The typical day within a fire station has very little discussion of government structure, funding mechanisms and political views, but each of these facets of our profession can significantly affect our daily operations. They can affect everything from employment decisions to the chance of new programs being implemented.
A Basic Primer in Government Structure
The majority of fire-rescue personnel are affiliated with a local government agency, but many volunteers may actually be affiliated with a private nonprofit organization. Because these types of organizations are the most popular for fire personnel, we’ll focus on their structures.
In a municipality, three of the most prevalent government structures are the city, the township and the county. The most-structured municipal government is often a city.
Within a city may be charters that dictate how fire and EMS services are delivered, with some specifying the number of personnel that must reside in firehouses on a daily basis.
A city government has the largest number of elected officials, in the range of 5-8 members, known as a city council. Cities often have a mayor, who may govern in a strong-mayor or weak-mayor system, dictating the mayor’s powers and stature in relation to the other city council members.
Townships and counties, often known as unincorporated areas, have fewer elected officials, often only three. They’re known as county commissioners, township trustees or a board of supervisors. While limited in comparison to the city form of government, they each hold more voting power due to smaller numbers.
The methods of funding a fire department can vary, depending on the government structure. In most cities, earnings or property taxes fund all portions of the city government. This results in one pool of money that each department in the city must compete for during budget development.
In other forms of government, levies or assessments are created to fund particular government functions, such as the fire department. Depending on the laws of the state, these levies can be permanent or can expire.
This this type of funding has advantages in that it can’t be used for other services, such as trash collection, but can have drawbacks in that citizens must vote regularly to maintain, increase or decrease the funding levels, which can have varying effects on long-term planning.
Understanding the Basics of Politics
While public safety is supposed to be apolitical, as the political divide across the United States deepens, all parts of government have become politicized.
While it’s important for the fire officer to remain out of politics in the community, understanding different political views is of the utmost importance.
The video Politics for Dummies: Left & Right Political Parties, Democrat, Republican, Communism, Capitalism does an outstanding job of explaining politics in the context of beliefs and views, which is the important aspect related to the fire officer.
The fire officer must understand these perspectives to know how to broach departmental improvements and provide the necessary supporting documentation to pass something through the elected officials. Most important is to know the particular view of the current and prospective elected officials to understand fully the micro-political world directly affecting your organization.
While the average company officer likely doesn’t sit around each day and think about government relations, it’s important to understand how the government structure, funding mechanisms and political environment in your community work and how to navigate them to enhance the services you deliver to your community.