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Winning on the Hill: Walking the Talk

Fire chiefs are confronted every day with various issues that must be resolved. Some can be fixed at your level; others, such as funding, building code adoption and workplace safety, may be the result of decisions taken by elected officials at the federal, state and local levels. To resolve these types of problems, a chief will have to use data, analysis, strategy and wisdom—and occasionally cunning.

Here's a four-step process to consider for successfully working with elected officials to resolve problems that make it difficult for you to protect your community.

Define the Problem

First, you need to figure out what the problem is and what's causing it. Is it a federal problem dealing with taxation of volunteer firefighters? Is it a state issue dealing with the pension system? Is it a local issue dealing with community fire protection planning? It's important to look at whatever data you have and analyze it.

Once you understand the cause of the problem, figure out who can help you fix it. It's important to know if the federal, state or local authorities are the right people to help you.

Define the Solution

Once you've analyzed the problem, consider how to fix it. Do you need a change to a federal statute or regulation, which can take years to enact? Do you need to talk to your state legislator, who may only be in session at the beginning of the year? Will it require the voters to pass a measure by referendum?

If you have data and analysis to support your position, think about how you can package it to educate your elected officials. These days, everyone—from your senator to the lowly staffer who answers your letter—wants data. Don't let that scare you. If you've done your research and analysis, you'll be the expert in the room. The facts can be extremely persuasive. If possible, develop graphs or pictures to help explain the problem and why your solution is required.

Since a fire chief inevitably has multiple issues to be resolved, be sure to prioritize your efforts. Are you asking your state legislator for a number of things? He or she may only be able to help you with one thing: which will it be?

Also, perform a cost/benefit analysis to figure out how much time and effort it will take to resolve a problem and if that will be the best use of your time and resources. Once you have an idea of the effort required to enact your solution, set up an agenda.

Define a Strategy

Now that you've defined the problem and a solution, determine how to enact the solution. Ideally, you've figured out which level of government you need to contact; now identify whom you need to influence.

If it's a state regulatory agency, see if the local office can help you or if you need to talk to the headquarters in the state capitol. Think about who has influence over the agency: is your state representative on the committee that oversees or funds the agency?

Local elected officials have their own networks; can your mayor or sheriff help you meet with the state or federal official who can help you?

There are a number of honest, above-board ways to influence elected officials:

Ceremonial occasions – These are opportunities to meet with elected officials during such events as banquets and fire academy graduations. These occasions help you build creditability with the elected official and maybe put a bug in his or her ear. Don't try to have a detailed business meeting at these events, but take the opportunity to get the elected official's attention.

Informational meetings – These events usually generate good will. Invite the elected officials to your fire station or fire training academy and educate them about your department. For example, freshmen members of Congress like to use fire-station tours to increase their presence in the district and get pictures next to America's heroes.

Influential meetings – These are one-on-one lobbying meetings with elected officials or their staffers. For these meetings, make sure you have all your facts and data straight. Put all your information into a simple, one-page document. Bring pictures and charts.

If you have met with the elected officials before, they may be more likely to meet with you. However, don't feel disappointed if you only meet with staff. In many cases, they're the agents of the elected officials and write the speeches and the bills, so you want them on your side.

Grassroots Efforts – These efforts require you to mobilize others to help you. If you're having a problem at the federal, state or local level, others probably are too. Contact the IAFC, your state and regional chiefs' organizations and your friends.

Social networking makes it easy to reach people; see if you can start a phone, email, letter or social networking campaign to get the attention of elected officials and local reporters.

Media Relations – If your efforts pick up at the grassroots level but you still have trouble getting elected officials to adopt your solution, start developing a media strategy. A greater media presence will raise your profile in the community, so check with your supervisor or board to make sure you have their support.

You can use different efforts to get the media's attention, including writing editorials and letters to editors, being interviewed by local media and holding press conferences. Remember that media outlets are always looking for a good story and that it's easy to make an enemy for life if you make someone look bad in the press.

Political Actions – As a civil servant, state or county laws may affect you; engage in political action sparingly or as is approved by your board or supervisor. If an elected official has been good to your department, consider donating to their campaign (if it's legal).

It's usually not wise to donate against an incumbent unless it looks like they're going to lose. Attending and speaking at rallies also is a high-risk act.

Never ask your firefighters to do political work on your behalf (it's illegal).

Just remember: every election has a winner and at least one loser. The person you oppose may come back and get you in the future. If your state chiefs' organization has a PAC, it may be safest just to contribute to that entity.

"Know when to hold them and when to fold them."

Advocating for political change takes time and resources. Fire chiefs confront many dilemmas every day, so it can be tough to make sustained, multiyear efforts. Sometimes you may have a morally correct position and still lose; witness the fire and emergency services' constant fights over residential fire sprinklers.

Compromise is always an important tactic to consider. Sometimes you can get a clean win, where you have no enemies and everyone sees the wisdom of your position.

That's a rarity.

Most of the time, a moment comes when a major bill is being considered by a legislative body that can meet your purposes; however, there's enough opposition to your position that you can't get exactly what you want. You may have to reach a deal in which you get most of what you want, but have to make changes to assuage your opponents' concerns.

In other cases, you may oppose a bill and be forced between getting the minimum changes to deal with the problem from your perspective or getting turned into a legislative speed bump. Sometimes it may be better to come back next year, when the legislature is more favorable to your position.

Working with elected officials to achieve a lasting solution to a problem can be tremendously rewarding. However, it's not just pretty speeches and stirring John Williams themes. You must be prepared to put in the research and analytical work at the beginning, have the fortitude to stay the course for multiple years, not alienate anyone by accident and make the right decision at the appropriate time.

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