Strategic Planning: The Tool Used by a Wise Leader

To better understand the need for strategic planning in the fire service, let's look at some very basic topics. First, it is critical to develop an understanding of strategic planning. Once we understand what it is, we will know why planning should be accomplished and what the penalties are for not planning.

In their 2003 textbook Strategic Management: Concepts and Cases (published by McGraw-Hill/Irwin), Arthur A. Thompson Jr. and A.J. Strickland III present a straightforward view of just what strategic planning is, as well as the constituent parts of the process. "The tasks of crafting, implementing, and executing…strategies are the heart and soul of managing a business enterprise." They are suggesting that strategy represents a path that has been consciously chosen for an organization's journey into the future.

Just what are the parts of the strategic planning process? Thompson and Strickland (2003) suggest that there are five essential tasks that are critical to developing effective business strategies. They are:

  1. Form a strategic view of where the organization is headed to provide long-term direction
  2. Set objectives
  3. Craft a strategy to achieve the desired outcomes
  4. Implement and execute the chosen strategy efficiently and effectively
  5. Evaluate performance and initiate corrective adjustments in vision, long-term direction, objectives, strategy or execution in light of experience, changing conditions, new ideas and new opportunities

The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) has spent years developing community strategic planning courses. In its 1994 "Strategic Analysis of Community Risk Reduction," the USFA defines strategy as a process that is tied to the goals or mission of an organization. Strategic analysis is the use of the planning process to craft a vision, mission statement, goals and objectives with which an organization can strive to reach the future in an orderly manner, the USFA says.

There are many different ways to look at the concept of strategic planning. In his 2001 textbook Strategic Market Management (John Wiley and Sons Inc.), David A. Aaker speaks to the fact that, "the process of developing and implementing strategies has been described over the years by various terms, including budgeting, long-range planning, strategic planning and strategic market management." Strategic planning's focus is on anticipating growth and managing complexity, Aaker writes.

It is important to look at the many parts of the process that must be used to create an effective strategic plan. My 1996 textbook Strategic Planning and Fire Protection (International Society of Fire Service Instructors) speaks to the fact that, "strategic planning is a concept with deep roots in the corporate world." Further, strategy is portrayed as a means of reaching a goal or set of goals. Before any organization can begin to plan for the future, it must have a solid base in the present. This will require the development of an organizational structure that lends itself to measurement.

Thompson and Strickland lay out a five-step approach:

  1. Develop a strategic vision
  2. Set objectives
  3. Create a strategy that allows the organization to achieve its objectives.
  4. Implement and execute the strategy
  5. Evaluate, monitor and initiate corrections

These seem simple, but are they really? It is never easy to craft a vision. Many believe that the first step is to create a mission statement, but Thompson and Strickland suggest that a strategic vision is more important: "A strategic vision generally has much greater direction-setting and strategy-making value." In our 1998 textbook Management in the Fire Service, third edition (National Fire Protection Association), Irwin Rausch and I state that, "At the highest organizational level, the long-range goals of an organization are often referred to as 'vision.' "

The creation of an organizational strategy through the strategic planning process can be favorably compared to the use of a roadmap for traveling. Who among us would consider embarking on a trip from New Jersey to North Dakota without a roadmap? The vision could be as simple as seeing oneself seated on a rock, enjoying the solitude of a quiet North Dakota trout stream. The goal would be a successful trip west. The objectives could be as simple as driving 450 miles per day until the trip is completed. This would seem to be a plan, taken to its simplest level.

Without vision, there is no destination for an organization's journey.

An important part of planning involves analyzing the external environment in which an organization operates. A similar analysis must be made of the organization's internal environment. Aaker provides an excellent framework for conducting such a strategic analysis. In each case, he says, analysts must look at the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) that an organization faces.

The internal analysis of strengths and weaknesses includes:

  1. Performance analysis of staff, apparatus, facilities and finances
  2. A review of past successes and failures with regard to an internal review of the impact of each of the problems

The external analysis of opportunities and threats includes:

  1. A review of the needs of the community to see which are being met and which are not
  2. A review of the competing forces that are working against the fire department
  3. The creation of a municipal review that shows what a community demands of its fire department
  4. A review of the external problem areas with which a fire department copes, i.e. technology, regulatory, cultural, demographic and information needs

The object of the SWOT analysis is to identify as much information as possible regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the fire department organization in its interface with the community it serves. Aaker provides a list of those areas that should be studied in the outside environment:

  1. Technology to assist in service delivery
  2. Government regulations that may create new operational requirements
  3. Is the economy strong enough to support an organizational expansion?
  4. Is the culture of an area changing?
  5. What are the demographic impacts upon the provision of service?
  6. Are any trends developing that will work against the fire department?
  7. Are there any areas of uncertainty that must be monitored by planners?

Aaker also provides a list of areas that should be studied in the internal environment of an organization:

  1. Financial status
  2. Customer satisfaction
  3. Staff qualifications

There is one big difference between performing a strategic planning assessment of a corporation and that of a public-sector fire department. The fire department is not charged with making a profit. One aspect of its various functions is to prepare for unwanted events. Another aspect involves using preventive efforts to mitigate the possibility of something happening. As Aaker notes, this is quite different from a profit-making concern, where the job is to create and increase wealth for the shareholders.

To achieve strategic planning success in the fire service, it is necessary to understand the benefits that come to those who actively plan for the future success of their organizations. How does one count the number of fires that never happen because of an effective fire prevention program? How can the people who are alive today because of public education efforts ever be known? As Aaker asks in his text, "What is good performance?" This is an important matter that will be discussed in future columns.

DR. HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE, is a Firehouse® contributing editor. A municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ, he is the former president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors. Dr. Carter is a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. Currently chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners for Howell Township District 2, he retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department in 1999 as a battalion commander. He also served as chief of training and commander of the Hazardous Materials Response Team. Dr. Carter is vice president of the American Branch of the Institution of Fire Engineers (MIFireE). He recently published Living My Dream: Dr. Harry Carter's 2006 FIRE Act Road Trip, which was also the subject of a blog. He may be contacted at