5 ways to overcome politics to achieve the fire service mission
Understand the nuances of your community and your firefighters, and take them where they need to be
By Chief Marc Bashoor
Much like Class D fires, political fires require special resources to extinguish ... water doesn’t work well. For all of the hyperbole about how “things burn differently in my town,” we hear all so often, there are some things affecting the fire service that do indeed “burn differently” from community to community.
Balancing your community’s fire protection and fire service needs with your political realities is a societal quandary and frankly, sometimes an embarrassing science fair experiment.
Note the word “politics” in this article has nothing to do with Democrats, Republicans or any other political party. Politics in this sense is about a culture of human understanding that transcends leadership across all people.
I recognize it’s a complex issue, but it is really easy to break it down this way; fire safety and fire protection requires three things to achieve safety and protection:
You could add that people and action need willingness, however these three things are the essentials, and none of them are ever free. Whether it’s time, financial expense, physical depletion or the auras of political science; people, stuff and action – whether volunteer or unionized – cost something, always.
Fire and the business of the fire service is and should be one of the true apolitical, non-discriminative equalizers in our lives. Unfortunately, and all too often, politics drives our business in directions we should never go.
There are core services that governments should provide or ensure are provided; fire protection being one of them. Why? Because fire, left unchecked, like crime and disease, will eventually destroy us and everything we own. I just about guarantee that you cannot say the same for every service or program your government provides, yet fire protection usually gets lumped in with everything else.
If you take time to examine people – I do a lot of people-watching – you’ll notice an interesting dynamic, no matter where you go. In very general terms, everybody wants services, but nobody wants to pay for them, at least rarely at the rate government suggests. In all fairness, sometimes government suggestions are excessive, while sometimes, on the obverse, it’s just government kicking the can down the road.
We won’t solve the conflict of humanity in human nature, but let’s examine five proven tools to help achieve your mission despite the political process and realities we all see.
Listening, acknowledging and being calmly knowledgeable ensure effective communication. Just expecting everybody “gets it” is essentially planning for failure.
Good or bad, don’t lie about your capability or condition. The fire department’s political responsibility should always be about instilling public trust. Don’t allow that to be the illusion of public trust, but the reality. You’ll only be able to ride the back of past successes (or failures) for so long.
Be methodical in your approach. It is important that we focus on bringing calm to chaos at both the emergency scene and in the political process. We also need to ensure that our folks are doing the right things at the right times for the right reasons; recognizing the right and dealing with it appropriately when absent.
Part of the methodology is doing your homework. Like the old parable about coming to a gun fight with a knife, don’t come to a political fight without facts. Factual information requires research. Facts don’t lie.
5. Be a connoisseur of politics
The nature of politics is something that is different in every community across the United States; differences of opinions and personalities that make up our personas, economies and communities.
You have to learn your community and your people. A volunteer chief recently asked me, “are you going to take the time to learn us? To learn who we are?” The short answer is “yes.” That’s Politics 101 of being a political connoisseur, yet many chiefs fail to take this important step. Please don’t fall (or allow your people to fall) into the trap of complacency, however. Learning “who we are” should never mean compromise for safety, progress or integrity.
The core fire protection mission
We are supposed to be the experts in our field, and politicians absolutely need to lean on that expertise. It’s important for us to remember, we are not the ones elected to run the government. Chiefs are often faced with implementing political decisions they don’t like. Whether it’s political differences, affordability or undue interference, you are more likely to be successful if you communicate honestly and authoritatively, often. Do your research, be disciplined in your approach, and become that connoisseur of politics.
Real fire service leaders don’t walk away. They challenge themselves and others to make a difference, regardless of or in spite of the political landscape. As we challenge each other – politicians, residents, firefighters – we all need to recognize the core difference between science experiment and our core fire protection mission.
The true measure of a leader is their ability to take people where they need to be, which may not be where they want to be. Do the right thing today. Our lives and our communities depend on it.
Take care, be safe and stay smart.