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How fire chiefs can navigate the political jungle

An NFA course teaches fire chiefs about the five power types and offers eight steps to bringing about the change they want


I try to practice what I preach. In the past months, I’ve written about leadership and the preparation it takes to become and remain a leader in any organization — but especially in the fire service.

There is a personal responsibility to educate oneself for leadership and this education is an ongoing process.

Late last year, I took a National Fire Academy off-campus class entitled “Politics and the White Helmet.” This two-day course is offered several times each year at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md., and as part of their outreach program in several regions across the country.

It is two days that can change your ability to influence municipal leaders, change your department’s culture and protect your community. As with all NFA courses, there is no fee to attend other than your own expenses to attend.

I understand how important this course is because I not only took it, but helped with its early development.

Leadership objectives
The course was developed in 2011 when Ken Farmer, who heads the NFA’s Executive Development Programs, foresaw a need to educate chief officers on the new political climate. It’s a climate that most of us face while balancing an ever-decreasing department budget with our community’s fire and EMS needs.

Farmer asked Chief John Buckman and I to be a part of the initial concept development as subject-matter experts for this program prior to its curriculum phase.

Initially, the course defined politics as “the art of building and using influence to achieve an individual or group’s public policy goal.” Building on that definition, it delves into what is public policy and what is the role of the fire chief as a department head in helping to create or change that public policy.

It also covers areas of policy that include the departments mission, funding, regional or intergovernmental cooperation, staffing, compensation, facilities, safety and working conditions.

Five types of power
The course then discusses the role of leadership and the types of power and influence that are found in both formal and informal leaders. This influence is achieved by such characteristics as visibility, interaction, involvement, ethical behavior, and ultimately the performance of the organization.

While the fire chief is part of the formal influence on public policy, the class was asked to list who the informal leaders were in their community. This list included business leaders, former elected officials, affluent residents, community and special interest groups, and professionals.

Knowing how to garner support from both a community’s formal and informal leadership is part of the fire chief’s responsibility to promote positive change that strengthens their fire, rescue and EMS delivery to meet the needs of those they serve. Using small-group break-out scenarios, the class offers a chance to network and interact among the students to offer examples of what worked and what didn’t in real-life situations.

The second unit of the class began by defining power as “the ability to influence people’s behavior and to get them to act in a certain way.” It discussed the five types of power: legitimate, reward, coercive, expert and reverent, to show that every leader at times can use one or more of these types to influence an outcome on public policy.

The class, however, stresses the need for a chief to properly use his or her legitimate, expert and reverent power to achieve an organizations long-term goals. These three types of power are enhanced by an individual’s personal credibility — believability, availability, demonstrated personal and professional values, professional appearance, and bearing or presence.

8 change strategies
Using these characteristics, the chief is not only in a better position to influence public policy, but also earns a reputation at consensus building that leads conflict resolutions where both sides win.

In the final unit of the course, students learn eight steps in successful change strategies.

  • Establish a sense of urgency.
  • Create a guiding coalition.
  • Develop a vision.
  • Communicate the vision.
  • Empower subordinates to act.
  • Generate short-term wins.
  • Consolidate gains to produce more change.
  • Anchor the new approaches into the culture.

A single column could never do justice to the practical ways this course could impact you and your department’s future. This brief outline should sparks an interest with you to look on the National Fire Academy’s website to see where this course will be offered near you in 2015.

While there is no silver bullet that can guarantee an easy fix to any difficult issue, I am amazed to still find chiefs who would rather continue to curse the darkness than to learn to light a candle so they can better navigate the difficulties inherent in today’s political maze. For that too is a sign of leadership.

Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master’s degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers – USA Branch. He has served as a subject-matter expert, program coordinator and evaluator, and representative working with national-level organizations, such as FEMA, the USFA and the National Fire Academy. Rielage served as a committee member for NFPA 1250 and NFPA 1201. In 2019, he received the Ohio Fire Service Distinguished Service Award. Rielage is currently working on two books – “On Fire Service Leadership” and “A Practical Guide for Families Dealing with a Fire or Police LODD.” Connect with Rielage via email.

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