Topic: Professions & Institutions

Ethics and the Naked Fireman

Kenneth Roe was celebrating his 20th year as a fire-fighter in Johnson City, a village in upstate New York. Roe, then the Assistant Fire Chief, arrived at work through the back door of the station house naked, except for a tie and hat. During the day he repeated the tasks he had been assigned as a “probie” twenty years before. He scrubbed the trucks, floors and toilets wearing a “probie” uniform, and slept overnight in the bunkroom with the rest of the firemen, a gesture that was appreciated as his salute to what they have to do every day.

But photos of his entrance au natural taken by some of his colleagues found their way onto the web and then into local news broadcasts. There was a public outcry. Roe received a suspension as a disciplinary measure, and was even arraigned in court for breaking an ordinance against public nakedness. He apologized for embarrassing the department, and retired.

Now a controversy is raging in Johnson City. Was Roe’s practical joke really worthy of so much condemnation? Was the real transgressor the anonymous fireman who leaked the photos? Did the media turn a meaningless prank into a career-wrecking scandal? Or was Roe really guilty of outrageously unprofessional conduct?

As with many seemingly straightforward events, the ethical calculations on this one are tricky. One cannot apply the “naked teacher” principle to a fireman, whose job does not involve being a daily role model to young children. Fire-fighting personnel of both sexes have been competitors in body-building competitions and have posed for revealing photos in magazines and on the web with little public uproar, for these are physical jobs requiring courage, fitness and stamina, not gentility. On the other hand, a public employee has certain obligations and responsibilities, one of them being dignity and professionalism. When the public pays your salary, you can’t behave like a clown or a stripper, no matter what other virtues you bring to the job. The public trust includes trust in a public servant’s good judgement. As a general proposition, arriving at work naked is not considered “good judgement,” unless one is an artist’s model or working in a nudist colony.

But there is another issue of trust here, which cuts the other way. Firefighting, like the police and the military, engenders special bonds between individuals who know that they will have to rely on their colleagues in life and death situations. In everything from raw language to intimate personal secrets, people who live together, work together and face peril together must assume the good will and unconditional support of those they work with. Roe’s stunt was message of unity and trust communicated crudely, but in an all-male environment where he felt there was no risk of it being taken badly or misunderstood.

Once the action became public, however, its nature changed. Remarkable, isn’t it? The exact same conduct, kept within a trusted group, may be neither offensive nor unprofessional, but as soon as it leaves the group, it is both. A public employee appearing naked on the job is per se unprofessional behavior. Not to punish it would destroy any sense of professional requirements; taxpayers would have legitimate cause to be furious.

So the ethics score on the Saga of the Naked Fireman comes to this:

  • Roe’s sentiment and motive for his stunt were admirable, but he should have calculated the potential damage to his department and his own capacity to lead if his naked appearance somehow got outside the stationhouse. In today’s world of cell phone cameras and the internet, it was bad judgement to take the risk, as events proved. His joke was therefore reckless and irresponsible.

  • Whoever sent the photos to the media violated Roes trust in the support and camaraderie of his colleagues. It was unequivocally an unethical act: disloyal, destructive, unkind, and cowardly. Even though Roe was wrong to risk trusting the group when the consequences of miscalculation would be such bad publicity, the person who betrayed his trust was infinitely worse.

  • The media is blameless here; a naked fireman on the job is news. Roe’s superiors are also blameless. They had no choice other than to discipline him, once his act became public. The fact that Roe apparently had an exemplary record could only be calculated into the severity of the penalty, which it clearly was.

  • Filing charges against Roe for public indecent exposure under the circumstances was excessive.

The most useful lesson of this odd story is this: to be truly responsible, we must always consider the larger context of our actions, and the full complement of those to whom we owe a duty. If contemplated conduct that seems appropriate with some of the people we are responsible to would be inappropriate to the others, we should reconsider it. In positions of responsibility, the best, safest and most ethical course is to plan on revealing our true selves equally to all.

[The Scoreboard thanks reader Debbie Schwartz for alerting it to this story.]

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