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A firefighter’s guide to fire service politics

Learn to employ smart political tactics while working toward the greater good


Being politically unaware means you cannot participate at the next level of authoritative power, whether it’s driving a rig, directing a fire or leveling budgets, grants or the sustainability of your department.

AP Photo/Elise Amendola

As you rise in rank within the fire service, your participation in decision-making increases, and your involvement in the politics of your department grows accordingly. You may try to distance yourself from personal and collective politics, but you know deep down inside that such talk is falling on deaf ears – yours.

As a working firefighter sworn to serve and protect, you may view politics as unethical behavior – too conniving in nature to be truly effective. But denying the existence of politics in the fire service is narrow-minded, and the resulting naive behavior is counterproductive for you and your department. Put simply, being politically unaware means you cannot participate at the next level of authoritative power, whether it’s driving a rig, directing a fire or leveling budgets, grants or the sustainability of your department.

History of organizational politics

Organizational politics was not even identified, let alone documented and researched, until the early-80s. Initially it was analyzed with mostly negative outcomes, the belief being that politics was not only an informal structure but an illegitimate one as well. Uncertainty, competition and change were essentially thought of as negative influences on this newly identified way of doing business known as the politics of organization.

It was not until the early-90s that research identified the potential for politics in the workplace to be a positive force for change. Legitimacy began with the idea that informal politics could be a productive and workable concept augmenting the more formal structure and policy.

Nowadays, in a healthy organization, politics can be nurtured and advanced for both individual achievement and organizational success. Solving problems, facilitating change and providing focus are just some of the results of effective politics.

Smart political tactics

When watching successful leaders in the political arena, it becomes apparent that they know just how to react appropriately to any situation. They know how to mitigate when necessary and when to leave situations alone. These leaders have a sixth sense about when to play that final card, be it compromise or confrontation.

Successful leaders tend to listen more than talk. They are patient with input, and their insights reveal a true sense of equality. They confirm without prejudice all sides of an issue and allow time for everyone to position themselves with clarity and conviction. All of this while maintaining decorum through discourse rather than insolence through argument.

Top leaders are effective at this form of mediation because their motivation is essentially for the greater good. This magnanimous desire can be clearly felt, if not wholly understood, by everyone. Providing honest counsel toward a final outcome, they influence compromise without seeming to jeopardize or deny anyone’s particular objective.

Regardless of the situation and the decisions surrounding it, solid leaders have the aptitude to delineate and improve accordingly. They have the ability to apply diverse procedures and corresponding styles to different decision-making circumstances.

Another secret of these politically savvy firefighters is in their subtle development of a personal style and its even more subtle application. Different types of political negotiators are explained in great detail in various books and articles, but most are a blend of three styles:

  1. Middle-of-the-Roader: This is the person who values solution above all else. They are willing to sacrifice progress and critical elements of the ultimate product, if only they can achieve a final declaration.
  2. Barrister: They are the ones who bring opposing views to the table, providing little insight and never putting personal opinions into play. Used sparingly, this technique of point-counterpoint can ascertain weaknesses in the program to be initiated, but the tradeoff is delay and distraction.
  3. Marathon Runner: This is the person who is simply willing to outlast the opponent, whether on a single point or the final outcome. This technique is tiring and weakens the entire group.

Wading into political waters

Let’s assume now that you have waded into the political waters with both feet by acknowledging the value of being politically astute. As an attentive firefighter, you have been mentored about the value of listening and taken the lesson to heart. You have begun to develop a style of negotiation that is as effective as it is adroit. You are now faced with a more exacting discipline – the ability to discern exactly what is going on, who is involved and the benefits presented.

This skill requires accurate and insightful interpretation of the events and personnel surrounding you at any given moment. You are now deep into the ocean of governance, and precise navigation is what separates the truly effective leader from just another firefighter adrift.

With this in mind, it is important to remember that, whether internal among the rank and file or external at the highest levels of government, fire department politics must be viewed as an act of service, as simply the way things get done for others. This takes patience, understanding and endurance – and being consistent and forthright throughout the entire process.

Watch a chief officer as they move through a town council or a group of district directors with a budget item that is misunderstood or unwelcome. Listen to a senior line officer as they turn a fireground mistake into a learning opportunity without embarrassment or blame.

Politics is about relationships, the networking that comes from doing your job and helping others do theirs. From this synergy comes the respect and dependence shown to trusted allies such that even in disagreement, opponents count on you for focus and determination.

Political and personal interests

Politics is more about the personal interests of the people involved than their actual positions on any given subject. Getting to the heart of exactly what people want out of a situation may be difficult at times, but such insight will allow you to assist them in constructing an effective position. It is the job of a politically astute firefighter to provide a relevant avenue toward a productive conclusion, one that can be easily justified and totally supported.

Politics is the ability to understand others and utilize this empathy to negotiate with patience and respect. This collaborative response provides the ultimate benefit to you and your department.

Political intrigue and conflict

So if organizational politics is so effective and beneficial, why do we see such dysfunctional politics displayed by our national leaders? Every day we see on the news the constant bickering and endless impasse that has come to define this necessary evil wherein nothing seems to get done and there is no one to blame but everyone else. What we see here is the role that conflict plays in politics.

Political conflict comes in many sizes and shapes. There can be conflict when fundamental change comes to a department or its personnel. Personality clashes, differing values and contrasting perceptions all contribute to the situation. Even without change, there can be a general lack of trust between individuals or groups that insidiously erodes any chance of successful interaction, let alone productive problem-solving.

Such negotiations are marked by bargaining for compromise, apologizing and conceding on the minor issues, while failing to address the important ones. Quick decisions through intimidation are the rule in this type of political arena.

Political talent overcomes the negativity

Within this negative political atmosphere, the ability to elevate conflict to resolution is the critical skill set revealed by top leaders. The challenge is to instill a sense of teamwork and collaboration in every individual regardless of personal feelings or short-term arguments. It is the ability to appeal to an individual’s honor or pride, whichever one depersonalizes the process and effects repairs, bringing focus back onto the issues.

By effectively demonstrating that resolution leads to a higher level of accomplishment, a collective force greater than any one’s individual authority, leaders consolidate the diversity of interests and produce results. This is a key to making tangible political progress – not taking politics personally.

Making politics personal – in the right way

Of course, it is difficult not to take all of this personally. Politics notwithstanding, it is your life and career as firefighters. But to be effective in providing the best of what this profession deserves, you must respond to a higher calling of service, one absent petty indulgences and stale protectionism. In the world today, resources are limited, and many agencies and individuals are competing for the same space.

At a time when the direction of influence has never been so unpredictable, the fire service must create consensus out of diverse interests. Now more than ever, the fire service needs an honest identification of the challenges and consequences of not providing realistic solutions in a timely fashion.

It is for just this purpose that fire department politics exists – to expedite the meeting of objectives and the making of progress, inclusive of both personal and organizational goals.

Jim Spell spent 33 years as a professional firefighter with Vail (Colorado) Fire & Emergency Services, the last 20 years as a captain. He helped create the first student/resident fire science program west of the continental divide, formed the first countywide hazmat response unit and was on the original Colorado Governor’s Safety Committee. As founder of HAZPRO Consulting, LLC, Spell advised businesses on subjects ranging from hazard analysis and safety response to personnel development and organization. His writing won six IAFF Media Awards. Many of Spell’s articles are available by podcast at His last book was titled “Boot Basics: A Firefighter’s Guide to the Service.” Spell passed away in April 2024 after a short battle with cancer. His last four articles detailed his cancer journey.