If you utter the word politics in most firehouses, at best you have a nasty look tossed toward you, at worst a heavy object.
I am often surprised at the scale of the negative response when it's discussed or mentioned among our ranks. "There's no room for politics in the fire service." I've heard this more than once in my travels. This sentiment couldn't be more off base.
Our best firefighters and officers understand the basics of our industry -- knowledge of building construction, fire development, pump theory and fire attack during a structure fire.
They know how cars are built and how to deconstruct them quickly on the side of the road. They know how the human body works and how to help it when it's not working all that well at 2 in the morning.
Yet the very lifeblood of our business, our funding that directs what we do and how we do it is not only a mystery, but also a despised mystery for too many among us.
There are few people in our communities more dedicated to the affairs of our cities and citizens than those dedicated to save life and property. Yet at the same time we recoil in horror at the thought of involvement in those very discussions.
Now, please don't confuse the discussion of the policies of the fire service with those of partisan politics. Those who use the fire service for their own financial or political gain, only to throw us to the curb as soon as the next dollar bill or extra vote is available, deserve nothing but our contempt.
But our industry's desire to throw the baby out with the bath water has left the discussion of fire service policy to the idiots among us.
Things like funding, equipment and staffing (both career and volunteer) are too important to simply ignore because it's "politics."
The reality is all elected officials know somebody in the fire service. And when elected officials have questions, they call those people up and believe every word they say.
Who do your elected officials call? Has your department made itself a place where reputable answers to fire service questions can be found?
Last year's NIST study on the number of personnel required to provide efficient task completion on the fireground is a perfect example of the sort of data we need to not only be aware of, but be able to speak intelligently about.
Our own safety is tied in directly with politics and I, for one, will not be unheard on issues of safety.
Communicating what we are, how we work and what we need to safely fulfill our role is a necessary discussion and one of politics.
If we wait until times are tough (like they are now) to get involved in these questions and answers, we find ourselves having to fight for every scrap of ground.
Involvement in the governance of our communities when it comes to fire protection policy is a full-time effort; otherwise our own worst members and the blood-sucking insects will simply set upon us.
About the author
Tom LaBelle serves as an assistant chief with the Wynantskill (N.Y.) Fire Department where he is responsible for training. He has been employed by the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs since 1995. Prior to joining NYSAFC, Asst. Chief LaBelle served as the legislative director for the New York State Assembly's Sub Committee on Fire Protection Services. He provides support for career and volunteer departments from the nations largest to smallest. He currently sits as a voting member on the NFPA 1720 committee. He is a certified fire instructor and fire officer. Chief LaBelle can be reached via email at Tom.Labelle@FireRescue1.com.
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