Creating a Vision for Your Fire Department

By Thomas N. Warren

What's the vision for your fire department? More importantly, who develops the vision for your department? Is there a five- or 10-year plan, something more tangible than simply a mission statement? How do you ensure that every member of your department knows what the vision is and how it can be met? Traditionally, the vision for any organization is set by those whose responsibility it is to lead the organization.

Private-sector CEOs often change when there is a conflict with the board of directors, the company's image (brand) is tarnished in some way, or profits do not meet expectations. There are some very clear-cut parameters around how a vision can become reality and how to measure when a vision is met in the private sector.

In the public sector, especially in the fire service, measuring performance is sometimes difficult and elusive even with the extensive Nation Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards, ISO guidelines, and various credentialing agencies programs available. The volume of our work is not predictable and the nature of our work can be extremely variable.

At one point in the city where I served, the finance department decided to measure performance of every city department and tie the performance to each department's budget. At the same time, the finance department decided that the city would switch from a zero-based budgeting system to a performance-based budgeting system. They felt that if the activities of each city department could be measured, improvements could be made. It was also thought that this approach would provide justification for the size of each department's budget.

The finance department set out to improve our response times as a way to improve our services. The fire department had 14 fire stations located throughout the city that have seen no changes since the early 1950s. The response times for each fire company had remained consistent during the previous two decades and there was no indication that the city would build any additional stations to improve our service. Our response times were better than those recommended in NFPA Standard 1710, Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments. This left little room for improving our response times.

Without improvement in our response times, our budget funding was at risk. The finance department was simply taking a one-dimensional approach to budgeting, leaving the other crucial components of our service to the community unacknowledged. We began a series of meetings with the city administration (including the finance department), presenting what the chief officers saw as the vision of the department beyond the strategic plan developed earlier that year. We painted a picture of the fire department's culture, strengths, history, service delivery, personnel, training levels, accomplishments, and future plans against a backdrop of comparable statistics. In short, we developed a 90- minute presentation illustrating who we are, what we do, and where we plan to be in the future. Our approach was very successful; the fire department budget remained stable and through this process we found that we were educating the leaders of our city government about their fire department. We found that there were many things that we took for granted as common knowledge within city government but that officials simply did not know. Despite our initial frustration with the finance department, we were able to promote the department and demonstrate our vision for the future.

Often there can be some confusion about a strategic plan and a vision for an organization. There are some similarities, but there are key differences: visionaries dream the possibilities for the future of an organization, whereas strategic planners develop a road map to guide an organization to achieve these dreams. There has to be a vision for improving an organization before a plan can be developed to achieve the dream.

The fire service has seen many visionaries since Benjamin Franklin organized the Union Fire Company. In recent times people, like Alan Brunacini, Tom Brennan, and Vincent Dunn have inspired many fire officers to build and improve their departments. It is important to realize that visionaries are not limited to the national stage; they exist today in every department. In my career, I was fortunate to befriend a young firefighter at the beginning of my career, Curt Varone, who became a battalion chief at a young age. Together we rose through the ranks and shared many spirited conversations about our department and the visions we had to move it forward. He had the vision to understand the need for our department to develop an incident command system, standard operating procedures, and a safety and survival program. He is the author of two books and also a practicing attorney. He retired too soon but still contributes to the fire service on a national level to this day. There are people in every department who have the rare talent to see what needs to be done to improve their departments and find a way to accomplish things that most people simply miss. Curt Varone did it. These people are the visionaries.

A vision for a fire department is a shared responsibility particularly among the chief officers and fire officers. A firefighter's vision often deals with personal accomplishments and their company's reputation as they strive to blend into their department's culture. As they grow into seasoned members of the department, they begin to see themselves as complementing the larger vision of the department. Fire officers and chiefs must mentor and nurture the aspirations of the firefighters as they begin to see themselves in the context of the department as a whole. These officers and chiefs will begin to seek paths of their own that will ultimately complement the department's mission and vision. Some examples of attainable visions may be implementing an annual physical program, attaining an ISO class improvement, constructing of a training facility, integrating professional development into the promotional process, or any achieving any improvement in operations. As members of the department mature, they will develop dreams of what they want the department to look like in the future. Years of experience will allow for firefighters and officers to see the shortcomings of the department, and that will plant the seeds of visions to correct them. Visionaries are not complacent people but independent thinkers with a passion for their work.

DEVELOPING AND COMMUNICATING THE VISION

Everyone wants to be a member of a well-trained, progressive, and respected fire department. These qualities are found in great departments and they don't just happen, they are developed over time. The foundation began with someone's vision and passion for their organization. Who develops the vision for the fire department? How are visions developed, and how are they communicated to everyone in the department? How is it transformed into daily operations? What benefits does the vision provide to the fire department? These are all critical questions that have a direct impact on the department's performance today and its ability to have a prominent place in the future.

Visions for a department can come from any person in the organization, although it is most frequently from the leadership level. The chief of department is usually the person who has experienced the strengths and shortcomings of the department firsthand and passionately feels the need to develop solutions to correct the shortcomings. A progressive chief will examine the department and compare it against existing standards, current trends, equipment development, professional development, and operational safety to develop the ideas and vision required of a successful organization. Usually these visions evolve over time and develop from deep contemplation, education, and networking. True leadership requires a chief to prepare their department for the future while solving issues that affect today's operations.

Realization of a department's shortcomings and how to correct them requires inner strength and vision, but this vision is not limited to one person alone. Chief officers and fire officers can provide a wealth of knowledge to assist the chief move the department into the future. Making use of this talent through committees and focus groups will help provide solutions and bring out new and different visions from the future leaders of the department. Involving these officers directly will promote a true and beneficial team approach to problem-solving and vision-development. This collaboration will improve the department immediately through a sense of shared responsibility. Labor unions should not be overlooked, but in most cases their visions for a department are limited to personnel and protecting the status quo. Genuine vision always moves well beyond the status quo.

Once departmental visions are conceptualized, they need to be communicated to everyone in the department, or, at a minimum, to the fire officers. This is not always an easy task. Visions of the chief can often meet resistance from the firefighters as a whole. Change in the fire service is not something easily accomplished. This is where the value of committees and focus groups come into play. As the vision becomes a plan, it is further developed by fire officers, who will inevitably discuss the plan with the firefighters in the fire stations. The fire officers will be able to hone in on how to develop and implement the vision after these in-station discussions. This is a critical step in the implementation of a new idea or vision. The chief is unlikely to be able to do it alone, no matter how thoughtful or insightful his vision may be.

Transforming visions into daily operations is not something that can happen overnight. In addition to acquiring hardware or implementing programs, time is required to transform the vision into an accepted part of the department. Training may be required for additional equipment or procedures, facilities may need modifications to accommodate apparatus, or administrative procedures modified to account for new programs. The variables involved must be studied and planned for to realize a successful outcome.

FROM VISION TO REALITY

In the metropolitan area where my department is located, we were the last department to use 3-inch supply lines; all the other department were using 4- or 5-inch supply lines. This made for awkward mutual operations and did not serve my department well, in any event. We were awarded a grant to switch over to 5-inch feeder lines, which excited those of us who had the vision to streamline our mutual aid-operations and move our department in line with current fireground water supply systems.

As you might expect, there were many critics of this new idea because we seldom had water supply issues when operating in our city, so the need for large-diameter hose was not apparent to everyone. We went about preparing the bid specifications while announcing to the department that we would be switching from the 3-inch lines to the 5-inch lines. This was accomplished internally through official department announcements as well as with a media announcement.

The training division prepared extensive training manuals, including training evolutions, and distributed them to every company in the city even before the hose and fittings arrived. When the hose and equipment arrived, it was distributed to each company, along with all the hydrant and pump fittings; this allowed each firefighter to become familiar with the new equipment. All companies were encouraged to drill with the new fittings immediately based on the new training manuals.

In additional to the equipment familiarization, the training division developed a training schedule that included every member of the department with hands-on training, including chief officers. We equipped two reserve engine trucks with the new hose and fittings and proceeded with the training program. We made the two newly equipped engine trucks available to every company in the city for additional training during night and weekend shifts, and many company officers took advantage of this opportunity. The result was a smooth transition, but it was not until we had our first building fire that we felt completely comfortable with this transition. Within days following the first building fire, comments about the "new hose" disappeared. The vision of improving our water supply system had become part of the culture of the department.

CHANGES LARGE AND SMALL

The benefits of visions for any department can be either large or small. The smaller visions for a department are usually easier to achieve. In some cases, several smaller visions can be part of a larger, broad-based vision. In the example about the large-diameter hose, the vision was a large-scale vision but did not consist of a long-term project. The benefits were immediate and felt by every member of the department. These are the most visible and quantifiable visions.

Some visions take longer to develop and implement and the positive effects may not be felt for years but are equally important to the mission of the department. Shortcomings in an outdated promotional process provide a very vivid example of long-term vision. When a promotional system has not keep up with changing technology and missions of today's fire service, upgrading the promotion system is needed. However, this needed change will have a profound within the department, and there will be many firefighters and labor organizations that will push back on any changes to a promotional system. A vision to bring an outdated promotional system into line with the demands of a modern fire department cannot be accomplished quickly. A deliberate, long-term process that includes focus groups of existing officers and transparency will be required. A change in curriculum or process must allow time for every firefighter in the organization to understand and prepare for it. A vision such as this may take many years to achieve, but bringing the department into line with the demands placed on modern fire departments is beneficial to the department and the community it serves. A visionary leader will not be intimidated by the work that stands before him but instead will plan a systematic approach to achieve the goal. This is an example of a difficult vision for a department to achieve, but the benefits of a progressive workforce are indisputable.

Visionaries are here among us today in every department, regardless of size. A fire chief in a two-truck volunteer fire department with a vision to improve recruitment and training is no less a visionary that the chief of a metropolitan fire department with a vision to add EMS to the services the department presently provides. No one should be afraid to dream of what can be accomplished in their realm of responsibility. Robert F. Kennedy said it this way: "There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why... I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?" These should be guiding words for every member of the fire service.

Thomas N. WarrenTHOMAS N. WARREN has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments. He recently retired as assistant chief of department of the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. He has a bachelor's degree in fire science from Providence College, an associate degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island, and a certificate in occupational safety and health from Roger Williams University.

 

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