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One thing I've learned in 27 years of writing this column is that fire politics is not a game for the faint of heart. Nor is it a game for unskilled novices, who blunder ahead without a plan or any idea of what they are getting into. Political issues have to be approached with the same caution and planning that a chief uses when sizing-up a burning building. It starts with an evaluation of the overall situation, with special attention to the obvious and hidden dangers. That dictates the decision to use a defensive or an offensive strategy, which is followed by the tactical deployment of the forces that are needed to successfully carry out the battle plan.
It sounds simple enough, but it can get very complicated. In today's world, fire chiefs have to know how to play the political game if they are going to survive the controversies that swirl around every fire department, large or small. Perhaps there was a time, long ago, when all a chief needed to know was how to put out a fire, but those days are gone. Today, they must have a much wider range of knowledge and be skilled administrators who can manage their departments while dealing with the news media, the public and the elected officials who control their budgets. Plus, they still have to know how to put out a fire.
There's a saying that "all politics is local," and that certainly is true of the fire-rescue service. The big national issues and what happens in Washington are important, but what happens in city or county government has to be top priority because it has the greatest direct impact on a fire department. Therefore, it is essential for fire service leaders to understand the cross-currents and pressures of local politics if they are going to have any influence in the political game. They have to know who the key players are, who's smart and who's dumb, who spouts hot air and who can make things happen. It's also crucial to know what's going on behind the scenes, what motivates an elected official to take a certain position and, most important, who can be trusted - in politics and the media.
The media are a critical component in all politics and establishing a professional, working relationship with them is a key element in playing this game. If you don't have frequent contact with the reporters who cover the fire department on a regular basis, it's more difficult to have your side of the story told when a controversy erupts. On the scene of a major emergency, the public information officer will be feeding information to the media while operations are underway. But once the incident is under control, a wise chief will take time to personally speak to the reporters and give them a chance to ask questions and get to know him or her as a person. It's also smart to invite them to your office to discuss fire department issues in a relaxed atmosphere instead of the heat of a formal press conference. The more they know about you and your department, the better chance you have of being heard and getting fair treatment when faced with a crisis in which you need the support of public opinion.
It also must be understood that a fire chief walks a narrow line when it comes to how hard and how far he can go in playing the political game. If the mayor and the city council are determined to save money by reducing the staffing of fire companies, the chief may be able to speak out at a public hearing or tell the media why he needs more money for more firefighters. But he cannot engage in prolonged, open warfare with the mayor who gave him his job and has the power to take it away. There comes a point where the chief has to hunker down and let others fight the battle out in front - like civic groups, editorial writers and the local union.
I've known chiefs who resigned rather than knuckle under to policies they knew were wrong. Everyone praised them for being courageous and outspoken - which they were - but it's always sad to see a fire department lose a respected leader who truly cared about his firefighters and his city. Wouldn't it be better to swallow hard, let others do the fighting and continue to lead the troops who need him? The problem is that tactic risks losing the confidence of the rank-and-file firefighters, but they have to understand political reality and realize that there are limits on how far a chief can go and still keep his job.
In fire politics, the best situation is one in which the fire chief and the local union leaders have a good working relationship. Over the years, I've had chiefs tell me that the most important ingredient in preserving their department's manpower was a strong union contract that set minimum staffing in stone. A big-city chief once explained to me: "We've had to close some stations, but we still have five on an engine and five on a truck, thanks to the union contract … I've disagreed with them on some things, but they saved our necks when it came to staffing."
Not everyone is temperamentally suited to playing the political game. It requires patience, the capacity to compromise, and the ability to know when to speak and to carefully choose your words. A person with a mouth like a flame thrower or one who likes to send blistering e-mail rockets can do tremendous damage. When it comes to fire politics, the most dangerous piece of equipment in a modern firehouse may be the computer that gives every firefighter easy access to department e-mail and the Internet.
Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, retired as political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.