How political ambition can end a firefighting career

There are two ways to play politics: one gets jobs done and the other may spell the end of your job


Mention politics and most firefighters scurry off to the quiet recesses of their fire station. It is like proposing a roll of the dice to determine who cleans up after the messy cook who just dirtied every pot and pan.

Most firefighters do not find the prospect of running for public office very appealing. However, there always seems to be a few exceptions to any rule.

For the few firefighters who are interested in running for public office, here's a word of caution. If you stick your hat in the ring, you better be ready for the results, be they good or bad. The rewards can be amazing and the damage can be devastating, completely derailing one's career.

Another of the many definitions of political action includes the practice of influencing others (usually not a career crusher). This is a major part of the job assignments for any level of fire service leader.

Perhaps it is the fire chief guiding the city council to approve funding for a new capital purchases such as a ambulance or fire engine and support for a significant life-safety initiative such as funding smoke and carbon monoxide detectors for residents' homes.

Truck-check politics
The type of political process that seeks support and influence is the way that most business gets conducted in the public sector work place.

Fire officers might use the same political influence to help the members under their command to understand a new (perhaps not so popular) policy. I experienced the implementation of a new policy of testing and checking equipment on a daily basis at shift change rather than a once-a-week cycle from days of old.

One shift lieutenant took her platoon aside and had a frank discussion. She pointed out that the department was becoming a full-time, career agency and the new policy is the right way of doing business given the department's evolution.

The other two company officers (a captain and a lieutenant) resisted the policy.

Of course, the chief won out and morning checks go on still today. But it was very interesting to see how a company officer used his or her political influence to take the entire shift in a specific direction. The first shift viewed it as an opportunity rather than influence that the shift leader exerted.

The other two officers were effective, but in ways that only blocked requested progress. The rebuttal from these two was something like, "Why change after years of successful weekly checks?"

Political minefield
The type of political process to become an elected official is a lot trickier for an active-duty career firefighter. I rarely separate career and volunteer fire systems; however, volunteer firefighters typically can engage in all levels the political structure without issue or concern.

Here's an example of how this political process can go wrong.

Early one morning my boss asked me to read the front page and call as soon as I got into the office. So there it was, a detailed report about the various failures in the city's EMS operation.

As I recall, the boss was quite upset about the news piece. He wanted to know why he was not aware of the report. I was flat-footed in that I knew nothing about the story myself.

After a brief investigation, I learned that the preparation for the story was a few months in the making. One of the senior members had been meeting with the reporter and providing the inside scoop regarding our shortcomings. As I reported this information, the boss was livid.

Big gamble
A few days later the boss called me to his office. The same senior guy had been working with a few council members to split EMS into its own department. Of course, he offered his services by asking the council members to consider him as the interim head for the "EMS Department." The mayor was not amused with both behaviors of this politically ambitious person.

On the day it was verified that the meetings to discuss setting up a newly created department had occurred, my boss called with the conclusion to this case study. In a word, that was the senior guy's last day with the department.

I learned several important lessons about politics and people from that experience. First, those in positions of power do not like being surprised by attacks in newspapers, especially from their own staff members.

Finally, if you want to take on the political powers in your community in their sandbox, you better understand how the game is played. Likely, you should let the political folks in on your plan. Better still, get them to buy-in to your plan.

If you want to take on a political leader, make sure that you don't miss your mark. If you don't succeed, plan for the worse-case scenario.

Until next time, be safe out there.

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