Fire-Rescue Service Learning To Play The Game Of Politics

After all of the turmoil of the past six months, it's time to pause and take stock of the fire-rescue service's political strengths and weaknesses. It has been like a roller coaster ride, with high moments of triumph followed by low moments of defeat - often ending with a compromise in which you're not sure whether you won or lost the battle. Hopefully, some hard lessons have been learned along the way.

On the plus side, I'm impressed by how far we've come in political action since I began writing this column 25 years ago. The fire community has gained valuable experience; its leadership and the rank-and-file have developed the skills that are needed to play the political game, especially here in Washington. The fire organizations have shown how effective they can be when differences are set aside and they team up to accomplish a common goal. They have the ability to quickly mobilize their troops; firefighters across the country have responded to political alarms by supporting their leadership and making Congress aware of their concerns on specific issues.

But we still have a long way to go before the fire-rescue service can be an effective political force at every level of government. The most glaring weakness is the lack of public support, especially at the local level. The voters don't know or care about fire-rescue problems and the issues of concern to firefighters. Elected officials who ignore or oppose the fire-rescue constituency have nothing to fear on election day; they'll be re-elected whether they're for or against the firefighters.

Whose fault is this? Obviously, it's the fault of the fire-rescue service, which has failed to tell its story to the public. Too many fire departments give only lip service to public information and have no on-going relationship with the news media. Very few reporters understand the fire-rescue service and its problems. That's why local officials have been able to use their fire departments as the place to save money by closing stations, reducing the staffing on fire companies, and cutting budgets for training and equipment. They get away with it because no one is speaking out and the public doesn't know the impact these cuts have on the quality of fire protection.

There's an old saying that "all politics is local" and that's where fire politics has to start. Local government is responsible for fire-rescue services and there would be no need for federal aid if local government was meeting its responsibilities. But it isn't and that message has to be constantly hammered home in Washington. And, fire departments have a responsibility to make the public aware of the problems they face.

It comes down to this: the political power of the fire-rescue service will never reach its full potential until firefighters gain the active support of public opinion - and that has to start at the local level.

These strengths and weaknesses became evident in the four-year battle to provide federal aid to local fire departments through the FIRE Act. The original bill calling for $5 billion over five years was unrealistic to begin with, but it was a necessary launching pad. From there it went through many gut-wrenching changes, each one reducing the amount of money and the length of the program. At times it appeared to be dead, only to be revived by members of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus, who worked closely with the fire organizations. There was friction at times, but they overcame it and showed a degree of political savvy that didn't exist in the past.

There never was any public support for the FIRE Act and that weakness almost buried the bill in the last days of the 106th Congress. What finally passed was a modest, two-year program to provide $400 million in matching grants - with $100 million appropriated for this year and $300 million authorized for 2002. It's a small pool of money for all the fire departments that are seeking grants, but it was hailed as a victory because Congress finally acknowledged that the nation's firefighters need help and that the federal government has a responsibility to assist local fire departments.

Then, without warning, victory almost turned into defeat when the Bush administration's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) attempted to kill the program on grounds that it was not a federal responsibility. The fire organizations immediately rallied their troops and called for help from their friends in Congress. Letters, e-mails and phone calls came in from firefighters across the country; a Republican congressional delegation met with the OMB director to appeal the decision. As usual, there was no public reaction and no support from outside the fire service.

In the end, the FIRE Act was saved by one man talking to The Man who has the power. Joe Allbaugh, the newly appointed director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), personally explained to President George W. Bush why the program was needed and what it was trying to accomplish. The President trusts Allbaugh, who is part of his inner circle of close advisors. Bush ordered OMB to restore $100 million for the second year of the FIRE Act. It's only one-third of the money Congress authorized, but it's better than nothing and has to be counted as a victory.

A lot of people have claimed credit for saving the program and it's a fact that many did their part in letting the administration know that there is an important constituency that wants the FIRE Act to survive. But it was Joe Allbaugh who made the difference. Without him and his access to the President, the program probably would have been wiped out.

Which leads to another valuable lesson for the fire-rescue service to remember. If you don't have the political clout on your own, you'd better have a friend who does. There are times when a well-wired person working quietly behind the scenes can be more effective than a frontal attack. And, that lesson applies at every level of government - from City Hall to the White House.

Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a retired 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.