The Fire Department And the Political Process

Editor’s note: Hal Bruno is on leave. We thank Chief Compton for filling in for Hal this month. In July 2003, at Firehouse Expo in Baltimore and again in February 2004 at Firehouse World in San Diego, Firehouse® offered a learning opportunity...

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Editor’s note:

In July 2003, at Firehouse Expo in Baltimore and again in February 2004 at Firehouse World in San Diego, Firehouse® offered a learning opportunity that was a new addition to the standard agenda of sessions. The workshop was about politics, and the way that politics impacts fire departments and the fire service specifically. The session was presented by a panel that included me, Hal Bruno of Firehouse®, Bill Webb from the Congressional Fire Services Institute and Steve Austin from the Delaware fire service.

It’s interesting that fire service resources and influence are regulated almost entirely by the decisions that emerge from various political processes, yet little attention has been devoted to exploring and teaching the subject of politics. Harvey Eisner, Jeff Barrington and others at Firehouse® deserve credit for having the insight to acknowledge politics as an educational priority for members of the fire service. This workshop will be offered again at Firehouse Expo in Baltimore in July 2004.

I’m not a political expert, by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve been fortunate enough to hang around with some people who are, like Hal Bruno, Bill Webb, Steve Austin, Alan Caldwell, Kevin O’Connor, Barry Katzinetz, Steve Edwards, Chris Neal and others. They know that some fire departments and fire service organizations respect the role of politics in their success, while others either don’t understand, don’t participate or participate in ways that are dysfunctional.

Fire department politics is more than supporting or opposing candidates or initiatives. It is a process that has many specific success elements. In this article, I will discuss some of these at the local, state, and national levels – realizing that there is some overlap that applies across the board at all levels.

Local Level

Official fire department leaders who get involved in local political campaigns are asking for trouble. That kind of politics is best left to member associations or unions. However, involvement in the other elements of the political process is critical for fire department leaders.

The political process is more than a campaign; it is ongoing, it occurs every day throughout towns and cities. If the fire department doesn’t play in the game, it can’t expect to consistently win or score with any frequency.

Fire departments should be active community participants that are involved in key decisions that impact the community in general. To be successful, fire departments need the support of community leaders, and that support must be earned. The fire department’s community standing is important to organizational success. To gain community standing, the fire department cannot isolate itself and succeed in an arena that encourages partnerships, coalitions and positive relationships. If fire departments don’t get involved in helping other groups address their problems, why would it surprise us when those groups won’t help us with our problems? Like it or not, that’s politics – and that’s the way the process works.

There are several ways for a fire department leader to assume the role of a community leader:

  • Community service and charity events
  • Inclusive positive media relations
  • Participation in service organizations
  • Service on boards and commissions
  • Participation in planning processes at the local and regional levels
  • Interaction with schools
  • Open lines of communications with elected officials

Integrating fire department leaders into settings with other community leaders establishes them as leaders in the eyes of those partners. Bottom line, this has a positive, cumulative effect. It is easier to garner support for the fire department when the fire department supports others. There are so many opportunities for involvement that the fire chief, union president or association president simply can’t do it all. It requires the commitment of all leaders within each of those organizations in order to be effective.

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