Campaign 2002: Time To Ask Tough Questions

Once upon a time, 16 years ago, there was a member of Congress who promised to support legislation that concerned the fire-rescue service. But when it came time to pass an important bill, he switched sides and voted against the firefighters. A few months later, on Election Day, they voted against him - as did many others - and he was booted out of office. (Apparently, firefighters weren't the only people he double crossed.) Better yet, the candidate who beat him became a strong supporter of the fire service and was re-elected to seven more terms.

We're now in the midst of another political campaign and it's time to remember that on Election Day you have a chance to punish your enemies and reward your friends. Between now and Nov. 5, we will be bombarded by promises from candidates who are running for local, state and federal offices. This year, many will attempt to identify with firefighters, who have become America's favorite heroes. The trick is to figure out who really is your friend and who merely wants to exploit your image for a "photo op" or a television ad.

In the aftermath of 9/11, it's difficult to find a politician who hasn't declared his or her unwavering support for the nation's first responders. It's like being in favor of motherhood. But how deep does it go and who really means it? Who has a record that shows support for the fire service? Who has the integrity and the skill to deliver on their campaign promises? Who can be trusted? It all comes down to character and that's not an easy thing to judge.

For example, in one campaign, a few of us who were concerned about fire issues met privately with several candidates for local offices. If elected, they would control the fire-rescue budget. In response to our questions, each one looked us in the eye and promised they would never cut the fire budget and would maintain a minimum staffing of four career firefighters on every company. All were elected and within their first year in office made drastic cuts in the fire budget that reduced staffing to three on most companies. When I reminded them of their broken campaign promises, one complained that I didn't understand "fiscal reality."

The truth is I understood perfectly. "Reality" was that they didn't have the guts to cut the school or police budgets and the fire department was an easy target because no one would challenge it. The public and the news media didn't understand and didn't care. There were no editorials opposing the fire-rescue cuts and no outraged reaction from any citizens' groups. However, the politicians did make good on their promise to the voters that they would cut taxes, which is why there wasn't enough money to maintain four-man fire companies.

Aside from showing that I'm a poor judge of character, there are other lessons to be learned from this experience. Beware of any candidates who promise to cut taxes; it's usually a warning sign the fire department will suffer if they are elected. Also, fight as hard as you can against any ballot measure that calls for tax and spending limitations; that is like a flashing red light and almost guaranteed to cripple the fire service.

This is the first major election since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and it will be interesting to see how much political change has actually occurred. It's gratifying that the public and elected officials have developed this great admiration for firefighters, but will it result in fire departments finally getting the resources that are desperately needed, not only for the defense against terrorism, but to do their everyday job of responding to fires, accidents and emergency medical calls? The prime responsibility for this lies with local government, which is why "fire politics" - like all politics - begins and ends at the local level.

Will the candidates now pay serious attention to the issues that concern the fire-rescue service? I fear it won't happen until the public and the news media start asking questions about the state of their fire and EMS protection. You can be sure they'll ask about education, crime, transportation, etc., but it is doubtful they will focus on any fire issues unless there is some prodding from within the fire service. It is absolutely essential for firefighters to reach out to the news media and to civic groups to encourage them to ask the right questions. If you don't, all you're going to hear from the candidates is platitudes on how much they respect heroic firefighters and that won't even buy you an extra hand pump.

While it's important to know where candidates for Congress, governor and the state legislature stand on fire issues, it's even more important to ask these questions of candidates who are running for local offices. It's the mayors, county executives, city and county council members who have life-and-death power over fire departments. You want to elect members of Congress who will help you get the federal aid you need, but it won't mean much if you have a city administration that forces its fire department to operate at the poverty level. Federal aid has become a critical issue, but it's still up to local government to provide the money that's needed to operate a fire department with the proper manpower, equipment and training.

That's why it's essential to give local elections top priority. If you have a member of Congress with a good record of support for the fire service, help him or her get re-elected. But your main concentration should be on local officials who have a direct impact on your department. Make the incumbents stand on their records and try to educate reporters and civic leaders who are in a position to ask hard-nosed questions. If you don't like the incumbent, take a long and careful look at the challengers to determine if they have the character to deliver on their campaign promises. Remember, some will say anything they think you want to hear to get your support; the next few weeks is your last chance to get their attention.

One other thing: if your member of Congress is foaming at the mouth about President Bush rejecting the Homeland Security emergency appropriation bill, make sure he isn't one of the culprits who loaded it up with pork barrel projects. It was a bad bill that any president would have vetoed and the masters of pork deserve the same fate as the guy who double crossed us 16 years ago.

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.