Capitol Hill Success: Start By Building Partnerships and Saying “Thanks”

The first half of the 108th session of Congress is history. By most accounts, it was a successful session for the fire service, perhaps one of the best. Congress approved $750 million for the FIRE Act, approved legislation to create a hiring program for career firefighters and a retention program for volunteers. In the 11th hour of the session, Congress reauthorized the United States Fire Administration and approved the Firefighting Research and Coordination Act. And after weeks of negotiation between Congress, the Administration and the fire service, the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefit Act was approved, expanding the program to include firefighters who die of heart attacks or strokes.

None of the victories came easily. Fire service organizations worked aggressively on Capitol Hill and in congressional districts lobbying members to support our issues. We can be very proud of our accomplishments and be very grateful for the support we received from those members who worked with us.

Legislative victories seldomly happen on their own. They are often born out of comprehensive strategies developed and refined over time. Successful lobbyists understand the process and know how to execute successful strategies. Where they succeed and where others often fail is in executing the final element of a successful strategy -- the element of recognition.

When Congress approves a bill benefiting the fire service, we need to recognize those members who did the heavy lifting for us. In press releases, we need to mention them by name. We need to send thank you notes as a minimum, and present plaques or other awards to members in recognition of their leadership on our behalf.

Later this month, I'm traveling to Raleigh, North Carolina to do just that. Both Sean Carroll, CFSI Legislative Director, and I are going to personally thank Congressman Bob Etheridge (NC-02) for passage of the Hometown Heroes Act, a bill he introduced and worked tirelessly to pass. We're going to present him a ceremonial axe, which we hope he will proudly display in his office. We will alert the media and invite local fire service officials to participate in the presentation.

Building partnerships is half the battle in Washington. The more partnerships we can create, the stronger we will become. Partnerships are based on trust and mutual respect. It is, of course, a two-way street. Recognizing that we cannot expect our respective members to support every fire service issue, we should nonetheless work with them on issues of common interest. Aside from the FIRE Act, this might include issues such as interoperability of communication systems, or reimbursement for emergency medical services. It might include collective bargaining for the career fire service or recruitment and retention for the volunteer fire service. At the local level, it might mean lending support for campaign drives or participating in prevention programs.

There is no template for how to build partnerships. However, a good model is the Delaware Volunteer Firemen's Association, considered the third political party in Delaware. When the association hosts its annual conference, every state and federal official clears the date on their calendars. They seldom miss the event and quite often attend other functions hosted throughout the year by DVFA. In addition, DVFA has a representative in Dover, the state capitol, every day the legislature is in session. And in Washington, they know whom to contact in their congressional delegation whenever Congress is considering a piece of fire service legislation.

The secret of DVFA's success is that they have mastered the art of politics without being partisan. While they play to win, they play fair and honest. When they prevail, they give credit where credit is due. When the outcome is unfavorable, they quietly accept the outcome, move forward and try a little harder next time. This is how to build political partnerships.

Shortly before the Holiday season, I had an opportunity to witness a great illustration of a fire service organization's respect for an elected leader. Former Senator Bill Roth, former Chairman of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus, died at age 82 of a heart attack. Senator Roth rarely missed a Delaware fire service event and always availed himself to the DVFA. His funeral service was held on a Sunday on the University of Delaware campus. Over 400 individuals attended to pay their last respect to the Senator, including the Governor, the congressional delegation, his former Senate colleagues and other distinguished guests. Sitting directly behind the Senator's family were 75 members of the Delaware Volunteer Firemen's Association in dress uniform. They were there not out of necessity but out of respect and admiration for one of their most ardent supporters.

So the message I want to impart is one of gratitude. We, as a fire service, should never take for granted the support we receive from our friends on Capitol Hill or in our state capitals. We were successful in 2003 because of members like Congressman Etheridge, and of course the mainstays of the Fire Caucus including Congressmen Weldon and Hoyer, Senator McCain, Sarbanes and others. It is our responsibility, as organizations or as individuals, to say thanks to them. That is how you sustain partnership, and in doing so, cultivate future success.

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