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Politics: To Be or Not to Be Involved

Most of you remember how politicians and the general public saw the fire service in America after 9/11. It’s clearly not that way 15 years later. Today, as we go through a major cultural change in the fire service, the public is looking for more accountability and politicians are looking for ways to trim costs or do more with less.

In general, the fire service has never really liked the politics associated with managing an organization that’s main focal point is helping people in their times of need.

Unfortunately, times are changing and these changes require fire service leadership to be more involved with the local, state and federal legislators.

From the mayor who wants to cut costs by closing stations or reduce staffing to Congress who each year seems to authorize less monies for the fire service through the federal grant programs, we as fire chiefs must understand that if we want to succeed, we must get involved with legislators at all levels.

In many states, some forms of mandatory tax caps have been established by law, which will require a local government to make cuts in one area to provide funding for another deemed more necessary. The solution for the fire service is to become more involved with the political environment we live in. Leadership must lobby for the needs of the organization, but that lobbying comes with a cost.

In the past, we could just say we need a specific number of personnel; today, we have to justify that number, even as the numbers of fires are decreasing. Conducting quality research to provide irrefutable data that backs up our needs list is a skill set that wasn’t needed a decade ago, but it’s mandatory for today’s fire executive officer. Higher education, such as master’s degrees and the NFA’s EFO Program, are becoming the norm in most communities for current and future fire executive officers.

These forms of graduate-level accomplishments, along with their affirmation through professional credentialing from the Center for Public Safety Excellence, help prepare fire chiefs of tomorrow to sit at the table and clearly state their case for the limited funds available within their communities.

One thing is certain; the fire service doesn’t do a good job of selling our organization or the services we provide to our communities. Too many people still think fire departments are only here in case of a fire. Many don’t understand that a fire department’s mission is multifaceted, that no matter what happens in a community, the fire service is there to provide expertise and situational control that no other entity is equipped to do.

The bottom line is this: fire service leadership must understand that costs need to be justified and the most qualified individual who can tie cost with need and show results is the local fire chief. The high cost of fire service healthcare, salaries and retirement are seen by those we serve as more than what they themselves have; in many cases, some of those same people become members of boards or other political action groups.

Therefore, we as fire chiefs need to know how to work cooperatively with many different types of personalities if we wish to successfully acquire what’s needed to equip today’s fire service to remain our communities’ first line of homeland defense.

All in all, if the fire service is to survive, we must learn how to navigate these political waters. This isn’t to say we have to become political ourselves.

However, we have to embrace the environment we live in today; to achieve that, we need the support of our local mayor, supervisor or board members.

On the state and national level, we may need to meet with state or federal representatives. This may require attending board meetings, annual lobbying days in our states or attending the Congressional Fire Service Dinner in Washington.

Or it may be nothing more than inviting the political leadership to stop by our fire stations and share some time with the men and women who protect the very people that politician has sworn to protect. When your community members have to make a frantic call for your help, their security comes from know that you’re ready and able to respond to their needs, and that comes from you being politically active within your community.

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