An Absence of Politics

Writing a column on "Fire Service Politics" each month gives the author a full run at the total workings of our industry because almost everything that happens has political aspects to it. As we know, the fire service is tied to elected officials at all levels of government who make decisions and vote on policy issues, including budgets and other funding programs. Many of the regulations and standards that guide the fire service are even developed in (what at times) can be a politically rich environment.

There are also internal political realities that exist in every fire department. Politics comes into play within all of the fire service organizations and politics is a factor in relationships between those organizations, including between and among local fire departments. Yes, politics is practically everywhere — it's an important part of life, and it's not a four-letter word. Being successful in any leadership position requires an understanding of politics and the keen ability to navigate the political aspects of a particular environment, situation or issue. Politics can be rewarding, productive and interesting, and it can also be frustrating, ruthless and unforgiving. Politics is present in everything we do…well, almost everything.

It was my honor and privilege to once again attend the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend in Emmitsburg, MD, Oct. 2–4, 2009, with several thousand other people. It's sad, refreshing and even uplifting to be in that environment, and it's a place and time where politics seems to have very little role. This wonderful series of events provides the one time and location each year that the entire fire service community comes together to honor our brothers and sisters who have lost their lives in the line of duty, show respect and give support to their families, friends and fellow firefighters, be reminded of how fragile life can be and celebrate the healing power of love. It's not a place where we note the politics surrounding the fire service environment, because on that weekend, what's taking place simply shouldn't be political in any way, shape or form. In fact, being there for the services always leaves me wondering to myself why more days can't be that way…but maybe that's another article for some other day.

Congress created the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) to lead a nationwide effort to formally remember and honor America's fallen firefighters. Since 1992, the nonprofit foundation has carried out those responsibilities, as well as managing programs to assist their families and fellow firefighters. The Foundation is also a partner with many other fire service organizations participating in a concerted effort to prevent firefighter line-of-duty-deaths. This year, the National Memorial Service honored 122 fallen firefighters — 103 from 2008 and 19 from previous years. With these names added, the plaques surrounding the Memorial, which was established in 1981, now contain the names of more than 3,300 fallen firefighters. The Foundation is actively trying to raise funds to expand the Memorial Site to honor those who died in the line of duty prior to 1981.

The Memorial Weekend included special programs on Friday and Saturday designed specifically to support and assist the families and co-workers, a beautiful Candlelight Service on Saturday evening, and the National Memorial Service on Sunday morning. The services are incredibly moving for all who attend or watch on national TV. They serve as an opportunity for the entire fire service and others to come together to honor those who were lost, support their loved ones and fellow firefighters, and recommit to the ongoing national effort to reduce the number of firefighter line-of-duty-deaths that occur each year. The families are presented with flags that have been flown over the U.S. Capitol and the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial, as well as a special medal and a rose. Attendees of the services include the families, co-workers, members of Congress, administration officials and other dignitaries, members from throughout the fire service and our affiliated organizations, as well as honor-guard and pipe-and-drum units from across the country. It's truly amazing to witness the many volunteers and other workers who come together and contribute their talents to making the Memorial Weekend a success.

If you have never attended the National Memorial Service, perhaps you should make a point to do so in the future. Our nation's firefighters make a commitment day in and day out to protect others from the ravages of fire and many other life-threatening hazards. Each year, people gather at the Memorial Site in Emmitsburg to pay tribute to those firefighters who paid the ultimate price in the performance of their duties. We owe that honor to those who gave their lives, to their families and co-workers, and to all who make up this wonderful, diverse group we call the fire service.

Although politics is a fact of life and plays a role in almost everything that happens throughout the year, for some reason it seems to take somewhat of a leave of absence during the National Memorial Weekend, and that's probably just the way it should be.

DENNIS COMPTON, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a well-known speaker and the author of several books, including the When in Doubt, Lead series. He is also co-editor of the current edition of the ICMA textbook Managing Fire and Rescue Services. Compton was the fire chief in Mesa, AZ, for five years and 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.