Fire Departments and Politics

Our nation's economy remains in a significant slump in many of our towns, cities and states. Difficult funding decisions continue to be made that impact the level of resources available, as well as the effectiveness and safety of the members who have survived the budget reductions and remain in place. The reality is that fire department resources can be regulated almost entirely by the decisions that are made within various political processes.

With that in mind, it shouldn't surprise anyone that there are those who feel strongly that more time and energy should be devoted to exploring and teaching the subject of politics in the development of fire service leaders. Whether experiencing good times or bad times, we must acknowledge politics as an educational priority for fire service leaders of all ranks and roles.

The leadership of some fire departments has respect for the role of politics in the overall scheme of things, but there are others who either don't understand the political process, choose to not participate in it or even participate in ways that are dysfunctional. Fire department politics is far more than supporting or opposing specific political candidates, initiatives or referendums. In fact, in some forms of government, fire department officials who get involved in these types of political campaigns can find themselves in trouble. That kind of political involvement is usually best left to membership associations or unions.

Day-to-day politics is broad in scope and significantly impacts decisions relating to the fire service at the local, county, state and national levels of government. It is ongoing and plays out every day in various ways throughout the nation. If a fire department's leaders don't get involved in the political process, they cannot expect to receive a high level of political support on a consistent basis. Here are a few suggestions that can enhance the level of one's political influence:

  • Participate in the community — Members of fire departments should be active community participants who are involved in key decisions that impact the community in general. Fire departments need the support of community leaders, and this type of activity helps earn that support. The fire department's community standing is very important to organizational success. To achieve a high level of community standing, the fire department must be a good community partner involved in coalitions and work to build and maintain positive relationships. If the members of fire departments do not get involved in helping other community groups address their problems, they should not be surprised when community groups don't help the fire department with theirs. Like it or not, that is an element of politics that can make or break a fire department on important issues.

    Some of the ways that a fire department leader can assume the role of community leader include participation in community service and charity events, membership in service organizations, service on boards and commissions, and interaction with schools and associations. Integrating fire department leaders into settings with other community leaders establishes them as active leaders in the eyes of those partners. This can have a positive and cumulative effect because it is easier to garner support for the fire department when the fire department supports others.

  • Be a trusted advisor — Fire department leaders can work to become trusted advisors and a resource to elected officials and their professional staff members. A critical element in being a trusted advisor is to always tell those people the truth. They need to know that you will be responsive to their needs and that you can be trusted. In doing so, you must also ensure that any statistics or other information you share with them is accurate.

    The importance of building positive relationships with the elected officials' professional staffs cannot be overstated. This is true at all levels of government. They are the eyes and ears of elected officials. They often control scheduling and access, and they help mold opinions and positions held by the politicians they serve. It's important to treat professional staff members with respect and thank them regularly for their support of you and your issues.

  • Take a non-partisan approach — It is important that fire service leaders learn about the legislative process, how public policy is set and how decisions are made. Remember that fire service issues should be framed as non-partisan issues. They should not be viewed as Republican, Democrat, independent, or part of the political agenda of any political party or affiliation. As individual fire service leaders, what you think about a wide range of political issues is important to you, but it is just as important that we keep our personal politics and philosophies separate from fire service issues. Inserting one's personal political views into the process can (and has been) very harmful to specific issues, a fire department or even the fire service as a whole.

We can't necessarily avoid the troubling times being experienced by fire departments due to the current economic downturn, but you have to believe times will get better at some point. Establishing a strong community leadership presence and being a positive participant in the political process can position the fire department in a way that may minimize harm to the organization now and also benefit them in the future. We should put a high priority on learning as much as we can about the political process that controls so much of what fire departments do and the resources they have. Your organization will be glad you did.

DENNIS COMPTON, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a well-known speaker and the author of several books, including the When in Doubt, Lead series: Mental Aspects of Performance for Firefighters and Fire Officers, and many other articles and publications. He is also co-editor of the current edition of the ICMA textbook Managing Fire and Rescue Services and the author of the soon-to-be-released book Progressive Leadership Principles, Concepts and Tools. 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 the past chair of the Executive Board of the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA) and past chair of the Congressional Fire Services Institute's National Advisory Committee. He is also chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Board of Directors and the chairman of the Home Safety Council Board of Directors.