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How fire chiefs can manage political risks

How to understand, analyze, mitigate and respond to newsworthy fire department incidents


People watch as FDNY firefighters battle a multi-alarm fire in Brooklyn.

AP Photo/Craig Ruttle

I try to read all-new material written by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Since leaving government service, she has written several best-selling books, including “No Higher Honor” and “Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom,” and she has been working as a professor of political science at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Her most recent book, done in conjunction with another Stanford professor, Amy B. Zegart, is entitled “Political Risk: How Businesses and Organizations Can Anticipate Global Insecurity.”

But what does this have to do with the fire service?” Everything! Think for a minute about all the fire service-related news you see on the news or social media.

For example, there was the video clip from a residential fire in Kern County, California, following the 6.4-magnitude earthquake that struck in early July. The clip shows a firefighter deploying a 2- or 2½-inch line on a fully involved attached garage fire. The crew chose a large-caliber hose, pumping from their existing tank water and engaging in a transitional attack. The result: a near knockdown in a matter of seconds with kudos to the department, the crew and to firefighters everywhere. This is the positive side of our work in the spotlight.

On the flip side, individuals, corporations, and local, state and federal governments are embroiled in controversy almost daily when someone posts a video, tweet or allegation that purportedly shows some sort of dastardly act worthy of our scorn. Many times, we’re only getting one side of the issue and occasionally the “evidence” has been edited to “prove” that something nefarious has occurred.

I believe that an unfortunately high number of fire service members have not even considered how they’d respond to such allegations, let alone how they might prevent them from happening in the first place. Enter Ms. Rice’s recent book and the several steps that are needed to understand, analyze, mitigate and respond to any such newsworthy situations.

Understand fire service political risks

One thing for us in the fire service to consider is that, despite our best efforts, we are NOT everyone’s hero. We need to understand that political risk is real, even for the fire service. The sooner we determine the degree of scrutiny that we can tolerate before needing to make a formal response, the better prepared we may be.

Here’s an example: After a large fire in an apartment complex, my department was confronted with an allegation that the department took 20 minutes to arrive. A simple call to our dispatch center gave our chief officer the real-time answer that our first unit arrived within four minutes of the dispatch center receiving the first call.

A follow-up investigation indicated that the occupant in the apartment of origin fought the fire for several minutes before leaving the apartment and requesting a neighbor to call the fire department, only the neighbor didn’t have a cell phone. So only after the fire had blown out the living room window was a call to 9-1-1 received from a third party.

While this is a relatively simple example, it highlights that perception isn’t always reality and we need to be prepared to respond. What “blind spots” – those unanticipated “gotcha” moments – might exist for your department? Allegations of misconduct on inspections? Sexual harassment? Having an awareness of those issues and a game plan as to how they would be handled, preferably based on written standard operating procedures (SOPs) is essential.

Analyze the fire department’s political risk

The analysis of your political risk starts by answering several questions:

  • How deeply has your department explored your potential for political risk?
  • Have you discussed these potential threats with both superiors and your subordinate officers?
  • How rigorous of potential political risk analysis have you undertaken?
  • Have you played “war games” with your staff, pitting accusers against the “good guys” to see what might work for the best outcome?
  • Can we integrate the potential political risk factors we may face into our day to day awareness of potential crises?

Mitigate your fire department’s political risk

Prior to the “unthinkable” happening, does the department discuss pending decisions and have someone play the role of Devil’s Advocate to help analyze the new policy or decision before it becomes policy, essentially considering the “ripple effect” throughout the department (i.e., the heartburn the decision may cause to the community, your elected officials, or members of the department who may vocally object).

That doesn’t automatically mean that the decision is bad or not the correct one for the community, our elected officials or the department, but it does mean we need to be prepared to defend the decision with facts that show the department has made a tough but correct decision for all parties involved and has the means to back up why it should be done.

This may be as easy as having working groups with all interested parties that hash out the new decision beforehand so that everyone’s voice has been heard and understands how it will affect them as stakeholders.

Respond to political risks facing the fire department

Experience is the best teacher, so learning from our “near misses” is essential. For example, if, after receiving their input, a particular citizen’s group, elected official or individual is usually against any change that he or she hasn’t initiated, then past experience should give the department a preview of what to expect and how to plan for the objections from that previous experience.

If this group or individual lives and dies by statistics, then have the appropriate stats on hand to clearly lay out the rationale for the policy or change.

Cultivate strong working relationship with your local media

No matter how you prepare, someone will probably talk to the media in an attempt to dissuade your policy or change. Expect it! While some members of the media, especially in smaller markets, long for that one story that will rocket them to stardom in one of the 10 biggest media markets, most reporters and especially their news directors are looking for balanced reporting on crucial issues. Having a good working relationship with your local media is important. They may not side with you initially, particularly after hearing a one-sided account from a citizen, but they should be interested in airing your side of the story and giving you a reasonable time to gather the facts for your response.

What to do when political risk strikes

A prime example of political risk to a fire department occurred a few months ago in Michigan. The incident was reported by Dave Statter, in his blog, Statter911.

At a well-involved residential fire, two firefighters paused to take a selfie that created an immediate whirlwind political risk for their department. The incident was serious for three reasons:

  1. The selfie was taken at a working fire that was clearly not under control;
  2. The selfie was then posted to social media for everyone to see, including neighbors, family and friends of the residents; and
  3. The fire resulted in two fatalities, prompting many to question whether the selfie was taken at a point when there were other tasks that needed to be done that could have made a difference in the outcome.

If, despite of your best efforts, that unforeseen political risk comes from out of nowhere, there are several quick steps that can be initiated:

  • Try to stop the bleeding. In other words, don’t just make a preliminary statement acknowledging that a problem has arisen, and that more information will follow.
  • Activate your department’s crisis team and have them assess the problems from all angles.
  • Communicate to the media, social outlets and officials what the relevant issues are, and what matters within your story, thereby reinforcing the values and trust that are the hallmarks of your department.

It’s only a matter of time … be prepared!

Applying sound practices to your potential political risks is another evolving task for the chief, officers and every department member. It’s only a matter of time before you’ll need it.

Stay safe!

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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