Election Campaign: Time To Raise Fire Issues

Another election campaign is underway and the next few weeks present a small window of opportunity to let the politicians know about the issues that concern the fire-rescue service. Their eyes may glaze over and they may profess total ignorance, but at least you can make them aware that if they want your vote, they had better pay attention.

I emphasize that it's up to individual firefighters, their families and friends to push the fire-rescue agenda. A volunteer department that depends on tax-deductible contributions cannot engage in partisan political activities as an organization without risking its tax-exempt status. Career fire departments are a part of local government and cannot be involved in a political campaign - though a union can and should raise issues, contribute money, endorse and oppose candidates.

In an excellent Fire Law column in the August issue of Firehouse®, my colleague Steve Blackistone outlined the rules that restrict organizations from participating in political campaigns. But he also pointed out that individuals are free to speak out and actively support a candidate or an issue. Steve's column can be a guideline as to how far you can go when it comes to political activities.

Getting the candidates to pay attention to fire-rescue issues is the biggest challenge. In 27 years of covering politics, I've seen only one campaign in which fire safety and emergency medical response was a major issue and that was a ballot proposition. It's not like crime, which scares the daylights out of most voters. Every candidate will proclaim his or her hatred of criminals and the need to spend more money to hire more police officers and build bigger jails.

In contrast, I've never met a candidate who pledged to hire more firefighters. I did meet one who promised he would not reduce the number of firefighters, but once elected he proceeded to cut the budget and eliminate fire positions, which reduced the minimum staffing from four to three on engines and ladder trucks. This year, my tax bill showed a $50 reduction in property taxes as a result of budget cutting and higher-than-expected revenues. Personally, I wish they had kept the fifty bucks and maintained the proper staffing levels on our fire companies. And, I think most voters would feel the same if we could make them understand the danger - which we have tried but failed to do.

At the local level, pay critical attention to ballot initiatives that would limit taxes and impose restrictions on government spending. These propositions have great appeal to the taxpayers, but they are a dagger aimed at the heart of fire protection and must be defeated. Wherever tax and spending limitations have been imposed, it's the fire-rescue service that usually takes the hardest hit because no one, other than the firefighters, raises any objections.

While fire-rescue issues may not come up in a campaign, there are elected officials who have built a record in support of the local fire department and they deserve all the help they can get from the fire-rescue community. Rewarding your friends and punishing your enemies is the way things work in politics. In my area, there are several county board members who have my vote because they've always been there to fight our battles and support the cause of fire safety.

Some years ago, the congressman in my district double-crossed the firefighters on an issue and we all voted against him. So did a lot of other people (for other reasons) and he lost, but I like to think that we contributed our share to his defeat. As things have turned out, the woman who beat him has been a staunch advocate of fire issues at the federal level and the fire-rescue service has been among her strongest supporters. We can count on her and she can count on us.

When it comes to congressional races, a fair question to ask your House or Senate members is whether they've joined the Congressional Fire Service Caucus and, if not, why not? Impress upon them how important it is for the U.S. Fire Administration and National Fire Academy to have proper funding and for the federal anti-terrorism effort to provide the money, training and equipment that's needed to prepare local fire departments as the first responders to any terrorist incident.

In the farm states, let your House and Senate candidates know that the hazmat labeling exemption given to the agriculture-business industry is dangerous to firefighters and the citizens they protect. A truck carrying eight tons of ammonium nitrate should not be allowed to travel without a warning label and, when it comes up in the next Congress, you want them to vote against the exemption.

There's a long list of issues that concern firefighters, so it's best to pick out one or two that are most important to you and your department. How much some candidates will remember after they're elected is questionable, but this brief period is the only chance you have to get their attention and it's worth making the effort. If you don't, the special-interest groups who oppose fire safety legislation will have the field to themselves, with their political action committees pouring big money into campaign funds.

You can't outspend them, but a just cause - saving lives and property - is the fire service's most powerful weapon. It should be exploited for all it's worth and, if that bothers you, just remember the words of the legendary Mr. Dooley, who once said about politics: "That ain't bean bag they're playing out there."

Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a political analyst with ABC News in Washington and served many years as a volunteer firefighter.