The Wise Leader Must Understand Master Planning

For many years, I have been working to create an understanding of master planning in the fire service. To that end, I am devoting this column and the next couple of editions to this critical topic. Far too many leaders fail to understand that their organizations will operate more effectively if they plan for the future. This is not a good organizational posture.

A failure to plan will lead to a state of continual flux and upheaval with any organization. I want this column to rivet into your mind the importance of and need for strategic planning in the fire service. Although some effort has always been made in the planning arena, usually in the area of budgets, a greater emphasis has emerged over the past four decades.

Beginning with the Wingspread Conference in 1966, the concept of planning for future operations began to grow in importance. The report of the conference proceedings stated, "The traditional concept that fire protection is strictly a responsibility of local government must be reexamined." Prior to that point, no one spoke of fire protection in any way other than parochial, localized terms. This was the first look at the fire service as something that lived within a larger world.

In 1969, federal legislation was passed authorizing the creation of a National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control within the Department of Commerce. Its charge was to determine the extent of America's fire problem, then develop recommendations for improving the nation's response to fire and its related issues of death, injury and property damage. The commission's report, America Burning, was issued in 1973. It assessed areas such as:

  1. The fire service
  2. Fire and the built environment
  3. Fire and the wildland environment
  4. Fire prevention
  5. Programs for the future

One of the primary recommendations was the call for a fire service commitment to what was called master planning. The commission defined these master plans as documents that "should set goals and priorities for the fire services, designed to meet the changing needs of the community." It was at this point that the fire service community began to think that perhaps a need existed to organize fire protection also a set series of understandable guidelines.

Ten years after the first Wingspread conference, the Wingspread II conference was sponsored by the Johnson Foundation in Wisconsin. The report from that event broadened the intent of the original 1966 commentary. In this case, a number of new concepts were mentioned. They are:

  1. The state level of government may have to make a renewed commitment in dealing with the fire problem.
  2. The fire service should approach the concept of regionalization without bias.
  3. Fire departments should analyze new demands being placed on them before accepting new responsibilities.

These words of future orientation were echoed and amplified by the Wingspread III Conference in 1986. In this report, government decision-makers were urged to develop and use better criteria in determining the best way to develop a cost-effective approach to local fire protection delivery systems. The report participants also went on to note that the traditional role of fire departments is changing.

Yet another Wingspread conference was held in Dothan, AL, in 1996. It was determined that the pace of change was increasing and that the old goals needed to be examined. The findings of Wingspread IV amplified the findings of the earlier documentation, but added important thoughts. To allow for the proper planning for fire protection delivery systems to occur, it was determined that nationally recognized standards should be adopted that would provide guidance for such critical issues as:

  1. Types of services to be provided
  2. Operations
  3. Deployment
  4. Evaluation criteria
  5. Response times

The goal of this column is to indicate how the application of proper strategic planning principles can better you for the challenges that always lie just ahead. Much more about the topic of strategic planning will be covered in the months ahead.

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