July 25, 2019 | View as webpage

Politics is sometimes considered a dirty word in our profession, but it is vital that fire chiefs understand the role they play as fire chief-politicians, advocating for their fire department and the community. In this briefing, I address the fire chief’s political agenda and how to ensure you are making the right connections.

Additionally, Robert Rielage looks at another way to make connections – through travel-related network-building. He shares a story about his recent trip to Ireland, where he served as an ambassador for his department in meeting with members of the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS).

There are clearly so many ways to expand our fire service network and make great connections! One option: Share this Leadership Briefing with three leaders you know who are currently finding their footing as fire-chief politicians or working to build their network.

Chief Marc Bashoor
Executive Editor, Fire Chief, FireRescue1

Chiefs, don’t forget: YOU are a politician!
By Chief Marc Bashoor

How many times have you heard a fire chief bemoan the politicians they have to deal with? Come on, you know you’ve done it, as have I.

The reality is that we may as well be talking about ourselves. In my 38 years of service, people-watching has become all but a course credit in my education and development. I’ve lost count of the number of chiefs who refuse to accept the notion that they are themselves politicians.

Like it or not, a fire chief IS a politician. The challenge is finding a way to become a fire-chief-politician who takes care of all the dynamics and who people don’t bemoan.

It is no secret that dealing with people takes a lot of a leader’s time. Keeping a mission-focused mindset and recognizing that not everybody is an adversary should get you through most of those personnel struggles. Remember, if everybody’s an adversary, there are no allies!

Looking at the definition of politics helps focus this discussion: “1a: the art or science of government; 1b: the art or science concerned with guiding or influencing governmental policy; 1c: the art or science concerned with winning and holding control over a government.”

While some may take the power/control approach, I’ll talk about politics here in terms of “guiding or influencing” a government,” which, by my definition, will include your community.

Fire chief influence on the community

There are certain aspects of “power” that come into play with a fire chief’s position, particularly with respect to code development and enforcement, scene control and hiring/firing decisions. But the moments of power are less developmental than they are building blocks in time.

The responsibility and the ability to influence is the fire chief’s art of politics. Lawmakers, community members, your own membership, and businesses need to become allies for the mission for the chief to be successful. The fire chief needs to plant seeds and grow roots in the community, not only providing fire safety and protection but also ensuring the integrity of the department is intact.

Community relationships need to be cultivated, mission/vison needs to be focused, working conditions need to be professional, education needs to be provided, and economic/community development needs to be considered.

An always-confrontational, on-top-of-the-world fire chief is destined to fail in the politics of being a fire chief. It’s OK to “be you” as long as “being you” is effective, productive and forward-moving.

Fire chief political agendas

Educating your elected and community officials should be a crucial part of the fire chief political agenda. Mind you, education needs to be presented honestly, with transparency, and cannot include embellishment or lies.

I have found that the best way for the uninitiated to understand what the fire and EMS mission involves is to observe and participate. Programs like the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Fire Ops 101 provide a good basis for nurturing that education. You don’t have to be an IAFF organization to pull off such an event; you just need to be a fire chief-politician.

While these are generic observations, it is clear to me that most of us (especially elected officials) like to be right. Elected officials also like to be “the one” who makes things happen and gets things done – sound familiar, chief? For elected officials, being right and getting things done helps create their popularity (for reelection) and builds their base. Building that base is exactly how the fire chief begins to succeed.

Similarly, no one likes to have their failures thrown in their face any more than they like failing in the first place. People typically embrace their successes and distance themselves from their failures. The successful chief or politician won’t distance themselves from their failures. They’ll embrace their failures, learn from their mistakes, and chart a better course moving forward.

Time to lead

Finding balance in politics is difficult and absolutely an art. You can stick your head in the sand and pitch your stake if you want, or you can learn how to become the fire chief-politician you need to be.

Find your balance, find your platform, build your agenda, and lead your people and your organization through the maze of government, and remember, you ARE a politician.

Additional resources:
Global networking: Making fire service connections around the world
By Robert Rielage

In June, my wife, Diana, and I took an extended cruise for our wedding anniversary. One stop along the way was in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, about 60 miles from Belfast. Coleraine is the namesake city of our own Colerain Township, Ohio, where I serve with the Colerain Township Department of Fire and EMS.

This year marks the 225th anniversary of the founding of Colerain Township by John Dunlap, who originally came to the United States from Coleraine, Ireland. Dunlap was an engineer and surveyor who traveled to the Northwest Territory after the Revolutionary War and settled in Ohio, building Fort Coleraine along the Great Miami River just north of its confluence with the Ohio River, now forming the western border of our own Colerain Township. In 1794, a little over 45 square miles of this area surveyed by John Dunlap was designated by the territorial governor as Colerain Township.

Coleraine, Northern Ireland, is a busy commercial hub on the River Bann, which is navigable to many ocean-going vessels. It is also a destination area for tourists and sport enthusiasts for golf, tennis and fishing. It is the governing region for several seacoast cities and, along with Coleraine University, has a seasonal increase in population that adds to the responses of the local fire and ambulance agencies.

The Coleraine area may also be known to “Game of Thrones” enthusiasts, as it was the setting for the popular, but now concluded, HBO series. That locale within Coleraine has alone sparked a huge influx of tourists with specially chartered tours that take GOT fans to landmarks and filming locations.

Colerain ambassadors in Coleraine

As part of our trip, Diana and I brought with us a proclamation from the governing body of the Colerain Township Board of Trustees in Ohio to the Coleraine Council, recently rebranded as the Causeway and Glens Council in Northern Ireland. The proclamation acknowledged the accomplishments of their native son, John Dunlap, and his contribution in helping to found and name our home community.

All of this may seem superfluous, but when we travel, I try to set aside some time to meet with the local fire service. I was also somewhat acquainted with the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) because of an exchange program that we developed between the NIFRS and the Ohio State Fire Marshal’s Office (SFMO) that began while I was the state fire marshal.

The idea of an exchange initiated after an international conference of the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE) held in Ireland. At the time, the NIFRS was interested in gaining experience in the field of fire investigations, and after the September 11 attacks, we at the Ohio SFMO were looking to improve the safety of fire personnel and the tactics used during potential terrorist incidents. The program was a success for both agencies and remained in effect for several years.

Prior to our travel, I contacted the NIFRS Headquarters in Belfast and asked if I could stop by the Coleraine fire station during our visit. I wanted to learn more about what had happened with their fire service in the ensuing years.

I was put in contact with Coleraine District Commander John Bacon who agreed to meet with me. The Coleraine District geographically encompasses approximately one-third of the NIFRS “northern” response area and is headquartered in the town of Portrush on the coast of Northern Ireland.

Finding similarities across the ocean

Like most of the fire service in the United Kingdom, the NIFRS uses a combination of career and paid part-time or on-call firefighters. This combination is similar to that used by my own department where the predominant category is composed of career firefighters, but there are part-time firefighters to augment the number of personnel needed to fully staff each shift.

Commander Bacon was more than hospitable and generous with his time as we looked at both regular fire appliances (apparatus) and specialty units, including one designed to respond to flooding incidents and fight wildlands fires in the hills, marshes and bogs that run along several ocean side areas. That unit sits roughly double the height of an ordinary fire engine and is equipped with four-wheel drive for extensive off-road use. We also looked at one of the several rescue pumpers specifically designed for extrications on the major highways in Northern Ireland that crisscross the Coleraine district.

Perhaps most interesting were our discussions on the similarities of current issues faced both in Coleraine and Colerain. Among those were our efforts in community risk reduction (CRR), including programs providing the free installation of smoke detectors (particularly for those still living without this protection) as well as the ongoing improvements in firefighter safety through enhanced tactics, breathing apparatus and PPE.

Commander Bacon also discussed the ongoing preparations for the upcoming UK Open Golf Tournament that will utilize a combined fire, police and EMS command post with dedicated personnel and units on scene during the tournament to handle the influx in celebrities and tourists, along with those anticipated additional needs for emergency services.

The commander and I also share a history in both training and recruitment, so a discussion on both of these topics brought out a number of shared experiences.

In the end, we agreed that our departments and the challenges we face are more alike than ever, and that sharing ideas and experiences had led to a stronger understanding that both the fire service and our current issues were universal, not just local in scope.

Strengthening the global bond

I came away from our visit with a sense that individuals in the fire service have a stronger bond now more than ever and that, when possible and not disruptive, it is an enlightening experience to visit with firefighters when traveling, whether across the country or around the world.

The trip left me feeling invigorated, knowing that we all face similar challenges while trying to provide the best fire and emergency services for our citizens, no matter wherever in the world that might be.

Stay safe!

Additional resources:
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