The men and women serving in the public safety sector are expected to intervene and cope with the most challenging of situations day in and day out. They include law enforcement, firefighters, emergency management technicians and dispatchers. This sector has come under increased scrutiny lately from the media and community, often after a rare but sensationalized event that dominates the headlines for days. While most who work in this field are able to perform their duties and cope with all they are exposed to, on occasion there can be drift from their expected professional conduct.

Exposure Can’t Be Ignored

Inherent in this type of work is exposure to a range of life-threatening crises from violent offenders and the mentally ill to tragic accidents and natural disasters. Given this exposure, it is understandable that over time some in this profession will find themselves distracted, withdrawn, depressed or anxious and not able to fulfill their professional obligations. The source of their distress or impairment may be job-related or be a personal issue that is negatively impacting them at worke. Once an employee of concern has been identified, leadership is compelled to intervene in an effort to mitigate liability for the employee’s actions, as well as to protect the employee, the public and other co-workers from potential harm.

What Is Fitness for Duty?

The fitness for duty psychological evaluation is one such intervention which involves evaluating an employee’s ability to perform their essential job duties. A series of psychological tests is administered to the employee, in addition to a clinical interview. Prior to the interview, the evaluator requests the opportunity to review relevant documents from the personnel file (e.g., performance reviews, progressive discipline), incident reports and other sources to better understand contextual factors. In some cases, the employee has a history of receiving mental health services such as psychotherapy and/or psychotropic medication. Once aware of these past or current interventions, the evaluator may ask the employee for access to this information to help better understand how it relates to their fitness level.

While the evaluation addresses a wide scope of personal and professional information, the feedback provided to the agency is limited to answering the referral question and providing recommendations.

Common descriptors regarding level of fitness include:

  • Fit for Duty
  • Fit for Duty with Continued Counseling
  • Temporarily Unfit for Duty with Needed Counseling
  • Unfit for Duty

In many cases the employee is considered temporarily unfit and is recommended to participate in the appropriate intervention for a period of time before they are re-evaluated to determine what, if any, progress has been made and if their fitness has been restored.

Despite the often rigorous employment application process, even well-selected, trained and experienced employees can experience significant on-the-job difficulties. Those with known or suspected psychological or behavioral problems often present complex issues for administrators. Fortunately, agencies have the ability to request or order the employee to participate in a fitness-for-duty evaluation as a condition of their employment. Given the major demands placed upon public safety professionals, the fitness-for-duty evaluation can be a significant benefit to both the employee and agency, and in turn, the community.

Learn more about fitness for duty evaluations in our Executive Primer: Indirect Threat Assessments and Direct Violence Risk Evaluations: Understanding the Critical Difference.