Fire-Rescue Service Still Enjoys High Profile Among Candidates

Oct. 1, 2004
Don’t make no waves, don’t back no losers.”

That’s the advice a Chicago alderman once gave to a political science professor who asked him for the secret to success in politics. It may have been good advice 50 years ago, but it’s only half-good today. You still want to avoid backing losers, but the way the political game is played these days, you can’t get anywhere without making waves and, the bigger they are, the more likely you are to win.

The entire country will go to the polls on Nov. 2 for national, state and local elections. Now is the time for firefighters to be making lots of waves and looking for winners who will represent their views. This is the month when the candidates are most accessible and eager to hear about the issues that concern the fire-rescue service. Unfortunately, when the campaign is over, some of them become inaccessible and hard of hearing. If you’ve got any like that, now is the time to vote them out of office.

However, before you go against a strong incumbent, make sure that the challenger you’re backing has at least a slight chance to win and, if elected, will make good on his or her campaign promises. When it comes to supporting political candidates, beware of unknowns who promise more than they can deliver. Some years ago, a firefighters’ local union in our area went all out to support a sure loser against a sure winner they didn’t like. Needless to say, the next four years were very tough when it came to critical issues like minimum staffing on the fire companies.

Firefighters seem to have an especially high profile in this election. Candidates drop by the firehouses to have pictures taken with their firefighter buddies and pledge their support for the fire-rescue service. Obviously, it’s the fallout from 9/11 and an effort to capitalize on the good feeling the public still has toward firefighters. And, to be fair, in the past three years many of them have developed an interest in response to terrorism and other fire-rescue issues. Whatever the reason, be glad that the politicians are coming to the firehouses; it’s far better than the days when firefighters were ignored and no one seemed to care.

The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) was the first major labor organization to endorse Sen. John Kerry when he began his run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Starting with the primaries, firefighters were highly visible in Kerry’s photo ops and Harold A. Schaitberger, the IAFF general president, has been in the forefront of the Kerry campaign. On the Republican side, two big-city IAFF locals in Milwaukee and New York broke ranks and endorsed President Bush for re-election. Before arriving at the GOP convention, the President stopped by an FDNY firehouse to receive the endorsement of the Uniformed Firefighters Association and, just like Kerry, Bush relished being surrounded by firefighters.

As a newsman, I’ve covered every presidential campaign since 1960 and I never saw one that ever paid the slightest attention to firefighters – until this year. A cynical view is that it’s all window dressing with no real significance. Some of it may be superficial, but some is serious and I believe that times have changed. Behind the photo ops, George Bush and John Kerry genuinely care about the problems facing the fire-rescue service and that support extends down the line to many state and local political leaders. For the first time, public opinion has tuned in to the firefighters and it’s starting to be “smart politics” to be on their side.

But it’s only a beginning and there still is a long way to go. Despite the good feeling, it remains an uphill battle to pass tough code legislation and no progress has been made to overcome the staffing problem; most fire departments have suffered deep budget cuts and are running under-staffed companies, with no relief in sight. Congress has passed the SAFER Act to provide federal funds to hire 75,000 firefighters, but it’s an empty bucket because they haven’t appropriated the money and it doesn’t look as if they ever will.

The only way these and other problems will ever be overcome is if the fire-rescue service seizes this unique opportunity to make its voice heard and have an impact on the political process. It has to start at the local level, which is the best place for firefighters to use their political muscle because it is local officials who make the decisions that most directly affect a fire department. It’s great to be involved in a campaign for the White House or State House or Congress, but City Hall and the County Building have real power over the fire-rescue service.

Making waves can be a risky business, but it’s worth the effort if you can influence the political process. It also can be infuriating and frustrating and those who play the political game would do well to remember the words of Mr. Dooley, a legendary Chicago saloon keeper, who wisely observed: “That ain’t bean bag they’re playing out there.”

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.

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