Fire chiefs' guide to winning at politics

Love or hate that part of the job, every fire chief needs to know how to get the most out of their elected officials


By Cathy Sivak, contributor

Even the most community-driven chiefs and fire service representatives are wary of the proverbial battle with city hall, county government or the state legislature, let alone Congress.

With that in mind, fire chiefs need to create a game plan to achieve fire service goals as politics hits an oft-unforgiving peak: A presidential election year with inevitable post-election shakeout.

Insights and success-strategy planning for local, state and federal politics will be found at the Winning "The Game:" Strategies for Political Success session at the upcoming International Association of Fire Chiefs Fire-Rescue International conference. The session is one of several educational opportunities during the Aug. 17-20 event in San Antonio.

Attendees will learn how to talk the talk with elected officials as well as how to create and implement political action success strategies with best practices using the media, grassroots efforts, coalitions, hearings and face-to-face meetings.

Political games benefit from coaching clinics. And this interactive coaching session will be led by two field experts, co-presenters Tom LaBelle and Kenneth Lasala.

The experts

LaBelle is the Albemarle County (Va.) Fire Rescue division chief of volunteer services. He was a fire officer and assistant chief in New York, and served as the legislative director for the New York State Assembly's Sub Committee on Fire Protection Services. And he served 12 years as executive director of the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs. He is also a nationally certified fire instructor.

Lasala has 11 years as IAFC's director of government relations and policy. In that role, he represents the voice of America's fire and emergency service leadership to Congress, the White House and federal agencies.

His background includes seven years as a staffer on the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation for Chairman/Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.). He holds a bachelor's degree in government and politics and a master's degree in international relations.

The first portion of the session will build what LaBelle calls basic skills in "government relations 101." Attendees will identify needs and consider the basic development of legislative strategies such as finding champions to the cause, how to identify leaders of the appropriate committees and sub-committees, how to find other allies and build collations and how to work with the media.

The session will break into interactive groups to brainstorm and practice making action plans to advocate for specific issues. It will then re-converge to present ideas for how attendees can adapt the experience to their own needs and step into the political fray.

"They'll hopefully take what they learn and apply it" as they seek federal and state level grants and advocate for policies that help meet fire service needs, LaBelle says.

Amassing allies

Most fire chiefs are familiar with local politics at the mayor or council level, and may even have experience at state and federal levels. No matter the venue, it's important to make sure the challenge will be fixed by the advocated policy.

"Make sure you have the data to support the argument," LaBelle says. "Identify who you need to influence — a committee ranking member, committee members, leadership of House and Senate — and find political allies like the legislative assembly, a state assembly person, the fire caucus. Take a look at everyone who is affected by the issues, and decide who would be interested in joining forces."

For instance, to provide relief to families affected by house fires, chiefs might reach out to known allies such as The Red Cross to help form a coalition that may include local government groups, the insurance industry or fire and building code groups.

Chiefs will also learn how to underscore their position as they help busy elected members of state and federal offices understand the issue, work with the media and use press conferences, testify at hearings and participate in grassroots advocacy (phone calls, letters, emails, texts, tweets) aimed toward the appropriate politicians.

While political offices are currently a hot-button topic, nonprofit groups with 501(c)(3) status such as the IAFC do not endorse specific candidates. "At the local level, fire chiefs stay out of all that," LaBelle says.

Bipartisan issues

Fire chiefs who want to keep issues in front of candidates can attend town hall meetings, attend campaign fundraisers as a guest rather than a contributor and even invite candidates and officeholders to the fire station to educate them about fire service issues.

"It's good constituent service for the politician and great for the fire department," to get issues in front of candidates and their staffers, and sets the stage to be an influencer later in the advocacy process, LaBelle says.

"Fire and emergency services are really bipartisan issues. Members of Congress will be in the district, trying to shake as many hands as possible; it gives you the opportunity to raise issues and advocate for your cause," LaBelle says.

Attendees will also learn how to tap resources of associations like IAFC or coalition partners to avoid duplication of effort — like email blasts and other mass communication efforts — and free up time commitments.

While the elected officials and staffers may change, the basics of the issues remain the same, LaBelle says. "In politics, persistence is key." 

About the author
Cathy Sivak is a freelance writer and award-winning journalist who spent several years covering the police, fire and emergency response beat for a daily newspaper.

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