Fire Politics: Political Support Is Essential To the Fire Service

T he support of elected officials at all levels of government is essential to the health and well-being of the fire service. This has been written about and discussed frequently over time, but it has never been more clear than today.

I usually dedicate this column to political issues primarily focused at the national level, but this month, I’m going to include the issue of fire service support from elected officials at the local level as well. Local politics has a direct bearing on so many things that impact local fire departments. And in this day and age, what happens locally is almost instantly shared statewide, nationally and even internationally. Therefore, it’s easy to argue that local doesn’t stay local anymore, and hasn’t for some time now. Essentially, the entire fire service has a stake in what goes on in individual fire departments.

A chief who “gets it”

I was listening to a press conference a few days ago at which the mayor of one of the largest cities in the United States was announcing the appointment of an interim fire chief. This interim chief said something rather naturally and profound in her comments when she publicly asserted that, “I have always felt that my primary role as chief is to work to ensure that the members of the fire department have the resources they need to professionally, effectively and safely provide services to the public.”

As I listened, I couldn’t help but think that this chief “gets it.” You could write pages on the role of a fire chief, but in a few simple words, she hit the proverbial nail right on the head. I also thought how difficult this responsibility can be without the support of the mayor and city council members that chiefs have to deal with regularly. It also came to mind that the fire chief needs the support of the entire fire department to be able to maintain positive political relationships – especially with those who are already strong fire department supporters.

With all of that said, let’s revisit one of the basic tenets of Political Science 101: Take care to not do or say things that put your political allies in positions where they simply cannot support you publicly.

What this means is really pretty straight-forward. The fire service should not publicly embarrass its political supporters or put them in positions in which supporting the fire department (or firefighters) could have a significantly negative impact on their reputation with the majority of the public; in other words, anything that has a high probability of damaging their political standing and impacting their next election. We need our political allies more than ever when you consider the types of challenges fire chiefs and union officials are facing today.

What are we thinking sometimes?

When I was a child, I went through a time when I was getting in trouble at school way too often, which eventually required my Mom to make several visits to the school on my behalf. That didn’t seem to curtail my lack of respect for the rules. One evening, after both of us had been visiting with my teacher for the umpteenth time, my Mom said to me, “Denny, you are shoveling it in faster than I can shovel it out.” What she meant was that I was causing more issues for her than she was able to deal with or resolve on our collective behalf, and that I needed to stop shoveling so she could catch her breath. The issues were piling up on her.

What I was doing regarding my behavior and performance at school was damaging to me, but it had also become a significant problem for her. She wasn’t sure if she could continue to help me out if I wouldn’t make some changes myself. Believe it or not, I actually got the message – I was seriously impacting the well-being of not just me, but of my family. I didn’t become a saint afterwards (and I’m still far from it), but I did take a lot more responsibility for my role at school and at home.

We all have a stakein the future

Sometimes, behavior and performance issues occur in fire departments that could be described similarly to the way my Mom put it to me. Members of the fire department sometimes behave and perform in ways that harm the image of the fire department and firefighters as a whole. Goofy things have always happened in fire departments, but in today’s world, they don’t stay on the inside.

In the past, there were no social media, no Internet and no YouTube. Issues could actually be handled “in house,” but those days are long gone. When our negative on-duty or off-duty behavior becomes public; when we refuse to leave the fire station to assist a person who is in a medical crisis; when we use fire apparatus for personal business that results in extended response times to emergency calls; these put elected officials – even those who are our allies – in positions where it becomes impossible to support the fire department or the fire service. And the effects of these can be cumulative when issues keep arising.

The number of fire department members who behave and perform in ways that are detrimental to the fire service is not large, and acting out seems to have nothing to do with people’s individual rank or position. But the harm that is caused can be difficult to overcome in times when the fire service needs all the support it can get.

Think about just a few of the important challenges local fire departments, and the fire service as a whole, are trying to address:

• Budgets and federal funding

• Firefighter survival

• Staffing

• Training needs

• Service delivery (including fire service-based EMS)

• Wages and benefits (including pensions)

• Apparatus and equipment replacement

• Prevention and public education resources

And the list could go on. All of these require resources to deal with effectively – and almost all of those resources come as a result of the decisions of elected officials.

Perhaps more than anything, we just need to remind each other that what we do individually can impact all of us collectively. Usually this reality is very positive for everyone in the fire service – but the negative side of this reality can be devastating.

Politics impacts the fire service in so many ways. Maybe we could help each other remember that before we find ourselves in the position of trying to do damage control as a result of negative behavior or performance issues that have already occurred and can’t be undone. n