The Answer is Blowin' in the Wind

Back in the heady years of my youth, there was a popular song which told us that, "...the answer my friends is blowin' in the wind." Bob Dylan's music tribute to the anti-war movement might well have been created to show us that no matter how we thought our lives would turn out, forces beyond our control could alter the way things would turn out.

It seems like Dylan portrayed life as a series of imponderable questions to which we would only have the answer when things actually happened. I can recall the uncertainty of that time in our history and the fact that something as simple as a draft notice could provide a life-ending change in someone's carefully constructed life. Hell, I spent nearly three years away from home in Alaska, the Philippine Islands, and Vietnam. I did not see that coming when I graduated from high school with the Class of 1965.

Many years have passed and untold gallons of water have flowed over the dam of my life since the mid 1960's. It has been my good fortune to have lived a satisfying life; one built upon a faith in God, one filled with a great family and a very satisfying career. However, I believe it has been a great life owing to the fact that I periodically made plans and set goals for myself.

It is my belief that far too many fire departments have no concept of what planning is and why they should do it. Each year follows the one just ahead of it in a seemingly endless array of sameness. Chiefs wonder why they keep facing budget cuts and service reduction scenarios. There is a reason my friends.

My research and experience have shown a correlation between diminished organizational funding for emergency services and an 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.

This problem is not once of recent making. In a discussion of the historical evolution of fire service in America back in 1989 I spoke 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". I also spoke 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.

Unless you are in charge, there is precious little you can do for your organization as a whole. It is up to the leader. The leader must have a vision of the direction in which they believe the organization should be headed. The leader must chart the course and plan for the future. Sadly, far too many of these folks will seek to cop a plea.

I am only a fire chief, they will say, so how can I stand up to the challenges with which life continually surprises me? They will happen regardless of what I do. Another might tell you that they are not a miracle-worker. I am only human these folks are often heard to mumble. Oh, woe is me they will moan. How can I control the fickle finger of fate? What a bunch of losers.

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 really quite simple. Ignoring the future comes with a price.

You can plan for the future, if you choose. I have been at this business long enough to know how little we have done with regard to planning through the years. 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; the way we approach life.

The application of planning principles to our fire service operations has been uneven. There are places with excellent strategic plans in place. There are those forward-looking leaders who welcome the future and anticipate the joys of changing to meet the needs of the future.

Unfortunately 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.

It is important to look at the planning process as a bridge from the present time to some future period of time. The first part of the planning 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, public education. You need to assess the community-based factors which will work to increase or decrease the need for your services in your community. Think of this as the act of establishing the beginning point for your journey to the future.

Once you understand the demands that your community makes on your fire department you need to discover exactly 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 agency. How many people do you have? How many stations currently exist? How many pieces of apparatus exist in your fleet? 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 of the steps which far too many fire departments leave out of their planning process involves interacting with the community itself. These are the folks who will end up footing the bill for the plan you seek to create.

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 over the years 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
  • Friends

The figures are the actual, identifiable proof for the merits of the plan you wish to create. The figures are the cement which bonds the many blocks of your plan together into a seamless success story. Again, do not fudge the figures. Let your data serve as the series of luminaries which will light the way ahead which will be your journey to the future.

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. Do not use falsehoods to win people over to your side. Be a friend to people, be honest with them, and help them when you can. Friendship is a two-way street. If you do not hold up your end of the bargain, people will see you as a phony and move away from you in droves.

To reach this point you must be able to identify your community in terms of geography, demography, fire department response capabilities, and desired services. 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 the natural boundaries such as rivers, hills, or mountains? Is your community bisected by a rail corridor that can limit movement at certain times of the day?

What about the people in your community. Are there any high-risk populations? Do you have a younger population or is your population made up of a mature community? Is your community built-out, that is to say, has all available land be used?

If you have the potential to grow and change, you will be facing a different problem than if your community is stable and established. If you have large, open tracts of farm land with for-sale signs staked out front, stand by for problems.

I can recall a community that grew from a rural township to an active suburban community within the space of a few short years. The only thing that kept the fire department in that community ahead of the growth curve was their strong commitment to planning and anticipating the growth which they expected to see in their town.

A new station was built in an area which was starting to develop. They saw the need and acted in a timely fashion. By the time the new homes arrived, the station was in place and operating. Staff was hired and trained in a timely fashion. The budget grew incrementally as the need for new services arose.

There was another town that decided they needed to build a new fire station to cover the anticipated growth in the north end of their community. Their planning consultant advised them of this fact and even outlined an area that would allow for easy access in all directions. However, they decided to take the go slow approach. They did not want to rush into the future.

Sadly, the people who bought new homes in the vicinity of the proposed station did not want a fire house in their neighborhood. The fire department was met with a level of resistance that had never been envisioned. The station which should have been built by 1991 has yet to be built. A great deal of money went into architectural plans, engineering drawing, and land preparation that never became anything.

The difference between these two communities could not be more obvious. The one group was ready to embrace the future, while the other could not bring itself to change their method of doing business. Your attitude can determine whether you will succeed or not. If you begin the planning process with an open mind and eye to learn what is happening in your community you will probably do well.

However, should you choose to begin planning for the future with your mind made up as to what you think you will need, be prepared for failure. Flexibility is one of the primary keys to success in planning. As you gather the information on your community and your fire department, keep an open mind. Let the data you gather guide the process. Periodic brainstorming sessions will help to keep you 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 who can help you discover the true nature of your community. There are other groups who 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.

That is what planning is all about my friends. Remember that 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.

The answer to your fire protection and EMS problems will in all probability not be found, "...blowin' in the wind." The will be found at the bottom of the balance sheet you develop that outlines your plan to reach 2016 in an orderly manner.

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