Politics and the Survival of the Fire Service

BY RON GRANER

Politics—Is it just another dirty word, or is it the key to survival for your department? A “politician” is often considered the lowest form of life to which a firefighter can sink. The fire service legitimately fears the political appointment of leaders who are not qualified to lead, which certainly can taint our view of politics in general. However, each fire service member today must understand the importance of becoming a politician and properly using politics to attain and maintain the level of service and safety his community expects from the fire department.

There is much truth to the adage, “All politics is local.” We in the fire service must understand and successfully manage the impact of local politics affecting our service’s abilities. Only through effectively using local politics at its highest level can your fire department expect to survive. The present and future of the fire service depend on how well each of us understands the legitimate role of politics and how the political process affects our ability to serve the public. We must also understand the difference between a politician and an elected official.

ELECTED OFFICIALS VS. FIREFIGHTERS

To run for an elective office, all anyone needs to do is meet the minimum age and citizenship requirements for the position and follow the rules for filing as a candidate. Generally, most elective positions do not require candidates to meet any specific minimum training, knowledge, skill, or ability requirements to run for the office. Nor is there a written test for most positions. Candidates do need to have the money required to let voters know that they are running for office. To get elected, in general, a candidate only needs to have more friends and to get more votes than his opponent. Obtaining and retaining his office depend on the voters.

However, would-be firefighters generally do have to meet and maintain certain minimum basic skill and training requirements to join the fire department and retain their positions. Fire department staffing and funding, nonetheless, are affected by the politics of local elected officials.

Successful elected officials understand the value of the proper use of message politics to achieve their primary goals of getting elected and staying in office, creating simple messages that will appeal to most voters. Every successful politician understands the need to educate his market (i.e., the voters) and to sell his message to it.

Today there is a growing mistrust of government and those involved in it, a result of the antigovernment and antitax themes candidates for public office repeatedly present at every level of government. More and more candidates running for local, state, and federal offices are totally opposed to any government in general (except when it affects their own welfare). Many elected and would-be elected officials’ stated goal is to reduce or eliminate government services by any means possible, such as starving it to death by removing its supporting revenues, taxes. These are the “bad elected officials” we all must deal with someday.

GOOD VS. BAD ELECTED OFFICIALS

There is a great difference between a “bad” elected official and a “good” elected official; you must learn how to identify each to be successful.

Bad elected officials will strongly sell your community and the voters on the concept that all government is bad because they personally do not believe in the need for it. Many feel that all taxes are bad and all government rules are bad for public liberty. They strongly support outsourcing government jobs to the private sector. To prove that government does not work, it becomes their primary objective to demonstrate to the public that government services are ineffective.

Regarding the local fire department, bad elected officials won’t examine what the community really needs or support the department in conducting a standards of response coverage study that will quantify and compare the current service levels with those the citizens expect. They will ignore any of the facts your department provides demonstrating the minimum number of staff and equipment necessary to perform the services you must deliver. Such officials will make every attempt to reduce your department’s allocated budgets to the point where your agency can no longer provide the level of service the community has come to expect. When the underfunded department fails to successfully manage that “big job,” these bad elected officials will use it as an opportunity to tell the public that “as they have said before,” government services just do not work properly. Their next step will be to try to outsource the work of your department to a private enterprise.

“Good” elected officials certainly do exist. Such officials have a strong drive to ensure that the government they are charged to oversee is run effectively, efficiently, and safely. They will also demand that you prove that your department is cost-effective and well managed in every aspect.

The good official will also want to understand what your department’s standards of response coverage study demonstrates regarding agency effectiveness, staffing requirements, response times, equipment needed, and all of the other relevant factors. Such officials are more than willing to review your documentation of facts and help to revise it with your department leadership. They will work with you to adopt your standards of coverage document as the official policy of your government.

Unfortunately, because of the repeated antigovernment marketing all over this nation, more and more of our elected officials are falling into the bad category and have no real interest in providing the public with any of the services we have provided over many years. They are interested only in “reducing government and taxes.” They are also interested in placing those with similar goals in positions of authority over the agencies that make up that level of government. These are the “politicians” who give politics a bad name among firefighters.

BUILDING YOUR CASE

To survive in this political climate, your fire service must present to the public and your elected officials the political counter-messages that emphasize the cost-effectiveness, efficiency, and value of the public safety services your agency provides.

Where is this information to be found? Every department must prepare an analysis of its services to determine its current service-delivery abilities and what it will need to meet generally accepted standards in the future. The Center for Public Safety Excellence in the Commission on Fire Accreditation International provides a useful tool for developing this self-analysis, the Self Assessment and Standards of Response Coverage documentation. In completing these professional self-evaluations, even if the fire agency does not seek accredited agency status from the commission, it will have the basic tools needed to present its business case to the public and its elected officials.

With our longtime disdain for the word “politician,” the fire service can blame only itself for failing to defend itself. For the fire service to survive, every member must develop political skills to advocate for the fire service. Our leaders must become master politicians at creating and sending consistent messages that will educate the public (our market) and sell it on the services we provide.

To become truly effective political advocates for our local fire service, every member of every local fire department must develop personal relationships across the wide spectrum of the citizens we serve. Volunteer fire departments, whose majority of members and their families and friends live in the community they serve, have a much better opportunity to develop their political message across a wide local spectrum.

However, in some career departments, paid personnel sometimes cannot afford to live in the community they serve and so live elsewhere. If they do not live in the community where they work, it weakens the department’s ability to successfully deliver its message to the local elected officials.

Whether your department is career or volunteer, developing a consistent unified message and delivering it repeatedly to the community is the most vital joint project for labor (firefighters) and management (officers). Labor and management must work as a team to present a unified message to the public at every opportunity—school fire safety education programs and presentations to local industry and business, civic, and senior citizen groups, for example. Every message must counter the messages of antigovernment, antitax politicians and stress the advantages of the services your department provides, their cost-effectiveness, efficiency, and the value of the safety provided to the people you serve.

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE

For your fire agency’s message to be successful, every member of the fire department team must build a reputation for high ethical standards, honesty, and integrity in all of their dealings. Identify your community’s special interest groups’ personal goals, and tailor each message to educate each group about how your services benefit it. When speaking to senior groups, your fire educators must emphasize the need for automatic sprinkler systems in senior residences and the emergency medical services your agency provides. When school groups visit your fire stations, show and tell them about the equipment you have available to help them in case of a fire and what equipment you would like to get to do your job better, such as an infrared camera to help in victim searches. Every group has a special need; it’s important to discover it and address it if possible. No one should ever leave a fire safety presentation or station visit without receiving some local information (propaganda) that lays out your current services and needs.

To succeed as local politicians for your cause, you must continuously educate, sell, and market your message to the current and would-be elected officials in your local government. Remember that although they are your bosses and policy makers at work, if you voted for them and you live in their district, they are also your employees.

The entire department team must get behind the goals and objectives the department wants to accomplish. The entire team must educate, sell, and market to the public about the great things your department is accomplishing so the residents will not only support your services but also, more importantly, actively demand that the people they elect to serve them will also actively support your services. You must use your standards of response coverage as a tool to show what services you provide and what your goals for improvement are. You must also be able to show the impact of improving service to a level that will improve your community Insurance Services Office (ISO) classification and the insurance cost savings to homeowners for achieving that goal.

THE CHIEF’S ROLE

Beware! As chief, if you aren’t an effective politician in your job, it will only be a matter of time before you will fail in your primary career mission: to improve safety for the community and for firefighters in a cost-effective and efficient way.

As the chief, you must be fully involved in the community you are serving. As a government leader, you must be involved across the wide spectrum of your community from neighborhood groups to charities to sporting events for youth. You must know the people you work for to succeed; they must also know and trust you if your efforts to educate, sell, and market your message are to succeed. Each group in the community must hear the same message about your department.

As the chief, you are responsible for ensuring that every member of your team understands these basic principles that affect their ability to serve the public: We live in an antigovernment, antitax climate. Local taxes are paid to support the mission of the total local government. To be successful, your department must always compete politically with every other government department for a portion of the limited funds available from the taxpayers.

If your agency is an independent taxing authority or district, the fact of life is that the same antigovernment, antitax citizens pay your taxes and still need to be educated, marketed to, and sold on your services. As the chief, you must ensure that your agency gets the funds needed to provide the services mandated by law and citizen expectations. To successfully accomplish that basic goal, you must be a continuous spokesperson, educating the public and the elected officials about your agency’s mission. You and your entire team must educate, sell, and market for the needs of your department.

The successful chief must always be building a nonpartisan constituency among the elected officials and in the public to ensure support for the roles of your department. For you to be and remain effective—and employed—that constituency must always be a majority in the public and the government. In today’s antigovernment service climate, there can be no other option than to develop healthy labor management relationships. It is only through those relationships that you will be able to continue to provide quality service to the public and to ensure the safety of your personnel as well as the public.

If your department’s efforts to educate, market, and sell the needs of your agency fail and the public chooses to elect antitax, antigovernment representatives to power, these new policy makers will certainly negatively change the mission requirements for your department. They will establish policies that almost certainly will be made in the name of “budget cost containment or reduction.” It is a certainty that new budgets will be approved that will not provide sufficient funds for your department to meet its mission.

RON GRANER was chief in three fire departments. His professional career spanned more than 40 years. He is a public safety consultant and a peer assessor for the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He has been an instructor and trainer at all levels of the fire service, including the college level. Graner is author of The Fire Chief’s Tool Box (Fire Engineering, 2007).

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