The Wise Leader Plans for the Future

Experience has shown that a correlation exists between diminished organizational funding for emergency services and an increased danger to customers who expect the service, owing to the lack of a well-thought-out strategic plan for growth and development. If the service is not delivered in a timely manner, lives are placed at risk. Hence, the need for a continual search for funds to provide the lifesaving services of the fire department consumes a great deal of management's time. This base-line cost of doing business serves as the basis for the need to use strategic planning methods. In order to request proper funding, it is critical to know what risk is going to require the protective efforts of the public firefighting agency.

How often have you seen or heard of the following: Events, good and bad, are coming quickly, one after the other. No one is prepared and each day is spent operating in a crisis mode. What can you or I do to make a difference? This problem is not one of recent making. In a discussion of the historical evolution of fire service in America, Carter (1989) speaks to the fact that fire protection issues have "evolved as a result of changes demanded by (the) social and political pressures of the 20th century" (Carter, H.R. Managing Fire Service Finances, 1989, published by International Society of Fire Service Instructors). Carter (1989) also speaks to the issue of continuing problems in delivering fire services. The issue of increased taxes is exacerbated by a concurrent decrease in the availability of taxable properties. Problems like this are a part of what strategic planning seeks to address (Carter, 1989).

Unless one is the leader of the organization, there is precious little he or she can do for the organization as a whole. It is up to the leader. The leader must have a vision of the direction in which he or she believes the organization should be headed. Sadly, far too many of these folks cop a plea. I am only a fire chief, they say, so how can I stand up to the challenges with which life continually surprises me? Others might tell you that they are not miracle workers. "I am only human," these folks are often heard to mumble. "How can I control fate?"

What a load of whining. I offer the following advice: Learn to plan, or plan to leave. Things are going to happen; you cannot control that. However, you can anticipate the future based on the past and begin to prepare for it. The problem with far too many fire service leaders is that their concept of planning embraces such meaningful choices as where to have breakfast, lunch or dinner on a given day. For people such as these, long-range planning involves a discussion of where to have lunch next week. Life is not simple. Life is not predictable. However, life does involve a series of recurring events that can be anticipated with a certain degree of certainty.

Many times, we in the fire service act as though we are the victims of a whimsical malevolent benefactor who creates failure for us at every turn in the road. How else can we explain how poorly most fire departments react to the changing world around them? The explanation is quite simple: Ignoring the future comes with a price.

You can plan for the future. I have been in this business long enough to know how little we have done with regard to planning. That does not mean that changing our collective minds is out of order. On any given day, each of us can choose to change the way we operate.

I recall the introduction of master planning to the fire service in the era just after the publication of America Burning: The Report of the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control in 1973. This report was required reading for courses at Jersey City State College at that time. My buddies and I were required to assess the potential impact of that report on the fire service. Let me offer an example of how long it takes to make a change in our fire service. "The Commission recommends a program of federal assistance to local fire departments…" Gee, that only took 27 years to bring to fruition. Sadly, the second part of that requirement remains ignored. That second part read, "To qualify for this assistance, a fire jurisdiction should be required to present a master plan for fire protection."

The application of planning principles to our fire service operations has been uneven. There are forward-looking leaders who welcome the future and anticipate the joys of changing to meet the needs of the future. Unfortunately, though, far too many people among us lack any established operational plan for the future. Let me suggest to you that we will continue to be dismissed by the bean-counters, politicians and administrators until we are able to tighten up our departmental operations.

Maybe you are scared of planning because you think it is complex and confusing. I make it my mission to dispel that thought, beginning with this column. As my guide, I will refer back to the documents produced by the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration, the forerunner of our U.S. Fire Administration.

I have both the Urban Guide for Fire Prevention & Control Master Planning and A Basic Guide for Fire Prevention & Control Master Planning on the shelves of my office. These were good books in the late 1970s and have served me well during my decades as an educator and consultant. Their value continues to this very day.

It is important to look at the planning process as a bridge from the present time to some future period. The first part of the process is to thoroughly assess where your organization is today. You should first look to identify the demands which your community makes for emergency services. What are the hazards in your community? What are the demographics of your existing community structure? You need to think about people, places and things.

You need to identify your community's fire situation. You need to assess the need for other services such as EMS, technical rescue, fire prevention and public education. You need to assess the community-based factors that will work to increase or decrease the need for your services in your community. Once you understand the demands that your community makes on your fire department, you need to discover how much fire department you have. Again, I am asking you to think in terms of the people, places and things that constitute your fire department. How many people do you have? How many stations? How many pieces of apparatus? What is the training level of your people and what is the maintenance condition of your fleet?

You need to assess the ability of your department to meet the identified needs of your community. One step that far too many fire departments leave out of their planning process involves interacting with the community itself. People skip this step because they feel the public does not understand what we do. If they do not understand us, it is only because we have failed to educate them as to what we do. Many times, I have preached a simple basic mantra: If we are to succeed in the delivery of our service, we need to arm ourselves with three things: facts, figures and friends.

The facts are gathered by you and your planning team. The facts lay the foundation for your plan. They tell the actual story so that those whom you are trying to convince can see why your plan makes sense. The figures are the actual, identifiable proof for the merits of the plan you wish to create. The figures are the cement that bonds the many blocks of your plan together into a seamless success story. The friends are those people whom you have cultivated in the community. These are the people who are convinced of the rightness of your plan and help you sell it to the powers that be.

"Central to the philosophy of fire protection master planning is the concept of accepted risk. Because most of us chose to live in environmental and social situations which are pleasant to us and also are permissive of fire, there is no possibility of eliminating all risk to life and property" (Urban Guide). This must be the reasonable basis for any plan which you create. There is no such thing as a risk-free environment.

Once you decide that risk is a natural part of life, set up a plan that lets you minimize your risk. To reach this point, you must identify your community in terms of geography, demography, fire department response capabilities and desired services. Does your fire department provide EMS or is that provided by a separate organization? Do you have a need for specialized or technical rescue? Are there special problems such as hazardous materials risks, highway areas, or major aircraft traffic overhead? You must determine exactly how your community is laid out. Are there natural boundaries such as rivers or mountains? Is your community bisected by a rail corridor that can limit movement at certain times of the day? Are there any high-risk populations? If you have large, open tracts of farmland with for-sale signs staked out front, stand by for problems.

Flexibility is a primary key to success in planning. As you gather the information on your community and your fire department, let the data you gather guide the process. Periodic brainstorming sessions will help to keep your planning team involved and interested in the process. Build bridges to other agencies in your area. Nothing we do in this world occurs in a vacuum. There are many other groups that can help you discover the true nature of your community. There are other groups that will support the effort of your department to protect the citizens in your response district. You do not have all of the answers. You should work to create a team-like operation that will draw a variety of stakeholders into your effort.

When reviewing data, be on the lookout for emerging trends. If the number of building permits issued begins to rise, that tells you that growth is coming. But if you don't have friends over in the building department, you might never know that you are on the verge of a rise in the demand for your services. Trust me on this one. I live in an area that has seen its population grow from 1,200 in 1965 to the current 50,000. I am a firefighter in a department that has seen a 300% increase in annual responses. My fire district is looking at the potential for another 1,000 homes and businesses over the next decade. A study of our district suggested the need for new facilities in two areas of our 20-square-mile response district. We will begin building a substation this year. There is the possibility of another station being built in three to five years.

That is what planning is all about. You are looking at what will be needed to succeed in the future. None of us can really foresee what the future will bring. However, it is better to plan for the possibilities you envision than to be blown about like a leaf in the wind.

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