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Be Political without Being a Politician: Working with Elected Officials

In this series on managing the political side of fire service leadership, the final set of tips address what you need to know and to do to work with elected officials:

  • Remember that the fire chief is not the policy maker; he/she is the policy implementer.
  • Have a solid understanding of the governance process at all levels.
  • Educate politicians and their staffs about what the fire and rescue department does, and why.
  • Consider political influences at all levels: local, regional, state, and federal. 
  • The fire chief's job is to make politicians at all levels look good.
  • When a politician's agenda or needs conflict with public safety issues, it is up to the fire chief to find an ethical work-around.
  • Regularly visit your state legislators so they get to know you. Walk the halls, talk with people, support their bills when you can. They know that voters respect and pay attention to the fire chief, so you lend credibility to their initiatives.
  • Figure out what drives your politicians, and speak to those issues. Define common goals whenever possible.
  • You and your staff must build and nurture relationships with the politicians' key staff members by engaging them consistently. They are the gatekeepers to their bosses, and usually they are the ones who present your case to them.
  • Remember that politicians are people just like you; there is no need to feel intimidated. You may be surprised to hear that many of them are intimidated by fire chiefs!
  • Have at least one staff member who is intimately familiar with all the relevant political processes and who builds and maintains close relationships with politicians' staff members.
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