and what should a leader do in this situation. Legally – a fire chief can establish reasonable non-discriminatory uniform regulations. PERIOD. Leadership wise… any chief confronted with a situation like this has to ask him/her-self: out of all the things I could possibly be fighting about today is this the issue I really want to be fighting over? It’s the proverbial Pork Chop Hill analogy: is this the hill I am willing to die on? If not, why are we going down this road? Let’s pick a battle where the terrain is a bit more conducive for me to prevail in order to prove my point.

Leaders sometimes find themselves confronted with a Pork Chop Hill situation where their careers (not their lives) are placed in jeopardy because of the battle they choose to fight. Some leaders can see these situations developing with ESP-like foresight, and take steps to avoid a Pork Chop Hill debacle. Others can with the best of intentions stumble into their own version of Pork Chop Hill, unskillfully concluding “This is where I’ll make my stand”.

Knowing where and when to fight is one of the most critical decision-making skills a leader can possess.

One final comment – only items that are approved by a PPE manufacturer should be attached to PPE. That means if a helmet manufacturer does not approve of combustible aftermarket flag stickers, there may be an additional legal basis for a chief who prohibits them on helmets.

Here is more on the Maywood, Illinois situation.

Here is a Statter 911 flashback to Chester, Pennsylvania who went through the same problem in 2009.

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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