Firefighting, Leadership, Legal

The Drama of Politics in the Fire Service

By Thomas N. Warren

I recently attended a day-long symposium at a local university law school entitled “Trends and Issues in Politics and The Law.” The symposium consisted of a series of law professors, lawyers, a U.S. Congressman, and newspaper reporters delivering lectures on a variety of topics relating to politics and the law. Some of the topics discussed were campaign finance reform, political corruption, and prosecution of public officials. There were lively discussions following each presentation that usually ran into the next presenter’s time, but everyone enjoyed the day and there were no complaints. The day’s events were capped off with a lecture, followed by a question-and-answer session featuring U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

The day was very stimulating, and the time passed by all too quickly. As I drove home following the symposium, I couldn’t help thinking of how this event could have been titled “Trends and Issues in Politics and The Fire Service.” I believe a symposium similar to the one I just attended that focused on the fire service would be equally stimulating and lively.

Anyone who has been around the fire service in one capacity or another has unfortunately witnessed or been part of politics in the fire service in one form or another. In most cases, the calling that firefighters feel when they enter this service is far removed from politics, but once they become firefighters, they quickly realize that the professional lives of firefighters and politics often become intertwined.

The definition of politics is actually quite benign and not at all sinister in nature. Politics is defined as the following: 1. The science of government; political science. 2. Political affairs. 3. Participation in political affairs. 4. Political methods, tactics, and so on. 5. Political opinions, principals, etc.1

As you can see, this definition is applied in a general sense to our democratic governmental process, but over time, the term “politics” has taken on a much broader meaning, and its concept has become specific to each person’s circumstance personally and professionally.

First, I will examine what politics means in the fire service. Most firefighters work in a municipal government setting, which brings their professional life closer to the purest form of the definition of politics, but it clearly does not end there. The politics that affects firefighters does not come solely from the municipal government that employs them; it can come from as far away Washington, DC; state government; municipal government; various organizations; and from inside and outside the fire department itself.

Though not quite as pervasive as the governmental side, firefighters in fire districts and the volunteer departments are susceptible to politics in their organizations as well. In the fire service, politics can mean anything from pay scales, work assignments, collective bargaining agreements to promotions; essentially any term or condition of a firefighters’ employment that must be debated or decided is vulnerable to political elements. Whenever a decision/policy is made, firefighters will feel a sense that politics was involved. It takes a continuous and dedicated effort to keep perceptions from becoming reality.

Labor organizations are probably the most actively involved in politics. In fact, the International Association of Fire Fighters hosts an annual conference for its members that features instruction on effective lobbying techniques and developing political action committees to influence political candidates and elected officials. The International Association of Fire Chiefs also promotes legislative advocacy and provides training to its members on how to be effective when lobbying elected officials. Professional fire service publications also devote space to editorials or articles that relate to politics in the fire service. Local labor organizations will be quick to fill the knowledge gap that local decision/policy makers may have with a particular issue with their lobbying, enabling decision/policy makers to understand all aspects of an issue prior to making an informed decision.

Chiefs will also act in a similar way in the performance of the duties as the person responsible for the management and operations of a fire department. The chief will act in the best interests of the members of his fire department, the municipality, and the citizens he has sworn to protect. The chief will also lobby with the same goals as the labor organizations to inform, educate, and persuade decision/policy makers to make the best decision possible for the members of his fire department, the municipality, and the citizens.

Public and private organizations also have access to their public officials who are involved in decision/policy making through public hearings and direct contact. This process allows for a global view of a particular issue. This process also allows for a thorough analysis of all views and opinions as well as a complete understanding of all pertinent information by the decision/policy makers. By design, this process should yield a strong consensus on issues, and through a very deliberative process, an informed, thoughtful and independent decision/policy will be made. This is an exercise of democratic governmental process in its purest form.

There are still some places where productive and respectful relationships between stakeholders remain; where issues are decided on the merits of the evidence in play and where people of integrity can find consensus using the process described above. We should all try to emulate organizations that approach leadership in this fashion.

The politics of today, however, doesn’t feel anything like the democratic governmental process we were once taught existed. The new paradigm of politics feels much different at most levels of government today and, sadly, in most of our fire departments as well. In a world with more information available than at any time in history, we find that the truth to most issues is harder than ever to find. Truth has become elusive, facts are clouded by egos, passion has turned into vengeance, intellectual disagreement has turned into warfare, respect has turned into spite, and recognition of personal and professional boundaries is nonexistent. It seems that operating in this manner is commonplace everywhere from Washington, DC, to our local communities, and it has become the new definition of politics. This new political approach to managing government is evident on all sides of any political issue, be it labor organizations, chiefs, and politicians. The mechanisms of politics are all too often vague and unspoken, but its presence is undeniable. The term “politics” has become the dirty word used to describe “business as usual”; it has now taken on a negative connotation in our daily lives, personally and professionally; this is the new normal of American politics.

At the core of this paradigm shift in politics is the corrupting influence of money in politics at the national and local levels. The political action committees that were created to get our message out are now used to fund campaigns of corruptible politicians. Buying influence removes the fundamental evaluation process of decision/policy making and leaves the basis of decision/policy making to the highest bidder. In most cases, it is the labor organizations with the deepest pockets, which position the chief at a disadvantage in debating an issue. Labor organizations can establish a Committee on Political Education (COPE) or a Political Action Committee (PAC) and fund it through direct payments derived from their member’s weekly paychecks. The municipality will deduct this revenue from each firefighter and send it directly to the labor organization. The labor organizations can then meet with the decision/policy maker and argue their case while contributing to the decision/policy maker’s political pursuits. The chief can only meet directly with the decision/policy makers and make the case for his position with little else to offer but rational arguments.

The degree to which this process corrupts the professional effectiveness of a fire department is directly related to the philosophical agenda of the highest bidder; in most cases it is the labor organization in association with a corruptible politician. The affect of this political process creates an additional political paradigm within the labor organization itself, thereby increasing the drama for all its members. Firefighters will face the politics of the municipality that hired them and the politics of the labor organization that represents them simultaneously. This political environment can be very conflicting for many firefighters. Again, this is not how all labor organizations operate, but there is an alarming trend in this direction. The recent Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case has only empowered this new paradigm.

The second contributing factor responsible for this paradigm shift in politics is the breakdown of both personal and professional relationships. Developing relationships were once the foundation of a progressive leadership style that could bridge any debate surrounding fire department management. As Congress has become extremely partisan in Washington, DC, its effectiveness has been drastically diminished and paralyzing. This extreme partisanship is now finding its way to the local level where we are seeing our local relationships fade to the point that they are no longer part of our consciousness. The politics of today appears to have shifted from building relationships to a constant campaign of self-promotion and a scorched earth approach to problem solving. In the fire service, there are many stakeholders who must be heard; it must be remembered by everyone involved that every stakeholder has a valid opinion that should not be dismissed summarily. Everyone involved in the fire service must take the time to understand the positions of everyone else and respect their views. These relationships must be based on the premise that it is the fire service which we are all trying to improve and develop. The concept of jointly solving problems yields success for everyone. Always make room to disagree agreeably and maintain respectful relationships. We are not in leadership positions to promote ourselves but rather to improve and promote the fire service.

As a former union president, I always held the philosophy that when I was debating an issue with the chief and I was winning the argument, I would never go in for the kill; I would always leave an opening for him to find a way out with respect. I did this not because the chief was my superior but because I knew that at some point in the near future we would be discussing another issue that needed resolution and I did not want it to start off in an adversarial manner. We needed each other to make things work for everyone, and we both understood that concept. When the firefighters in the firehouses see their union president and their chief constantly at odds, blaming each other for lack of progress, it does not take long for morale to deteriorate and a saga of daily drama to take its place. When either the union president or the chief allows this scenario to develop, it will be perceived as simply politics. The chief is also responsible for fostering relationships with a whole host of other members of the community where he serves. The chief must also maintain, develop, and nurture his relationships with the elected officials, community organizations, business, and religious groups. For a fire department to be properly funded and supported, everyone in the community must feel that the fire department is their fire department. Good relationships are good politics, but it takes an effort to be successful.

There is a long list of politicians and public officials who have acted irresponsibly and found themselves in a federal prison. Prosecution of elected and appointed officials is always a high profile event because the public trust has been violated. Here, too, we have witnessed some chiefs who have involved themselves in a political process for self-promotion or financial gain and, as a result, lost their positions. In the case of wrongdoing in a fire department, the damage is more profound because firefighters hold one of the highest positions of trust in the community. Politics for these convicted public officials and politicians was simply a process to achieve personal success devoid of any vision for the position they served. The politics of success for those who have fallen from grace represents the worst of public service and validates the public’s new definition of politics.

Remember, politics isn’t all bad and it has been with us since the founding fathers framed our governmental process. The political process that was at work when the United Sates Constitution was adopted in 1787 produced an enduring document that set in motion an effective operational government model that is the envy of the world. It was the politics of the day that produced this document and guided our country to this date. So, with this in mind, it becomes very clear that we need a little of the politics of 1787 today to bring us back to the productive relationships required for the sake of fire service we serve.

 

ENDNOTES

1. Webster’s New World Dictionary, Concise Edition

 

THOMAS N. WARREN is a 40+-year fire service veteran in both career and volunteer departments. He recently retired as an assistant chief of department for the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from Providence College, an associate degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island, and a certificate in occupational safety and health from Roger Williams University. Warren serves on the Academic Advisory Island Board in the Fire Science Program at the Community College of Rhode Island.