Should We Accept Anonymous Complaints Against Firefighters?

Today’s burning question: If someone wants to file a complaint against a firefighter, can we allow that person to remain anonymous? In other words, should we accept anonymous complaints?

Answer: That is a great question and one that comes up a lot in my Fire Department Administrative Investigations and Enforcing Discipline class. First, there are two types of complaints that we need to distinguish: anonymous complaints and complaints from people we know, but who want to remain anonymous.

Anonymous complaints are complaints we receive from a complainant who does not want to share their identity with us. Distinguish anonymous complaints from complaints where we know the identity of the complainant, but the complainant wants us to keep their identity confidential. Each type of complainant raises different issues.

In regards to whether or not a fire department will accept anonymous complaints, fire department leaders ought to address the issue through a formal policy. My recommendation is to accept anonymous complaints, although I am mindful that many fire departments take the opposite tact.

There are two primary reasons why I recommend accepting anonymous complaints. First, complaints are opportunities… opportunities to find out about problems that may exist in our organization. More on this later. Second, a complainant who is upset enough about something to contact us, has a number of other options to pursue if we tell them we will not investigate their allegations. None of these options are good for us, including contacting local elected officials, contacting the news media, or even using social media to complain. Why risk pushing a complainant toward such options unnecessarily?

Besides accepting or rejecting anonymous complaints, some departments opt to evaluate anonymous complaints on a case-by-case basis. Provided the department has objective criteria to evaluate anonymous complaints, such a policy can be a happy medium between the extremes of investigating all anonymous complaints and refusing to investigate anonymous complaints.

When it comes to anonymous complaints, a fire department needs to pick one policy option and stick with it. It becomes problematic when a department accepts some anonymous complaints but not others in an arbitrary manner. That policy can backfire opening the department to allegations of favoritism, discrimination, and possibly even substantive due process claims.

As for protecting the identity of a known complainant, we need to recognize that there are two types of complainants – which for lack of better terms I will call testimonial complainants and informational complainants.

Testimonial complainants are those whose complaint depends on the complainant to sustain any possible charges, while informational complainants simply alert us to a problem that we in turn can verify ourselves independently. Let’s look at an example of each.

A is a female firefighter who is claiming that B, a male firefighter, sexually harassed her. The ability of the department to investigate and discipline B will inevitably turn on A’s testimony. In fact, without A’s cooperation in the investigation, charges against B are unlikely. A is an example of a testimonial complainant. Testimonial complainants will usually be a victim or eye-witness to the misconduct. It would be improper for a fire department to provide such a complainant with any assurance of confidentiality. B has certain due process rights and these rights will – at a minimum – require that the identity of the complainant be made known to him. If B is disciplined he will have the right to confront and cross-examine his accuser. That being the case, we can at best assure A that we can provide confidentiality initially as we start the investigation – but even that is not recommended.

Compare that to a situation where a citizen, C, calls to report that FFs D, E, F and G have been taking their fire truck to a bar on their evening shifts and drinking on duty. In this case – unless we plan to discipline D, E, F and G based solely upon C’s allegation (NOT RECOMMENDED), we will likely start an investigation, verify the activity independently, and if appropriate discipline the members based on the evidence we obtain from the investigation. In this case C is an informational complainant.

You will note that the identify of the informational complainant is much less necessary to the investigation than the testimonial complainant. In such a case, revealing the identity of an informational complainant is not as critical to the case as the identify of a testimonial complainant. For that reason, some departments may choose to keep the identity of informational complainants confidential.

Whenever I am confronted with a difficult leadership challenge related to discipline, I resort to the Golden Rule: How would I want to be treated if I was the accused? If I was accused of misconduct, I would want to know who was accusing me. That is only fair. For that reason, my tendency is to recommend that we should not allow complainants to remain anonymous when we know their identity. While that may seem to be at odds with my recommendation that we willingly accept anonymous complaints, it is not.

My belief is that complaints are opportunities – opportunities to learn about problems in our organization… opportunities to address certain behaviors by some of our personnel. My hope is that if we find out about problem behaviors early enough we can correct them before a firefighter continues to engage in them… and goes so far as to “pull a stunt” for which he/she may lose his/her job. In this regard treating complaints as opportunities may very well help save a firefighter’s career… although it may come at the expense of a reprimand or minor discipline.

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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