Firefighting, Leadership, Tech Zone

The Community “Fingerprint”

By Mark Wallace

We all understand the details of our departments and the personalities of those with which we work, but most planning processes must consider other factors as you prepare or revise plans. Plans may range from your response to future emergency incidents to future expansion of the organization to meet anticipated demands for service. This article will briefly explore what I call a “community fingerprint.” Like a fingerprint, each community has its own unique set of characteristics that make it what it is as well as those that you must make  part of every planning process.

Effectively planning for a community’s fire and emergency services involves knowing the community’s details and the variety of influences each detail will have on the total planning effort. Key factors such as understanding the time it has taken your community to get to where it is today, the driving forces and trends of its past, and what has influenced and is now influencing the community will help you effectively develop your organization’s plans. Many factors with your planning will be out of your department’s control; this does not make them any less impactful. Plans that have considered the community’s fingerprint provide an opportunity to be proactive—rather than reactive—in the years to come.

Many communities have a person or group that develops plans to anticipate future growth, new developments, and to examine factors that will positively or negatively impact the community’s future. Chiefs must be connected to these people and this information.

Following are some factors that you should consider as components to the community’s fingerprint:



Demographics include statistical data relating to a population and the particular groups within a community and are used in the analysis of a community’s characteristics. Factors include, but are not limited to, size, growth rates, land use density, age distribution, median income, educational levels, household, , and other “vital” statistics. This data is found within data sets maintained by the U.S. Census Bureau as well as locally within most government planning departments. Analyzing data collected over multiple years will help you analyze trends within a community. Understanding the past helps predict the future as long as you know that there will never be an exact equation. Demographics also allow you to compare your community with neighboring or competing departments to attract new employees and retain existing ones.



Your community’s financial condition distinctly impacts every plan. Local economics are a driving force, positively and negatively. It is critical to constantly monitor your community’s economics as part of your planning process so contingency plans can be prepared during both good and bad economic times. What are the primary economic indicators for your community? Should you expect to receive the revenues your plan predicted for the fiscal year? Has the community’s general fund budget been balanced? Are there sufficient excess revenues to allow for “rainy day” funds to be set aside in reserve so that future lean years can be covered without having to undergo severe cutbacks or layoffs?



Environmental issues and creating a sustainable community have become key considerations in all aspects of the community including fire and emergency services. The impact of this is being felt in all types of plans and must be considered appropriate to specific plans, from “green” cleaning supplies to the use of of compressed-air foam systems and other extinguishing agents used in the community to the construction of new fire stations. The list of environmental considerations in your planning efforts will continue to increase in the future. What forces and trends “drive” the economy in your community? How do these forces and trends affect your plans?



Weather conditions affect all fire departments and must be included in all types of planning throughout the year. Weather conditions dramatically impact many fire departments’ planning efforts.



Local topography may or may not significantly impact your planning. You will know how much or how little local topography to consider in your planning.



Every community and every fire department has a culture. Culture is characterized as a form of civilization including its beliefs, customs, arts, and institutions that, together, form the community or group of people. Planners must understand the community’s culture as well as that of its fire department. How does culture affect the fire department as its members collectively strive to develop and maintain effective fire and emergency service plans? Unfortunately, there is never a single “culture” for a diverse community.


Ethnic Influences

The community’s ethnic makeup will impact most planning processes, particularly those affected by the emergency responses. Some ethnic customs introduce additional hazards and risks to the community. Some ethnic groups may be associated with social and economic issues your fire department must understand and address in its plans.



Fire and emergency services and communities today are technology driven. Changes in technology continue to occur in rapid succession. Services considered “advanced” in years past such as GPS, AVL, Wi-Fi, broadband, and many others are now considered fundamental technologies in all but the poorest or most remote communities. As fire and emergency services are expected to do more with fewer personnel, you must turn to technology to close the performance gaps. Planning for this rapid change will be among the greatest challenges of fire service planning teams for years to come.


Other Factors

What other factors and special features make up the fingerprint for your community  (airports, train stations, limited access highways, military bases, and so on)? Does your community grow during the business day or is it a “bedroom” community?

Whatever you plan, always consider your community’s “fingerprint,” and identify how these factors impact the development or outcome goals of your plans.



Mark Wallace (MPA, EFO, CFO, FIFireE) is the author of Fire Department Strategic Planning: Creating Future Excellence. He is the former State Fire Marshal of Oregon and a former chief in Colorado and Texas. He currently operates Fireeagle Consulting ( He wrote the planning chapter in the 7th edition Fire Chief’s Handbook, which was released in fall 2014.