When we think of fire departments, what is the first thing that comes to our minds? Yes, fire departments have bright red firetrucks and lazy firemen who drink all day. However, that’s not what the picture is about. Institutions like fire departments are mini-governments with their own set of logic, values, and embedded goals. They play a same style of politics that rivals the politics of sports, as discussed in our in-class lecture.
Politics in the world of fire service have affected me personally. I’ve had the honor and privilege of serving as a volunteer firefighter in my local town of Fair Lawn, New Jersey and have experienced firsthand the influence of politics in a firehouse. No firefighter wants to acknowledge politics in the line of service and many times it is largely ignored/pushed aside. Regardless, it still exists. On our very first lecture about sports and politics, we outlined this relationship with key points. We discussed the hierarchy of scale, structure, and governance of sports. We talked about the competition between factions and the tensions between these groups and the influence of money, role models, figure heads, media, and participants. Remarkably, these are the same political principles that govern the firehouse. The predominant goal of any fire department is to put out fires. We all know that. However, as time changes, the goals of fire departments change. In addition to putting out fires, departments now have to have knowledge in building construction, fire development, pump theory and fire attack during a structure fire. Firefighters must know how cars are built and how to deconstruct them. Firefighters must know the limits of their own human bodies while trying to rescue others and perform necessary medical actions. However, fire departments have two hidden goals that the public is largely unaware of: the civil and business sides. These aspects of the fire service are where politics seem to exert a strong influence. In my department, the civil aspect of our firehouse deals with a variety of issues. Mainly, it covers areas that don’t pertain to firefighting. They include: event planning, rental of the firehouse, recent departmental news, recent developments in firefighting equipment, discussion of recent calls, and any suggestions/complaints that any of the members have. However in order to address such a broad range of issues, a civil committee consisting of three elected members run civil meetings once every month. In my firehouse, the civil committee consists of the Secretary, Vice President, and President. The hierarchy of scale is demonstrated here as each officer has a set limit of powers and veto power. It is largely an open table discussion where members of the audience have the ability to sway decisions. In my department, the business aspect is largely influenced by politics. As the bigger branch over the civil aspect, the business aspect deals with the day-to-day expenses of running the firehouse including the maintenance of the engines and equipment. Bar bills, fundraiser expenses, cooking expenses, alcohol expenses all are apart of this. Again, a committee runs this side of the firehouse, except there are many sub-committees within. Each committee, all varying from House and Grounds to Alcohol, have varying interests. Similar to politics and sports, these committees constantly clash with each other and use strategies to try to persuade the firehouse that their values are worth the investment and effort. To me, I see each committee as its own political platform. Each committee has its figure heads and speakers. Every week when business committees meet, there are debates and each debate is run by the panel of four elected members: President, Vice-President, Treasurer, and Secretary. See this link September 2014 Minutes for a current business/civil meeting that was held in my firehouse. Note the various business sub-committees and their reports. Within my firehouse, they are two main political parties. One focuses on the upkeep of the apparatus and equipment that we already own while the other party focuses on spending money on better technology and training. The division of these groups are noticeable in the business sub-committees. Outside of these two very political aspects of the firehouse, politics influence other aspects of being a firefighter. The Chief of each firehouse as well as the Captain, Engineer, 1st Lieutenant, and 2nd Lieutenant all have powers similar to the coaches, coordinators, and trainers on a sports team. The team functions around these key role models the same way as firefighters take orders from the commanding officers. Without them, we would fall apart and the sense of order would be broken. “The team, the team, the team!” This structure is very heavily emphasized. It is meant to keep members from rebelling and to make sure absolute control is in the hands of the officers. This is necessary when firefighters need to act quick to save lives. The officers give the orders and without question, firefighters inside a burning house do what is told. In a sense, it is much like an army. Step out of line and you are punished. Conformity is an absolute must in the firehouse. Just do, don’t think. Politics invariably exists in the fire service. In some departments, politics are what drive firehouses into the ground. Others, politics help keep order and voice opinion. In my department, the political nature of the fire service greatly resembles that of sports. So next time when you think of the fire department, remember, it’s not all about shiny red firetrucks. We’re our own government and we deserve the credit for our system of order.