Strategic Planning is a Must for Fire Prevention

Jan. 29, 2008
In the strategic planning process, we learn to think in the future and work backwards in an analytical fashion to address future issues we may face.

As we begin the New Year, we tend to be positive and focus on the future of the year ahead. Some do this in both their personal life and professional life. The best way an organization can address the changing environment is through strategic planning. Similar to our personal lives, we tend to think of the future when forced by outside influences. Most organizations tend to go through a strategic planning process when driven by a governing body, external threats or a new boss.

As fire service professionals it is important we have a plan for the future now and not wait until we have it forced upon us as a means to address a problem facing our fire department. One of the greatest benefits of going through a strategic planning process is to enable us to learn to think strategically. We learn to think in the future and work backwards in an analytical fashion to address future issues we may face. This is an important benefit in the public sector. We become better equipped, trained, and prepared to deal with problems before they occur. For example, fire departments in the past should have been thinking strategically to deliver EMS or hazardous material response services and more recently thinking how to address our terrorism threats. We need the same approach to fire prevention.

There are many benefits to thinking strategically, especially in the management of the fire prevention division. Strategic planning differs from operation planning. Operation planning is the how and strategic planning is the what. Development of a fire prevention strategic plan will resolve issues facing the fire prevention bureau and project a means to address them. Strategic planning creates synergy by pushing everyone. The end result of the process will utilize the department's resources to the fullest while communicating the goals and strategies. Conducting a strategic plan is not easy or a quick fix. The process should not be undertaken if there is not support from top management. Upper management must champion the strategic planning effort and provide a recognized commitment for implementation of the finished product. The strategic plan development will include a cross section of fire prevention staff with representation from each fire prevention discipline. The number of the participants will vary depending on the size of the organization. Whomever participates, they must be permitted to discuss issues open and honestly without criticism from other team members.

The organization must have the capability to collect pertinent strategic planning data for discussion. The data will assist in the identification of future issues. The data does not have to be available during the first strategic planning meeting but there needs to be a mechanism to further explore a potential issue facing the fire prevention division. You may recall the last article Fire Investigations and Their Role in Prevention which discussed the importance of using the data obtained from fire investigations for fire prevention program development. This is only one example of data collection. Does your fire prevention division know all of the inspectable occupancies? What is the most frequent fire violations cited? How many fire deaths have you had and who were the victims? Where are your high dollar loss fires occurring?

Four Steps for the Planning Process
There are a number of strategic planning models, but most of them have common components.

  1. Establish a mission statement and create a vision for the division. In past articles we discussed the importance of having the role of fire prevention in the fire department's mission statement. It is also important for the fire prevention division to have a mission which supports the overall mission of the fire department.

    Does your fire prevention division have a mission statement? What are the core values of the fire prevention division? Are you customer focused or user friendly and accessible to the general public (your customers)? How do you want the fire prevention division to be perceived by the customers you serve?

    Establishing a shared vision commits the organization to a long term commitment of implementation of the strategic plan.

  2. Identify issues both internally and externally that affect the future of the fire prevention division.

    Is there a plan for large residential or commercial growth? Is there a decrease in economic development opportunities in the community? Are there future budget reductions ahead because of a poor economic climate? Is there a potential for fire prevention staffing increases or decreases? Are the demographics of the community changing our target audiences? Have our target hazards changed?

  3. Set goals. These goals not only define the direction the fire prevention division will go but also lead to the creation of the division's vision. The creation of the goals will produce in-depth discussion of the strategic planning team which in turn is an educational tool for the entire team. This discussion often enlightens other team members of issues they have not considered or even know existed.

  4. Continual monitoring of the plan. Once completed this document will need to be revisited a number of times by the fire prevention division and even the entire organizations. When the document is produced it is imperative it is in an easy to read format and very user friendly. Essentially the strategic plan becomes a living document to be reviewed and modified as needed. As the internal and external influences change so may the goals. Do not forget to take credit and document when the goals are accomplished. Show your accomplishments.

If data has been collected properly, the goals set with reasonable expectations, the fire chief will have the needed documentation to seek approval of additional resources to implement the strategic plan and achieve the team's fire prevention goals.

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BRETT LACEY, a Contributing Editor, is the Fire Marshal for the Colorado Springs, CO, Fire Department and a professional engineer. He has over 27 years in the fire service and has served on various technical committees including NFPA 1031, IFSTA committee for Inspection practices, and Fire Detection and Suppression Systems and the Colorado Fire Marshal's Association Code Committee. PAUL VALENTINE, a Contributing Editor, is the Fire Marshal for the Mount Prospect, IL, Fire Department and formerly served as their fire protection engineer. He has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Fire Protection and Safety Engineering Technology from Oklahoma State University and a Master of Science Degree in Management and Organizational Behavior from Benedictine University. and is a graduate from the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. Brett and Paul co-authored Fire Prevention Applications, published by Fire Protection Publications. To read their complete biographies and view their archived articles, click here. You can reach Paul by e-mail at: [email protected].

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