Strategic planning is an important part of creating a successful future for any organization. An early warning was laid for all to read in the first century B.C., when Publilius Syrus stated in Maxim 469 that, “A bad plan admits to modification” (Bartlett, page 99). Far too many leaders within the fire service are unaware of the importance of and the need for strategic planning. Classically, a minimum amount of effort was made in the planning arena. Usually, what planning occurred came when the budget was being developed. However, it was rare in decades past for a fire service leader to be concerned with the future. It was tough enough living from year to year; who had time to worry about the future?
A greater emphasis has emerged over the past four decades. Beginning with the first Wingspread Conference in 1966, the concept of planning for future operations began to grow in importance. The report of the conference proceedings specifically stated, “The traditional concept that fire protection is strictly a responsibility of local government must be reexamined” (1966 Wingspread, page 15). Until 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.
A 1969 federal law authorized 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 and assessed:
- The fire services
- Fire and the built environment
- Fire and the rural wildland environment
- Fire prevention
- Programs for the future
One recommendation was the call for a fire service commitment to “Master Planning,” defined as documents that “should set goals and priorities for the fire services, designed to meet the changing needs of the community” (America Burning, 1973, page 29). 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, another Wingspread 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:
2. The fire service should approach the concept of regionalization without bias.
3. Fire departments should thoroughly analyze new demands being placed upon them before accepting new responsibilities (Wingspread II, 1976, pages 11-17).
These words were echoed and amplified by the Wingspread III Conference in 1986. In that 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 (Wingspread III, 1986, page 1).
Yet another conference was held in Dothan, AL, in 1996. The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) hosted that long-range, high-level planning meeting. It was determined by the attendees that the pace of change in the fire service was increasing and that the old goals needed to be re-examined.
The findings amplified the findings of the earlier documentation. However, important new thoughts emerged from the session. 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:
- Types of services to be provided
- Evaluation criteria
- Response times (Wingspread IV, 1996, page 2)
So it has been for the better part of the past four decades. The fire service has traveled a road from its original reactive operational posture toward the future goal of becoming a proactive force, continually preparing for the future. The journey is not complete. My goal is to indicate just how the application of proper strategic-planning principles can serve to better prepare a community for the challenges that always lie just ahead on the road to the future.
To better understand the need for strategic planning in the fire service, we must look at a number of very basic topics. First, it is critical to develop an understanding of just what strategic planning is. Once an understanding of the topic is created, we will know why it should be done. More important, when it is known why planning should be accomplished and what the penalties are for not planning, the reasons for such efforts will become crystal clear.
Thompson and Strickland (2003) 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” (Thompson and Strickland, 2003, page 3). They suggest that strategy represents a path that has been consciously chosen for an organization’s journey into the future.
Thompson and Strickland suggest that five tasks are critical to developing effective business strategies:
2. Setting objectives.
3. Crafting a strategy to achieve the desired outcomes.
4. Implementing and executing the chosen strategy efficiently and effectively.
5. Evaluating performance and initiating corrective adjustments in vision, long-term direction, objectives, strategy or execution in light of experience, changing conditions, new ideas and new opportunities (Thompson and Strickland, 2003, page 6).
The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) has spent more than 20 years developing a series of community strategic-planning courses. The USFA defines strategy as a process that is tied to the goals or mission of an organization (USFA-SACRR, 1994, pages 2-3). Experience has taught that the focus of strategy is planning. Strategic analysis is the use of the planning process to craft a vision, mission statement, goals and objectives.
There are many different ways to look at the concept of strategic planning. Aaker (2001, page 8) 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.” Key among these for purposes of this study is the concept known as strategic planning. Its focus is on anticipating growth and managing complexity (Aaker, 2001, page 9).
It is important to look at the many parts of the process that must be used to create a truly effect strategic plan. Carter (1996, page 2) 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 (Carter, 1996, page 4). Before any organization can begin to plan for the future, it must have a solid base in the present. This requires the development of an organizational structure that lends itself to measurement.
Thompson and Strickland (2003) lay out a five-step approach to structuring an organization:
These seem simple, but are they really? It is never easy to craft a vision. Far too many people are trapped in the here and now. Many authors suggest that the first step is to create a mission statement, but Thompson and Strickland (2003, page 7) suggest that a strategic vision is more important: “A strategic vision generally has much greater direction-setting and strategy-making value.” On the other hand, a mission statement is portrayed as addressing what a company is doing today (Thompson and Strickland, 2003, page 7). Carter and Rausch (1998, page 105) lay out a view of this subject that is pertinent and timely. They 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 road map for traveling. Who among us would consider embarking on a trip to North Dakota without a road map? 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 to the West. The objectives could be as simple as driving 450 miles per day until the trip is completed.
The key is the vision. Without a vision, there is no destination for an organization’s journey. An important part of the planning process involves conducting an analysis of the external environment wherein an organization operates. A similar analysis must be made of the organization’s internal environment. Aaker (2001) suggests that analysts must look at the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) an organization faces. The external analysis includes:
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 cope, i.e. technology, regulatory, cultural, demographic, and information needs.
The internal analysis includes:
2. A review of past successes and failures with regard to an internal review of the impact of each of the problem i.e. technology, regulatory, cultural, demographic and information needs.
The object of the SWOT analysis is to identify as much information as possible regard the strengths and weaknesses of the organization, as it interfaces with the community it serves. Aaker (2001, page 97) lists areas that should be studied in the outside environment:
To achieve strategic-planning success in the public-sector fire service, it is necessary to understand the benefits that come to those who actively plan for future success. 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? How much more effective is your department with new equipment and better training? We can guess and we can suppose, but something must be done to lay down concrete standards for ascertaining success. Until that time, strategic planning will not approach it true level of importance.
Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., MIFireE, is a Firehouse® contributing editor. A municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ, he is a former president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI). Dr. Carter is an associate professor at Mercer County Community College and a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. A fire commissioner 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 a Member of the Institution of Fire Engineers of Great Britain (MIFireE). You can contact him through his website at Dr.Carter@HarryCarter.com.