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When Dispatchers Take A Knee: Public Employees and Standards of Conduct

Author: Barry Furey

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2017-10-11
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For the past several weeks, player protests during the National Anthem have taken center stage during NFL (National Football League) broadcasts, with pre-game activities replacing on-field action as the focus of the contest. To some, these displays represent total disregard and dishonor for the thousands who have died and continue to die for our flag. To others, they are precisely the perfect examples of the activities protected by our Constitution and those who serve.

What is often overlooked is that freedom of speech carries with it a reciprocal right for others to disagree with that speech, and to respond. While we seemingly find offense in anything and everything of late, there can be serious ramifications when these complaints focus on suspected violations of the law, contractual agreements, and accepted standards. Are the athletes involved simply self-absorbed rich kids, or are they using their venue to showcase social conscience? As the debate rages on, perhaps we should take a time out to consult our playbook about what to do when a dispatcher takes a knee.

Unlike most ECCs (Emergency Communication Centers), the NFL is a private enterprise, and a very special one statutorily. Its collective bargaining agreement differs from those in the public sector, where many telecommunicators are not represented by a union. In our arena, distinction can potentially be made between acts on duty and those occurring away from the workplace. The wearing of a uniform at the time of the “offense” can also factor in. However, since many 9-1-1 centers and municipalities have broadly written policies, these differences can sometimes be moot. Let’s check our scouting report.

In the relatively short time since the grid-iron protests have gained momentum, there have been a number of instances where a public employee’s reaction to these events has not ended well. While none of these cases directly involved communications center staff, they are prime examples of bad calls by the first responder team.

In Arkansas, a firefighter was terminated for his Facebook post calling on the president to station snipers at sporting events, “and each player that takes a knee or sits in the lockerroom [sic] should b shot in the head.”  He finished the statement that triggered his firing by adding, “if u disagree with me then don’t let the door hit ya where the good lord split ya.”

In Massachusetts, a paramedic was fired from one job and suspended from another or publishing a racial epithet. Again, using Facebook and directing comments directly toward the players, her diatribe included the admonishment, “The civil war was fought and won a few hundred years ago cut the crap.” In a related development, her firefighter/paramedic husband is reportedly under investigation for remarks made in her support.

Perhaps the best (or worst) example of this continuing commentary comes from Pennsylvania, where a fire chief resigned after calling Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin the “N word” on social media. As always, the usual caveats apply concerning due process and the potential for ongoing hearings, appeals, and/or litigation. However, the alleged nature of all of these comments seems to be borne out by published screen shots of their contents, and in some examples, by follow up remarks from the accused. In the case of the now former chief, he apologized, but added, “The media dragged my fire company and township into this as well as my family.” This inclusion angered many who accused him of lacking contrition and attempting to deflect the blame onto others. When your careless comments are what got you into trouble in the first place, it is extremely critical that your follow up, if any, is without reproach.

Regardless of your position on the recent public discourse concerning our National Anthem, it is important to have all the facts when dealing with any employee issue. Early on in the take a knee discussion, I came across an online posting, with the obligatory red flag preface, “I wonder why the mainstream media isn’t reporting this?” Since this question seems to be embraced by both sides of the same arguments when it suits their needs, I don’t feel that I’m further politicizing the exchange by referencing this increasingly overused catch phrase. The contents purported to make the entire issue crystal clear, and came directly from “an NFL spokesperson.”  When I summarily asked for the source of the quote, I was told “to Google it” - ostensibly so I, too, could share the same unverified information with others. Such tactics may work at your local bar, but not before the judicial bar, and prior to proceeding with any action that may be interpreted as a restriction of an employee’s civil rights, managers are well advised to seek legal and human resources counsel.

For further clarification, I turned to Attorney Matt Dolan, Director of the Dolan Consulting Group, a firm with significant experience in public sector employment, in an effort to clarify how a telecommunicator is different from a tight end. His response follows.

“The most important distinction between NFL players and public safety professionals is that police officers, deputies, dispatchers, and firefighters are consistently and lawfully held to a higher standard of conduct than are NFL players. Some NFL players active in the league today have continued their employment in spite of misconduct including domestic violence, drunk driving, assault, and other examples of conduct that indicate serious flaws in their judgment and their character. Public safety agencies would rightfully find these to be fireable offenses that erode public confidence in the men and women we all rely on to enforce the law and respond to life and death emergencies.

What serves as the foundation for this higher standard of conduct and heightened scrutiny that comes with it - both on and off the clock - is the fact that what public safety professionals do for a living is more important than what NFL players do for a living. The ramifications of misconduct and negligence in public safety are dire - they result in innocent people being hurt or killed. Dropped passes and blown defensive coverages lose games but don't get people killed. The comparison between the two professions is apples and oranges.”

The right of free speech and the right of protest will never go away. However, in so acknowledging this, it must be remembered that on the public safety playing field the expression of these rights is still regulated by our rules. And like any other case where violations occur, illegal procedure can result in a penalty.

With more than 45 years’ experience in public safety, including managing large consolidated dispatch centers in four states, Barry Furey now serves as a trainer and consultant for the 9-1-1 and public safety communications community. See www.barryfurey.com 

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