How politics and partisanship impact emergency services

Prioritizing fire, EMS, and law enforcement emergency management organizations protects the safety of future generations


By Dr. Randall Hanifen, faculty member, Emergency & Disaster Management at American Military University

Ever since the creation of political parties, we have encountered political battles. Until recent history, government functions were more about give and take.

This give and take – the spirit of compromise – was at its best for organizations that served the people, such as emergency management and emergency services. But now, partisan politics has become a detriment to emergency management and emergency service organizations.

Partisan politics has become a detriment to emergency management and emergency service organizations. (Photo/The White House)
Partisan politics has become a detriment to emergency management and emergency service organizations. (Photo/The White House)

Politics has interfered with citizens’ need for safety

Levies and tax appropriations were always supported by political parties. That is the first function of government – to provide safety for the governed.

When citizens do not feel safe, that violates Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Politicians who cause this feeling of being unsafe are often voted out of office.

Today, thanks to an omnipresent media and the divisions in this country, people will stand behind their party of choice, regardless of the decisions that party makes. The widespread publicity of social media has also influenced this adherence to party decisions.

Current political parties do not have clear vision for emergency services

The Republican Party believes in fiscal conservativism, but supports the use of force by the military. The Democratic Party believes in a more liberal approach to social needs and a larger government compared to the Republican Party’s positions.

Neither party has a clear-cut stance on emergency management and emergency services. Many emergency management organizations are functions of the government. These organizations often need to increase their size, especially since they are a critical element to maintaining public safety.

Some politicians want emergency service agencies to increase their ability to provide public service. However, they also want to simultaneously reduce the size of these organizations, limiting the services they provide to the public.

Political battles are discouraging potential emergency management employees

No one enters the emergency management and emergency services field to make millions. Most employees are attracted to the job to help people, not the pay. Most emergency management personnel would apply for the job even if it paid a little more than minimum wage, because they find the work rewarding. But they also need to earn a living wage and take care of their families.

Emergency management employees need job stability and insurance to provide care and money to themselves and their dependents. While salaries in some government agencies have outpaced pay in other private sectors, that has often occurred only through collective bargaining and arbitration.

Rather than showing accomplishments and leadership, politics today has become a shaming game. Government agencies can quickly become the targets of a politician who uses an organizational issue to shame an emergency management organization for its behavior.

Consequently, potential leaders within an emergency management organization are reluctant to step up, become leaders and do the right thing lest they become the next political target. As a result, they do only what is required in the policy manual.

Organizations traditionally hire smart, outgoing people because no one can police every situation. We need people who think and who are willing to go outside the norm to provide excellent service to their communities.

Whether it’s a politician complaining about a fire truck idling at a grocery store or the current FBI debacle, this kind of public scrutiny reduces great employees to mere robots. They become programmed to follow only organizational policies, rather than focusing on improving their organization or service to the community.

Encouraging the next generation of emergency managers

As increasing numbers of government employees retire, we have trouble finding quality applicants to replace them. It’s a personnel issue that holds true in nearly every government organization. While current unemployment rates are low and many people seek higher-paying jobs, the current generation of emergency managers did not enter this field for the pay and benefits.

Is the next generation looking at emergency management salaries as insufficient for their needs? Or does emergency management have a public perception problem that is deterring people from entering this career field?

Let’s say you tell a 16-year-old high school student that he or she could become a police officer and honorably serve the public. However, if an incident occurred and that same student faced two or three years of public scrutiny and public riots, would that student still sign up for the job? Many students would not.

Government organizations need support and involvement

Without sustainable police forces, fire services and the military, the peace we have come to cherish in America would not last long. We owe it to our children and our families to focus on making emergency management organizations the best they can be, so that future generations will live in a society that protects their safety.

What are you doing to help support our emergency management organizations?

About the Author

Dr. Randall W. Hanifen is a shift captain for the West Chester Fire Department in Ohio and a fire service consultant. He is also a faculty member at American Military University, teaching courses in its Emergency & Disaster Management program. He has a B.S. in Fire Administration, a M.S. in Fire Service Executive Leadership, and a Ph.D. in Executive Management of Homeland Security. He is the associate author of Disaster Planning and Control. Randall serves as the executive chairperson of a County Technical Rescue Team, a taskforce leader for FEMA’s Ohio Task Force 1 US&R team, and is the vice-chair of IAFC Company Officers Section. He serves as a member of NFPA 1021 Fire Officer and NFPA 1026 Incident Management committees He is credentialed as a fire officer by the Center for Public Safety Excellence and has been accepted as a fellow to the Institute of Fire Engineers. Randall has provided presentations and trainings for the Ohio Fire Chief’s Association, Fire Rescue International, Emergency Management Institute, and the IAFC Board of Directors. He can be reached at IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

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