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...


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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."

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