Politics Trumping Public Safety Too Often?


Government entities go through in-depth selection processes to hire those they believe will best serve as fire chief, police chief or public safety director. Candidates are judged on many factors, including background, decision-making, integrity, management skills, the ability to effectively lead people, interaction with community leaders and labor/management relations, that serve as predictors of success in these positions

The process is often time consuming and expensive, but it is considered to be well worth the investment to get the best match for a community. I find it amazing that after going through all of that, it seems that too often, in local communities and at the state level, elected officials place little value on the opinions of these leaders when it comes to significant public safety decisions. There are many examples in recent times where this has played out, but I'm going to focus on just three: residential fire sprinkler requirements, concealed weapon laws and fireworks restrictions.

  • Residential fire sprinkler requirements. The International Code Council (ICC) mandates the installation of residential fire sprinklers in all new one- and two-family residences, including townhouses, in the 2009 International Residential Code (IRC). A few states are planning adoption of the code soon and some others plan the adoption in the next few years. However, other states are not planning to adopt the new code at all, and some state legislatures and governors have gone so far as to move legislation forward that would not let local governments adopt any code that includes fire sprinkler requirements. Those who support decisions to block sprinkler requirements are primarily home builders and their associations, while the opposition includes fire chiefs, fire marshals and major fire service associations. Too often, the decisions of the elected officials go in favor of the home builders rather than the public safety officials who are most qualified to determine the most effective ways to protect the public.
  • Concealed weapon laws. No matter what a person's personal beliefs are about gun control, people in most states support limitations on the carrying of concealed weapons. These typically include passing a background check, obtaining a permit and achieving a certain level of training. However, in some states, legislation has been passed that literally lets anyone carry a concealed weapon without any of the above requirements being met. Supporters are primarily gun advocate associations, while the opposition includes police chiefs and law enforcement associations. Too often, the decisions of elected officials go in favor of the gun advocates rather than the public safety officials who are most qualified to determine the most effective ways to protect the public (and themselves).
  • Fireworks restrictions. Many states allow the sale and use of fireworks; others historically have not. Often, the banning of fireworks is based on injuries to users and/or fire safety concerns. In recent years, some states that had restricted the sale and use of fireworks have weakened or reversed their position. Legislation has been passed that allows the sale and use of fireworks even in areas where the fire hazard is significant. Supporters are primarily the manufacturers of the products and their advocate associations, while the opposition includes fire chiefs, fire marshals and fire service associations.

The most significant commonality in these three scenarios is that special-interest groups and political supporters won out rather than public safety professionals responsible for appropriately advising the elected officials. The best way by far to protect the public from harm is to not allow bad things to happen in the first place. In each of the above examples, legislation flew in the face of prevention and in the faces of those fire and police chiefs hired and trained to make tough decisions intended to protect the public. These decisions should be based on that single point alone, not on who has the most political influence or on who contributes the most money to individual political campaigns of elected officials.

Politics is a part of almost everything that happens in our society, and that is reality. With that said, politics should not be allowed to trump important decisions that are of great concern to the very public safety professionals who are hired to advise elected officials and protect their constituents.

DENNIS COMPTON, a FirehouseĀ® contributing editor, is a well-known speaker and the author of several books, including his new Progressive Leadership Principles, Concepts and Tools. He has also authored the When in Doubt, Lead! series and Mental Aspects of Performance for Firefighters and Fire Officers. Compton was the fire chief in Mesa, AZ, for five years and as assistant fire chief in Phoenix, AZ, where he served for 27 years. Compton is past chairman of the Executive Board of the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA) and past chairman of the Congressional Fire Services Institute's National Advisory Committee. He is currently chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Board of Directors and a member of the Board of Directors of Safe Kids Worldwide.