The casualties of war: Our citizens suffer most amid our political battles

How chiefs can stem the tide of negative interactions with elected officials who may not understand the fire service model

The story of the 18 Maine firefighters who turned in their pagers and gear following the town manager reversing their chief’s decision on a personnel issue has generated hundreds of comments on FireRescue1’s Facebook page. Many lauded the firefighters, saying, “Loyalty is what makes and builds fire departments,” while others underscored their support of the chief, asking, “What is the point of having a chief if they are going to overrule their decision?” Has your department faced similar run-ins with elected officials? Join the conversation on Facebook or in the comments below.

Eighteen firefighters walk out after a town manager reverses a chief’s decision on personnel, a city manager called EMS personnel “bus drivers,” and we continue to read articles on the shortage of volunteer firefighters threatening fire departments’ very existence.

What has happened to us? It’s certainly not new, but our need to fight for survival, coupled with the seemingly endless attacks by political and/or elected officials, is becoming numbing.

Maybe it’s the perception of the enslavement of the volunteer fire service, the expectation that it has, is and should always be “free.” Maybe it’s our own inability to focus on our mission of service, which has become clouded by political gamesmanship. Maybe it’s the manifestation of negotiated union contracts paring down available money to dangerously thin layers.

Fire chiefs should visit with their elected officials and build positive relationships.
Fire chiefs should visit with their elected officials and build positive relationships.

Who knows.

What I do know is that we’ve lost our way as a fire service in many of America’s corners.

Whether it’s the politics of elections or appointments, the politics of protected classes or the politics of municipal power, the PEOPLE in our communities are the ones who suffer amid our battles. When elected officials think we are merely bus drivers (regardless of his apology, his words were his thoughts), when we walk out, when rewards are suspensions, when we “fail” to respond, our communities lose – they lose property and, yes, people die.

We have lost focus.

We swear an oath to “preserve and protect,” to “serve.” Somewhere along the way, we lost our edge and our ability to fulfill our oath. When we lose focus and our communities suffer as a result, it erodes the public’s trust in our ability to help them, one errant story at a time.

There is no perfect solution to attack this kind of perfect storm. There are several things, however, that chiefs can do now to stem the tide:

  • One by one, visit with your elected officials and build positive relationships before the stuff hits the fan.
  • Don’t fight your political battles in the media or in the public eye. Rarely does anyone win in the public displays of discourse. While you may win a short-term battle, the war likely rages on.
  • Build consensus for 21st-century solutions to station locations, staffing, recruitment and retention. Neither paid nor volunteer firefighters are the devil; you CAN work together for the common good of your communities.

If we want to make REAL change and make differences in our communities, we MUST once and for all make the Ben Franklin model of fire protection merely a memory.

Consolidation of local departments, counties, municipalities and other providers, along with fire-based EMS, are winning strategies to maximize resources and fight the budget-busting myths and realities facing many of our communities.

Paid strategies MUST be on the table and used to at least plug the leaks in our generally anemic response capacities. Big cities with big budgets are not immune to the problems, but they’re also not in the same boat as 80% of the rest of us.

Local budgets are hurting, and local politicians are looking for excuses and scapegoats. As long as they think it’s free and that Ben Franklin is still our "father," they’ll continue to depend on the kite, string and key for their electricity.

If there was ever a time to do the right thing, this is it. Drastic times will require dynamic leadership in the face of dramatic headlines. 

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