Research Paper: Business Ethics in the Fire Service

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Business Ethics in the Fire Service

The fire service in most countries is held in high esteem and widely regarded as a paragon of ethical business practices. Because the fire service is funded with scarce taxpayer resources, though, it is vitally important that the lofty perceptions of ethical practices in the fire service are supported by consistent applications of ethical principles in their day-to-day operations. Although every public service organization is unique in some fashion, fire service managers and firefighters alike encounter a number of ethical dilemmas in the course of their work that require an informed, professional response. To gain some fresh insights regarding these issues, this paper provides a review of the relevant peer-reviewed and scholarly literature concerning Business Ethics in the fire service, followed by a summary of the research and important findings in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

Although the fire service occupies a unique place in human society, managers in these public service organizations encounter many of the same types of ethical dilemmas that occur in all types of business settings. For instance, according to Hrncir and Metts (2009), "While nonprofit organizations may receive funds for promoting social welfare, the ethical and business issues are common to ethical dilemmas, business structure and related business issues for all business organization forms" (p. 83). In this environment, it is reasonable to suggest that many fire service executives as well as line personnel will encounter countless ethical dilemmas in their day-to-day operations that may defy easy resolution. Indeed, the fire service has an ethical obligation to use scarce taxpayer resources to their maximum advantage, and in many cases this means partnering with other community service organizations. This need has become even more pronounced in the post-September 11, 2001 environment. For example, according to Fitzpatrick (2008), "The fire service is inextricably linked partners with law enforcement, public health, and other public agencies responsible for the development of a comprehensive and cooperative strategy to deal with terrorism" (p. 37). Even as these partnership have expanded, so too have the opportunities for further ethical dilemmas to develop. In this regard, Fitzpatrick adds that, "These partnerships include the health, medical and emergency management communities, among others, and present a new set of responsibilities and expectations of these agencies" (p. 37).

Other changes have taken place in the fire service that have created situations where ethical issues may result. For instance, the introduction of stricter fire codes and increasingly sophisticated fire protection systems, together with innovations in fire prevention and intervention, the increasing education of general public concerning fire problems as well as an increased medical response mission have all combined to expand the traditional role of the fire service in significant ways (Fleming, 2010). Taken together, these trends have fundamentally altered the traditional mission of the fire service from emergency responders to a more proactive role that focuses on fire prevention and education (Fleming, 2010). These trends have also had an impact on the individual job responsibilities of the fire service. For instance, Fleming points out that, "Staff functions, as a result of this role expansion and changing fire service mission, have grown substantially, and departments have seen a tremendous rise in non-emergency-related job responsibilities and skills" (2010, p. 134). These expanded roles also introduce new opportunities for ethical dilemmas to present themselves, an issue that demands corresponding training and management support (Fleming, 2010). In particular, the organizational climate that exists in the fire service will depend on the fire chiefs. In this regard, Fleming emphasizes that, "The success of a contemporary fire department in achieving its expanded mission and meeting and, where possible, exceeding the expectations of its stakeholders, is in large part determined by the ability and performance of its senior executive, the fire chief" (2010, p. 133). In reality, though, just as the responsibilities of other fire service personnel have expanded in recent years, so too have the job requirements for the typical fire chief. For instance, Fleming advises that, "The many challenges confronting the organization must be addressed by the fire chief in terms of determining and enacting an appropriate balance between the numerous 'inside' and 'outside' roles associated with successful enactment of this mission-critical position within the contemporary fire department" (2010, p.134). Consequently, an ethical dilemma that faces many modern fire chiefs is the need to allocate resources, including their own time and efforts, towards the sometimes-conflicting expanded responsibilities that have emerged in recent years. As Fleming points out, "Failure to properly balance these often conflicting role sets can significantly compromise the fire department's effectiveness, efficiency, and safety" (2010, p. 133).

Not only have the fire service's roles expanded in recent years, the types of actual emergencies they respond to have also changed in substantive ways. In fact, although the well-known image of firefighters rushing to the scene of an inferno is still applicable, the fire service currently responds to a wide array of incidents that have fundamentally altered their mission. In this regard, Pyne (1999) emphasizes that, "Only a fraction of calls that nominal 'firefighters' now roll out of the station to answer are, in fact, fires. All this makes for an easily constructed moral universe because it means fire results from breakdowns in the social or ethical order" (p. 66). This breakdown in the social and ethical order is a reference to the responsibilities that individuals and businesses have to maintain their properties in a safe and fire-preventive fashion. In some cases, these social responsibilities are abrogated for illegal purposes. For instance, Payne emphasizes that, "The context is one of people behaving foolishly, or maliciously, or selfishly. Fires track the fissures in the built landscape, breaking through where corrupt politics, fraudulent insurance firms, serial arson, or riots strew combustible litter and cast their torches" (1999, p. 66). Consequently, the fire service may be confronted with unethical behaviors from within and without, and navigating a straight and narrow path through this jungle is challenging, particularly given the reductions in staffing that have taken place in recent years. For example, according to Pammer and Killian (2003), "Within the fire service there has always been the need for administrative support; however, the degree of staff activity has traditionally been small and tasks were generally associated with support of line operations" (p. 130).

Even administrative operations, though, have been compromised through downsizing to the point where the fire service is expected to more with less. As Pammer and Killian point out, "Modern trends in fire service administration have changed this reality. As public officials continue to downsize government and taxpayers become less prone to accept government justifications for increased funding, fire officials have been forced to become creative in service delivery" (2003, p. 130). Creativity in the delivery of life-saving services, though, means using the fire service's existing organizational structure to its best advantage while avoiding the compromising of the fire service's equipment and business systems (Pammer & Killian, 2003). The quasi-military structure of the modern fire service means that there are "limited spans of control, hierarchical organizational structures, centralized authority and pseudo-autocratic styles" in place that may further confound ethical decision making (Pammer & Killian, 2003, p. 130).

Moreover, the quasi-military structure of the fire service does not provide it with any particular insulation against the types of ethical dilemmas that are typically encountered in any public service organization. In the fire service, ethical concerns can develop as a result of any or all of the following:

Immoral behaviour on the part of officials;

Lack of skills in drawing-up contracts or monitoring performance;

Proximity to the private sector;

Access to a saleable commodity, e.g., equipment; and,

Lack of controls (Lawton, 1998, p. 25).

Although these types of ethical dilemmas generally take place at the individual and organizational levels, they can adversely affect the entire fire service when they are improperly managed (Lawton, 1998). Indeed, fire chiefs must make decisions that draw on their ethical training and core values every day because there is typically a dearth of other resources. For instance, Haraway and Kunselman (2009) emphasize that, "In practice most public employees faced with a true ethical dilemma involving competing values and conflicting obligations have no place to go, other than to refer to agency and professional codes of ethics" (p. 2). Codes of ethics, though, fail to provide the substantive framework in which ethical dilemmas can actually be resolved. According to Haraway and Kunselman (2009), "Codes of ethics generally project ideals, norms, and obligations, that are often vague, abstract, and lofty, and thus, difficult to apply in specific situations where ethical guidance is needed" (p. 2).

Indeed, the types of pragmatic guidance that are frequently needed in ethical dilemmas simply does not exist for various reasons, including a desire to project an ethical image without taking the steps needed to actually achieve it (Haraway & Kunselman, 2009). According to Haraway and Kunselman, this lack of substantive ethical guidance is because "professional ethical codes and statements ... frequently harbor self-serving sentiments that focus on a legalistic or compliance… [END OF PREVIEW]

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