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Eight Questions Fire Chiefs Should Ask in the New Political Landscape

Elections across the U.S. are over and new political leaders are being sworn in.

On the local level, the election may bring about the retirements of old allies—or critics—or a shuffling of responsibilities of council members who oversee your fire department's operations. Political change can be stressful for fire chiefs; here are eight questions to consider as new political leaders take charge.

Elections across the U.S. are over and new political leaders are being sworn in. Every election can bring change, even if it isn't a wave election, where one party completely replaces the other, and this election is certainly no exception.

However, on the local level, the election may bring about the retirements of old allies—or critics—or a shuffling of responsibilities of council members who oversee your fire department's operations. Political change can be stressful for fire chiefs.

Here are some questions to consider as the new political leadership takes charge.

What is the new leadership's view of the fire department?

The answer to this question will have the greatest effect on your relationship with the new mayor or fire-protection board. After 9/11, most political leaders were quick to praise their local fire departments as heroes in their communities. Recently, though, there have been media stories that present the fire and emergency service in a less-hallowed light.

More importantly, as fire chief, you and the department's chief officers should reflect on those issues that were raised during the election campaign, including promises of improved service, reductions in government spending and pension reform. You may also want to send a letter of congratulations to your community's new leaders, along with a letter of introduction.

Where are your fire department's allies?

Find out which city council member will chair the public-safety committee and learn his or her views of the fire department. Additionally, you need to know if there will be a new county manager or supervisor.

Also try to be aware of which members of the city council or fire-protection board wield the most influence and what their pet issues are. It's important to understand the relationship between the political leadership and the local firefighter union as well.

What levels of interaction do elected officials expect to have with the new fire chief?

Some elected leaders may like to show up at the scene of major incidents to demonstrate their leadership. Others may expect the chief to report weekly or monthly at joint public-safety meetings. Because of the role the media plays in developing a politician's image, it's always wise to work out protocols for media relations with incoming political leaders before you need to implement them.

How will the change of leadership affect how the department does business?

Changes in the political environment can affect everything, including budgeting, staffing, apparatus maintenance and replacement, and fire station openings and closings. Identify how the overarching themes of the new political leadership will shape the operational environment and what steps your department will have to take to adapt.

What are the hot-button issues?

While community leaders in the past may have been focused on such threat as terrorism, many communities are now focused on issues like EMS response, collective bargaining and pensions. Make sure you stay aware of what issues politicians, the media and interest groups are avidly following right now.

How can the fire department best educate the community's political leaders?

In many cases, political leaders don't know a lot about emergency response. However, they know the public will grade them on how quickly the fire department responds to a vehicle accident or house fire and how effectively a family member is treated during a medical emergency. It's incumbent on you as the department's chief to take the time to explain operations to your elected leaders.

Some ways to do this include conducting firehouse tours and providing ride-alongs. Elected leaders will appreciate the opportunity to get out of the office and see things first-hand. Use these opportunities to explain operational issues, such as why the fire department insists on using a two-in/two-out staffing policy or why equipment that meets NFPA safety standards is so expensive.

What will the leadership from the state be?

States play important roles in the fire and emergency service. Do you follow how the governor and assembly are funding state fire-training programs? The issue of residential fire sprinklers is sure to be important, too.

In addition, the governor's office and appointees will play a key role in allocating federal homeland-security funding and helping your fire department get reimbursed for mutual-aid agreements. It's important to get to know the state fire marshal, state emergency manager, public-safety committee chairs and whomever else the governor relies on in a crisis.

What role will my federal elected officials play?

The federal-budget picture looks bleak for the next few years, with both increased taxes and reduced spending levels. However, the federal government will still have a major effect on the fire service through funding, tax policies and regulatory policy. It's important to make sure federal legislators understand how OSHA or EPA regulations affect everyday fire department operations.

In addition, local fire chiefs should explain to their representatives in Washington the important role that Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement plays in maintaining emergency medical service, especially as the population ages.

Finally, fire chiefs should make sure their federal officials understand how FIRE and SAFER grants improve baseline emergency response capabilities and how the State Homeland Security Grant and Urban Areas Security Initiative programs support information sharing and a comprehensive regional response to all hazards, both natural and manufactured.

As new leaders assume office, both at home and in Washington, it's important that fire chiefs reach out to them and work to build lasting, trusting relationships with them. No matter how everyone voted during the election or what promises were made, the fire chief and elected officials are now on the same team. From day one, the key mission is to provide effective lifesaving service to the citizens in their community.

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