What Happens Now? Fire Service Leadership Following the Election

Our nation’s recent presidential election is causing a lot of divisiveness. Some are angry and afraid, some are gloating. There have been protests, injuries, destruction of property, name-calling and bullying.

But wait! Before you say, “There goes Sam on his soap box. I’m not reading any further,” please just give me a minute or two more of your time. There are two big reasons I think we as leaders in the fire service need to care about the current political environment.

Number one: We work with and supervise people in a rather unique environment. We often say firefighters don’t just work together, they live together. Politics has the ability to pit even friends and loved ones against one another. And unlike Thanksgiving dinner with your obnoxious uncle, in the firehouse it’s not just about getting through one conversation.

There’s a fine line between being angry or gloating and being abusive. As leaders we must set an example and communicate a standard to ensure that abusive behavior doesn’t enter the firehouse as a result of this election. Abuse not only leads to alienation and feeling devalued, unimportant, ridiculed and misused. It can also expose your department to risk associated with harassment claims.

How do you reset the tone? Personally, I find inspiration in the example set by Jesus. Two Biblical passages come to mind:
• “Christ never verbally abused those who verbally abused him. When he suffered, he didn’t make any threats but left everything to the one who judges fairly” (1 Peter 2:23).
• “Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate with insults when people insult you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God has called you to do, and he will grant you his blessing” (1 Peter 3:9).

There are countless other examples of people who stood tall in the face of abuse or spoke out to assist those being abused. Whoever your inspiration, the message is clear: Drop the anger, drop the fear, drop the gloating. Be bigger, ground yourself and stop the abuse.

In addition to the personal example you set, this is a good time to bring members together and review the department’s standards for firefighter behavior. Policies such as your Conduct and Behavior Policy, Discriminatory Harassment Policy, Anti-Retaliation Policy and others detail the types of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. The following is from Lexipol’s Conduct and Behavior Policy, and I think it provides a great reminder: “All members should conduct themselves in a manner that will not impair the good order and discipline of the department. Members should not, while on-duty, indulge in hazing or bullying; offensive, obscene or uncivil language; verbal or physical altercations or threats thereof; or conduct which might cause injury to another person.”

The second reason I think fire service leadership can and should care about the current political environment is that it’s an opportunity to remind our members of the importance of their political involvement. I’m not talking about who they voted for in the presidential election, but the countless local political decisions that have much more of an effect on our daily lives—and on the lives of those we serve. Consider this statement from John Oceguera, who served as both an assistant chief with the North Las Vegas Fire Department and also as a member of the Nevada State Assembly: “There’s a deep, strong, permanent connection between politics and public safety, and it’s unavoidable. One way or another, elected officials control much of what we do, from funding and approving our salaries to deciding when we can retire and how much of our salary we’ll make as a pension.”

Now that should get a few firefighters interested! Check out Chief Oceguera’s 2009 article on how and why we should all be politicians.

When the country is divided so sharply, you’ll likely face political divisions in your fire department as well. Resist the contagion of abuse and divisiveness, and help your firefighters use this moment for positive change. Starting today. Starting now.

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