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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State Level

At the state level of politics, fire service leaders can become trusted advisors and resources to elected officials and their staff members. An important element in being a “trusted advisor” is to always tell those people the truth. Make sure they can depend on you and on what you say.

If leaders decide to pick and support a favorite candidate in a political campaign, they must understand the ramifications of losing. If appropriate, we can contribute to political campaigns, but be careful about backing a sure loser over a sure winner – paybacks can be hell! Never take the support gained politically for granted. It can sometimes be tempting to orchestrate state-level protests against political actions taken at the state level. However, be very careful not to stage a public protest that might embarrass your supporters in the legislature. You might lose those supporters.

When dealing with the elected leadership in the state House of Representatives or Senate, remember that it was their peers who elected them to those positions. Maintaining strong relationships with those “peers” can help you influence those elected “leaders.” This philosophy also holds true with appointed state officials. Building and nurturing relationships with the director of the department of motor vehicles, the budget director, the director of environmental quality, the attorney general, the director of the department of transportation, the superintendent of state police and others can significantly enhance fire service influence at the state level.

Often overlooked are the professional staffs of elected officials at the local, state and national levels. 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 elected officials. Treat professional staff with respect and dignity, or be prepared to pay the price for not doing so. Thank them regularly for their help and their work; you’ll be glad you did.

It is also important to build relationships with lobbyists who work in the political arena. Build relationships with them; help them where possible, and invite some of them to fire department events – then publicly acknowledge their presence to the audience.

Work to build strong relationships with other coalitions. Consider developing a state-level fire service institute similar to the Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI) that functions at the national level. Several states have done so and it has increased the collective influence of the fire service in those states. Finally, always be on the lookout for organizations with goals similar to those of the fire service. These alliances can become powerful partnerships.

National Level

Fire service issues at the national level should not be framed as “partisan” issues. They are “American” issues, not Republican, Democratic, independent issues or on the political agenda of any party or affiliation. As fire service leaders, become informed professionals. What you “think” is important; however, you should keep your personal politics and philosophies out of fire service issues.

There are several keys to success in the national political arena:

  • Get to know your members of Congress
  • Build trust and mutual respect with their staffs
  • Learn about the legislative process by understanding the difference between authorization bills, appropriation bills, congressional hearings, the role of conference committees, etc.

Several fire service organizations have excellent, full-time government affairs directors in Washington. They work on our behalf. The CFSI is a tremendous advocate for the fire service in our nation’s capital. The CFSI was established in 1989; it is the information and research center for the Congressional Fire Services Caucus of Congress, which boasts over 300 members. The CFSI’s National Advisory Committee (NAC) is comprised of over 45 fire service affiliate organizations that focus on education, information, communications and advocacy for fire service issues.