Elections, Problems, Challenges, and Opportunities

In a few months, the people of the United States will elect a new president. Regardless of your political preferences, there will be some changes to the way things currently are, no matter who becomes the president. For the most part, national issues that affect local fire departments are not usually directly related to the day-to-day operations. However, there are issues that impact local service, and it behooves fire departments and chief officers to pay attention so that they can anticipate changes and more easily address any problems that arise. Essentially on the national level, political changes will potentially have an effect on the economy, regulations, and grant programs. As most of the funding for fire protection is from local sources, only significant downturns in the economy caused by national policies ultimately lead to problems. The political issues of significance have an indirect influence on emergency services. Further, candidates rarely offer specific information regarding issues affecting local fire departments.

From a local fire department perspective, fire and emergency issues have little if any effect on the outcome of the presidential election. There are no campaign issues, and fire protection is considered a local matter. There could be indirect consequences of policy matters-some beneficial and others maybe not. It is difficult to predict how things will shake out, but this does not mean that they should be ignored. Hopefully, regardless of who is elected, the economy will continue to improve. Many departments are still recovering from the last downturn; and should another occur, the problems would be even greater. Suffice to say, organizations and fire service personnel must pay attention to the election, even on a national level. There can be some indications of what can be expected, allowing time to adjust and address any potential issues. Getting ahead of problems is always the most beneficial approach.

Local Elections Affect Fire Departments

This introduction brings us to the real crux of this article: Local elections have the potential to change the course of a fire department much more than a national or statewide election. It is here that fire departments and fire professionals should take notice and consider what could be presented. The departments and personnel should be some of the most educated voters in the community and must know the candidates and their positions. This allows them not only to decide personally but also to be prepared should other voters need help deciding. Often, members of the community, family, and friends are not wired into the local politics and will seek advice from those perceived to be on the inside. Being knowledgeable gives you credibility should someone ask your advice. But, as with most everything political, be aware that some people may be shopping and are looking for your opinion. Know the players, and be skeptical if a stranger or someone of whom you are not sure is looking for your opinion. You could end up on the wrong side of an elected official.

Generally speaking, fire departments, on their merit, do not influence elections. Only if there has been some controversy will issues related to the emergency service become part of the debate. Consider why people move to a particular community-they want safety (i.e., from crime) and quality schools. They may also be looking for recreational opportunities. Rarely does someone select a place to live because of the fire and emergency medical services provided. Many residents are not even sure who will respond until they need the service. They assume that someone will be there when they need help. In the case of being concerned should they have a fire, many people don’t even bother to think of the consequences. They don’t believe they will ever have a fire and that if they do, their insurance will take care of them.

Those fire departments and fire officials who do not pay attention are subject to being governed by those who ultimately get elected regardless of their views on the fire and emergency service. They become the policy makers who establish budgets, tax rates, and levels of service. If they are unaware of your issues, they can easily sidestep them. If they don’t care or don’t perceive the need, then you could be in for some challenging times during their term in office. As such, personnel and departments should make a conscious effort to inform all candidates of the virtues of the fire department and the value to the community. You do not need to pick or endorse a candidate. You can remain neutral and make sure all candidates have the same information. You are not prohibited from talking to people. You do need to be fair and consistent so you are not wrongly labeled as supporting one candidate over another. This does not mean that there are not circumstances or times when you can or should support someone. Mostly, this falls to individuals who are subject to appointment of the elected officials or in cases where labor unions determine that they have a vested interest. In both of these cases, it is imperative that time, energy, and effort are committed so that you (individually) or the labor group is recognized as a force in the election that can influence the outcome.

All members of the department should be experts on the issues relative to the fire department and emergency services. They need to be consistent in their presentation of the issues and be able to relay the information in such a manner that it can be understood by those not intimately familiar with the emergency services. They need to know how the fire service contributes to the quality of life of the community and the value added to all the residents. They need to know that the cost of the service is worth the benefits and certain things must be in place to provide quality service. They should know that it takes quality people with the proper apparatus and equipment. Well-staffed, well-trained, and well-equipped departments must be viewed as an asset, not a liability.

Acquaint Candidates with Fire Service Issues

Making candidates aware of fire department issues prior to an election is not the only consideration. You should identify individuals who are influential with the candidates. They may be aides, contributors to the campaign, or just friends. Often, these individuals can best deliver your message and make sure the candidates know of fire service issues. I can recall a time when a friend who happened to be connected to many candidates and was not afraid to offer his opinions informed all of the candidates that he thought the fire department was doing well. He suggested that, if elected, they should continue the support of the organization. I believe this had more impact on the subsequent years than anything else. The department enjoyed great support during the tenure of those who were elected.

Although the fire service is not usually considered a primary concern of those running for office, candidates do not want to be labeled as “anti-public safety.” They are not likely to say anything disparaging, though in recent years, some have chosen to attack the pay and benefits of firefighters, especially pension costs. It behooves all firefighters to be aware of such candidates and decide the most appropriate action. It could be that some education is needed, and this would be helpful in some circumstances. In other cases, the candidates may have their minds made up and are not willing to listen. It is important to know who these candidates are and to do what you can to minimize the damage that could be done. You can do this by making sure there are enough candidates with a counter view or working behind the scenes to try to get someone else elected. Regardless, in almost all instances, candidates likely will want to be perceived as a supporter of the fire service because of the popularity of firefighters (in most cases). They frequently look to have their picture taken with a fire truck or firefighter (or both). They realize that many people in the community trust firefighters. This can have an indirect effect on an election, as a candidate perceived to be against firefighters might lose support from those who respect those in the profession.

For those who live in a different community than where you work or volunteer as a firefighter, don’t forget to be involved so you can support your brothers and sisters in the service. I realize everyone is busy; but if you are in the service, you should know firsthand the benefits of a quality fire department. You should be supportive of those who most likely will respond to emergencies involving you and your loved ones. Contact your local department and see what you can do to help.

Elections result in mayors, boards, councils, and commissions who control the resources of a community and make policy decisions. Too often, fire service personnel don’t want anything to do with elections, politicians, or politics. This is not a good approach and will lead to future problems if the wrong candidates end up with influential positions. Although fire departments may not always influence the outcomes, fire service personnel need to be part of the process, even if it is just voting. Do not be indifferent or ignore your responsibilities as a citizen. Know the issues and where the candidates stand. Vote accordingly. There are no guarantees, but let it be known that those who do not participate have no chance of influencing the outcome. Make friends, and use your strengths-the most important of which may be that you are liked and respected. We all know we can use more of this in politics.

RICHARD MARINUCCI has been a chief for more than 30 years. He is a speaker at FDIC, a columnist for Fire Engineering and Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment, and the editor of the 7th edition of the Fire Chief’s Handbook. He is a faculty member at Eastern Michigan University.

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