Leaders Must Understand Their Environment

I want you to develop an understanding of the fire service world within which you as a fire service leader will operate. The successful development of a case for strategic planning within that environment requires you to understand the unique organizational aspects of our fire service. Many people work for years in the fire service and never come to understand the nature of their world.

The manner in which fire departments operate has developed as a result of a variety of influences. It is an arena where there has never been a distinct break with the past. This has stymied many efforts at changing the way we do business.

In a discussion of delivery systems, Rebecca Denlinger ("Managing Fire-Rescue Services," Fire Protection Handbook, 20th edition, National Fire Protection Association) speaks to the fact that fire protection can be delivered a number of ways:

  1. Municipal public fire department (paid or volunteer)
  2. Fire bureau (a division within a public safety department)
  3. County fire department
  4. Fire protection district

Funding is a critical element in the provision of any service. Whether it is a private for-profit corporation, a non-profit group or a public sector entity, money is the fuel that runs the operational machine. Without sufficient planning, funding becomes problematic and the service delivery machine will eventually slow and come to a halt. This is particularly critical in an emergency service situation like the fire service.

Experience shows a correlation between diminished funding and increased danger to the customer who expects the service, owing to the lack of a well-thought-out strategic plan for future growth and development. If the service is not delivered in a timely manner, lives are placed at risk. Hence the search for funds to provide the lifesaving services of a fire department consumes a great deal of time. This is the basic rationale for the use of strategic planning. In the absence of a realistic picture of what is expected to transpire, it is not possible to create a proper funding package.

The twin issues of increasing taxes and decreasing taxable entities are being played out against the issue of increasing costs in fire protection service delivery. As an example of this, in 1972, Howell Township Fire Company 1, in Adelphia, NJ, purchased an aerial ladder for $75,000. The replacement cost in 1997 was $750,000. Similar increases have been experienced in salaries. In 1973, a Newark, NJ, firefighter was paid $11,000. That same individual would be paid nearly $80,000 in 2008.

In many suburban communities, volunteer fire departments are struggling to recruit new members. In 1993, the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) funded a study that found:

  1. Time demands increasingly take people away from the volunteer fire service.
  2. Health issues bar people from joining volunteer fire departments.
  3. Training requirements have increased to the point where many people cannot make the time to volunteer.
  4. New residents of a community do not understand the tradition of volunteering.

The import of these issues is significant because of the correlation between the absence of volunteer firefighters and the need to hire paid firefighters to fill in for the non-existent volunteers. This is an issue critical to those individuals concerned with the need for future-related staffing. If there is a growing shortfall of willing volunteers, then the firefighting positions may have to be filled by paid firefighters.

In Managing Fire and Rescue Services (third edition, 2002, International City Managers Association), Dennis Compton and John Granito tell us that "a process to produce a written plan is important. The strategic plan is the (fire) department's roadmap for the future." They added that it is critical for a fire department to conduct "an analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT analysis)."

It is important to note that the fire department is but one among many local government services. The annual battle for fiscal resources pits it against the other agencies. It is within this environment that the need becomes apparent for some way in which fire departments can differentiate themselves from their fiscal competitors. If fire service people have not created fact-based plans to prepare for future budgetary battles, they will be beaten by agencies that have done so.

HARRY R. CARTER, PH.D., a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ, and veteran of 46 years in the fire and emergency service. He is chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners of Howell Township, NJ, Fire District 2 and retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department in 1999 as a battalion commander. Carter also has been a member of the Adelphia Fire Company in Howell Township for 38 years, serving as chief in 1991. Carter is a member of the American Branch of the Institution of Fire Engineers of Great Britain, for which he formerly served as vice president and secretary. He also is president of the New Jersey Association of Fire Districts, a life member of the National Fire Protection Association and former president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors. Carter holds six degrees, with his terminal degree being a Ph.D. in business administration from Capella University in Minneapolis, MN, where he is an adjunct faculty member.