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Building Key Relationships with Elected Community Leaders

Return to the July 15, 2014 issue of On Scene

Today, perhaps more than ever, it's critical that chiefs work hard to strengthen community relations. One important way is to improve our relationships with elected officials who represent us at all levels of government.

In the new economic reality, with tight local budgets and proposed cuts in federal emergency-management grants, it's no longer acceptable to simply look inward to our fire departments or fire districts and not concern ourselves with local politics. We shouldn't forego invitations to speak before the Rotary Club or chamber of commerce luncheons because we don't have time.

Engage and Build Relationships

Engaging the community begins with our local elected officials. Whether we support them politically or not, our relationships with local elected officials must be grounded in respect. Just as we expect our officials to be ethical, knowledgeable and working for the common good, they expect us as leaders in the fire service to be professional in all aspects of our jobs.

We must demonstrate an in-depth understanding of codes, budgets, staffing and community demographics and discuss these topics with them intelligently and sensitively. We have to show that we not only know our business, but we also know and care about the community we're serving. For new or aspiring chiefs, this can be a daunting task. Where do they begin?

Know the Priorities and Communicate Them Clearly

Determine what's most important to the department and establish priorities. Then develop message points to effectively communicate these priorities. Talk about challenges and priorities in terms of programs and services rather than staffing and budgets.

Identify what services your department promises to provide and what services it currently provides. Determine as best you can whether the department can sustain those services. Then communicate this information to the community's leaders. They need to understand these dynamics, but they won't unless we explain them clearly and consistently.

Know Who to Build Relationships With

Mayors, village presidents, council members, trustees, county board commissioners, supervisors, presidents and township representatives are among the officials we encounter while running our departments. Though some officials have no direct authority over the operating budget, elected officials by nature communicate with the public every day and they need at least a basic understanding of the local fire service.

Build relationships with your state and federal representatives as well. It's important to reach out to everyone who can help the cause for fire safety, response and funding. Visit your representatives when they're back home and hand them department hats or patches to bring to their Capitol Hill offices to remind them where they came from and who they represent.

Make a list of your local representatives and visit them regularly. If you can't visit them, call them. Send them an email to thank them for past help. Ask them for their support on an upcoming issue. Make sure they know who you are and that they understand how their offices can help the fire service.

These officials stay on top of what your community is concerned about. It's up to us to us to keep the lines of communication open so when they're asked a question they can provide an accurate response.

Our professional relationships also include other community leaders who have an impact on the business of the fire service and can support our endeavors. This includes code-enforcement people, building-department supervisors, safety professionals, fire-prevention advocates and others.

These community leaders live and work in our communities. They're the teachers, the bankers, the presidents of civic organizations. We see these people on a regular basis, so take advantage of the situation to talk with them and build the alliances you need.

We build new relationships one step at a time. We meet; we greet; we share ideas. These efforts will lead to common ground, understanding and mutual respect.

Find Allies, Be an Ally

Strong relationships are those that develop over time and lead to mutual understanding and cooperation. If we're lucky, we'll occasionally find one or two community leaders or elected officials who'll help us navigate the political scene. They help us excel professionally, and they take a personal interest so we can also achieve success at home, at school and within our communities.

These days, we're working more cooperatively than ever before, but we don't always agree and sometimes we have really strong differences of opinion. We should never trade our values or our commitment to safety just to maintain these relationships, so this is where the need for balance comes into play.

How do we balance our relationships with elected officials? That's the million-dollar question. The answer might be found by using good judgment and taking the time to learn about our communities, their elected bodies and the power and influence we have within these communities.

Having trusted relationships with elected officials and community leaders can be a time-consuming proposition. We need to keep things in perspective and never take our eyes off the vision and the goals we're trying to achieve.

Building relationships is like building the perfect sandwich layer by layer, then sitting back and enjoying what was created. I think we find in life that the more we enjoy the process of building something good, the happier we'll be with the final outcome.

James M. Grady III is the chief of the Frankfort (Ill.) Fire Protection District. He has been a member of the IAFC since 1977.

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