Washington D.C. Firefighter Gerald Burton
(January 2008)

When my decorated W.W.II veteran dad watches “Saving Private Ryan,” or more accurately, when he can’t avoid watching it because it is one of my son’s favorite movies, he invariably will launch into a tirade over how outrageous and unrealistic the movie is.

“Everybody stands too close together!” he exclaims. “The bar on Tom Hanks’ helmet might as well be a bulls-eye for snipers!” Then there is his most fervent complaint of all: “You can’t divert the mission!” Ordered to track down Private Ryan, Hanks nonetheless gets his men involved in an unrelated skirmish that results in the death of one of his men. It disgusts my father every time he sees it. “It’s wrong to get distracted from your orders for other objectives,” explains Major Marshall, a recipient of the Silver Star.

This is the principle that has D.C. firefighter Lt. Gerald Burton facing discipline. Fire departments, like the police, have a great deal in common with military units, and one of them is the absolute requirement of following orders. Burton defied orders and diverted his mission. But he is a hero nonetheless.

On November 2, call alerted firefighters about a house fire. Burton was several blocks away, driving a fire engine to a training class. He called his supervisor to say he was near the fire and could help. The supervisor told Burton not to go to the fire, and ordered him to continue on to the training class. When Burton’s truck was about two blocks from the fire, he was flagged down by bystanders who told him that a home was burning. Burton drove to the address, and saw that it was indeed on fire.

So Burton again alerted his supervisor, who this time told him to play a backup role rather than a frontline role in fighting the fire. But he and another firefighter riding with him were the only firefighters on the scene, so they extinguished the flames before the “frontline” firefighters had time to arrive.

Now Burton, who has been a D.C. firefighter for 21 years, faces a two-day suspension without pay for disobeying an order. Disobeying the order, in this case, meant placing the safety of community residents and their property above protocol. Ethically, such situations pit long-term considerations against short-term exigencies. No army, team, or department can function effectively without a chain of command. If everyone simply makes their own judgements about what orders to follow, chaos is the inevitable result. In the case of Burton’s spontaneous heroics, how can the department dispense punishment to make the point that firefighters like Burton can’t and mustn’t defy a supervisor’s orders, without simultaneously standing for the disturbing proposition that procedure is more important than lives and property?

The answer is that it can’t. Burton made the right choice: his supervisor’s orders were unreasonable and risky, and he was correct to disobey them. The department needs to acknowledge that sometimes the most ethical conduct involves breaking the rules, and Burton understood that he was in the midst of just such an exception. When you choose to disobey an order, you better be right and it better work out for the best; Burton knew he was placing himself at risk of discipline, but correctly calculated that his risk was a lower priority than stopping the fire.

He did the right thing under the circumstances, and his department should commend him, not punish him.

And how does my father come out on this controversy?

He’s with Burton all the way. “A training session should never take priority over a fire,” he says. “Burton was getting bad orders that could have cost someone their home or even their life. That’s when it’s your duty to disobey orders. Most people don’t have the guts.” It turns out that my Dad also disobeyed a few orders in his time.

Agreed, then. Lt. Gerald Burton is an Ethics Hero. Let’s hope his employers see the light.

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