ASSESSING YOUR STRATEGIC ENVIRONMENT

BY MARK WALLACE

Since the first edition of my book, Fire Department Strategic Planning: Creating Future Excellence, was published in 1998, I have been working with numerous fire departments and other nonprofit and government organizations as they developed new or revised strategic plans. From each application, I have learned as much as I have taught. As my understanding of how to apply the principles of strategic planning to our organizations was refined, my approach changed. John Bryson, the author of Strategic Planning for Public and Nonprofit Organizations, defines strategic planning as “organized common sense.” With this definition in mind, I have worked to remove the mysteries of strategic planning. (Many people thought the process was a mystery in the past.) One of the key elements to your future organizational success, whether you develop a strategic plan for your department or not, is to effectively assess your working environment.

Assessing our strategic environment has taken a new direction to increasing the effectiveness of the processes used for strategic planning. Many fire departments have struggled to understand their environments by applying business models as they developed strategic and operational plans. Although there are practices in the for-profit organizational world we would do well to copy, we must understand the differences between organizational theories (for-profit organizations) and fire departments (not-for-profit organizations). We cannot “clone” our organization after a successful business example, because “our business” is different.

The fire department exists to serve our community, our external environment, not to provide an adequate income or a rewarding career for the members of our departments. The driving force of a for-profit business is its internal environment. The external environment drives our internal environment. Understanding this difference is one of the critical success factors of effective fire department strategic planning.

A fundamental concept of any strategic planning process in the past involved conducting a “SWOT Analysis,” an evaluation of the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats of an organization. The traditional SWOT Analysis was developed for the business community and considers these four factors of five different “environments”: the macro environment, the industry environment, the competitive environment, the customer environment, and the internal organizational environment.1

The problem with this process, which is used effectively by many businesses, is that much of the information gathered within these five environments is not relevant to the fire service. Essentially, the macro environment and the customer environment deal with a fire department’s external environment. This is the area of influence over which a fire department has little control. The fire department, however, can control the internal environment. The other environments have little or no applicability to the fire service. So how do we proceed?

EXTERNAL AND INTERNAL COMPONENTS

By separating our environment into its external and internal components, a more logical and useful system emerges.

The external environment can be evaluated as having challenges and opportunities for the department. Although businesses may have threats to their existence and successful operation, a fire department is normally a monopoly whose existence will seldom be threatened. Plus, it’s not “politically correct” to think of the citizens we serve as being a threat to us. This absolutely portrays the wrong message and is in fact wrong. We will, however, face many and varied challenges to our success and support. We will also face many opportunities to better serve our communities. Essentially, each challenge has an opportunity within it, and each opportunity contains a challenge. They are the two sides of the same thing.

Challenges are different considerations than threats (the “T” of the SWOT Analysis). Threats have a negative connotation, whereas challenges can be positive and negative. Using the right words is important to the perception of our citizens today. No one in your community wants to be viewed as a threat to the government they fund with their taxes. They do, however, want to challenge government to meet their needs and desires. Our citizens want their community leaders to be responsive to the influences of the external environment. These influences present challenges and opportunities. Using the right mindset when assessing the department’s external environment is important, so thinking in terms of challenges instead of threats makes a significant difference in the outcomes achieved.

A major problem I have with using the traditional SWOT analysis within the fire service is that it deals with all four of its elements at the same time via a matrix. SWOT assesses the internal environment prior to examining the external environment. In the business community, this may be the best method. In the fire service, however, the challenges and opportunities of the external environment should be examined before assessing the internal environment. It really does not matter what the local fire department does or how it performs if what it is doing does not fit the needs and desires of the citizens it serves. Therefore, deal with the external environment before the internal environment.

Today, fire departments must be very sensitive to their community and the “customers” they serve. The services provided by the fire department have been expanded from the traditional firefighting focus to much more, including EMS and haz mat, as a result of the identified needs of the communities. There is also no standard fire department. The fire service is a community-based, customized service, not a “generic” service. One size does not fit all. So, how do you assess your external environment?

THE EXTERNAL ENVIRONMENT

The external environment consists of the issues, areas, considerations, desires, and controlling factors that are outside the ability of the fire department or its elected officials to control.

The external environment is more than just its jurisdiction; it is the marketplace of the organization. Within its location, there are various forces and trends that impact or confront the fire department. These forces and trends present challenges and opportunities that can be cataloged into four separate types of issues: political, economic, social, and technological.

Politics. Different communities have different levels of politics. In a municipal environment, the fire department may be only one of many considerations by the community. The larger or more complex the municipality, the more political factors that may come into play. Politics may be partisan or nonpartisan; in either system, the politics that affect the fire department are important considerations. Politics may take the form of special interest groups, business groups, neighborhood committees, school groups, civic clubs, and other organizations. A number of driving political forces that are outside of the department’s control impact the fire department. If you understand that everything is politics, you will seldom, if ever, be wrong.

Economy. The local economy will have a number of potential impacts on the fire department. One factor is simply the type of community within which the fire department operates. A bedroom community will be much different from a community that consists mainly of commercial and industrial occupancies. Whether a marketplace has a homogenous or diversified economic base is another factor. Communities with a homogenous economic base are more dependent on the local economic conditions. A community largely dependent on one industry will have extreme difficulty if that industry is shut down. The fire department’s revenue base may be eroded and the department’s future ability to provide the same level of service as before may be in doubt.

Social issues. The community’s social issues are specific to the area in most cases. A common theme may be the diversity of the community. The larger the community, the greater the diversity. Income-based considerations may greatly affect the department. The fire department must understand the social issues it faces so that it can make the appropriate adjustments in strategies. Social factors are interrelated to the economic factors to a certain extent, even though they are separate issues.

Technological factors in the marketplace. As are all the other areas, this factor interrelates with the others (political, economic, and social issues). The technology present in our marketplace will significantly affect fire department strategic considerations. To a certain extent, a fire department must be as technologically advanced as its community. If a community includes “high tech” industry, the fire department must be capable of handling problems at the same level. The more diverse a community, the more diverse the fire department must be. This involves not only the handling of emergency incidents but also plan review, building inspection, emergency medical services, public education, and other services provided by the department.

Yet another area of the external environment involves the customers, clients, or payers of the department. The fire service has given much attention to customer service in the past, but the time has come to crank this up another notch. The very nature of the fire service makes it a customer-friendly service. People are usually glad to see us when we show up. More often than not, we are the ones our citizens turn to for a solution to their problem when an emergency occurs. The fire service has truly been a “helping service” rather than an “enforcement service.” This part of the external environment involves more than just the residents or citizens of the community. We have to understand what they want and need and how they judge the delivery of fire department services.

Today, people are very mobile. Depending on the community, many of the people within the jurisdiction of the fire department do not live or work there. Large retail centers, like shopping malls, draw people into the marketplace from long distances. Commuter routes traversing a jurisdiction bring thousands of people into the community daily. Airports, train stations, bus terminals. and seaports bring people from throughout the world into your community. Some of the people will need the services of the fire department. Therefore, they become part of the department’s external environment.

The final area of the external environment involves the actual or potential competitors or collaborators of the fire department. For the most part, a fire department has a monopoly within its community. As the services provided by the fire service continue to expand, some of the services offered will be duplicated within the private sector of the marketplace. This is especially true with emergency medical services. The fire service is an essential part of the marketplace as a provider of advanced life support and ambulance transport services, and some are in direct competition with private business.

There are other areas throughout the world where fire departments directly compete with private industry. Some departments provide fire extinguisher sales and service to the public, for example. Many fire departments have fund-raising events that directly compete with private businesses. Some departments operate bingo games and compete with private bingo parlors that have cropped up throughout the country or conduct other types of fund-raisers. Fire department community dinners also compete directly with private industry. Depending on the frequency and community norms, this may be accepted or debated within the local community.

Some fire departments compete with each other at times. In many metropolitan areas, fire academies train recruits for area fire departments for a fee. Other departments provide contract emergency response outside of their jurisdiction for a fee. Neighboring departments compete for this contract in areas that are not part of a formal fire protection district.

The department’s collaborators include departments or agencies that work together for their mutual benefit. This includes mutual-aid and automatic-aid agreements, combined dispatching centers, combined training facilities, group purchasing consortiums, and group hiring or promotional testing. The external environmental considerations must involve the existing or potential collaborations.

One example is a collaborative program called “Safe Place”; it involves the local fire department’s working with a nonprofit group called “Urban Peak.” This program is designed to help get young people in trouble off the street. They can go to a participating fire department for help. The fire stations provide a meeting place for the young people to go for the help provided by the organizations involved in the Urban Peak project.

Assessing the external environment is a twofold process: the planning team’s considering the challenges and opportunities confronting the department in the areas of forces and trends, clients, and customers and payers, as well as competitors and collaborators. The forces and trends are divided into four subissues: political, economic, social, and technological. The assessment can be accomplished simply by creating a list of considerations for the various areas or a matrix that displays each consideration. Each area is considered separately; factors pertaining to opportunities and threats believed to be present at the time are listed within each of the areas.

What constitutes a challenge or an opportunity is open to interpretation. Some time should be spent before analyzing the results of the above matrix or lists. It may be difficult to define a challenge or an opportunity; it must be within the context of each specific department. Questions such as “Opportunity to do what?” or “Challenge to what?” usually arise. Often, the answer is the status quo.

Challenges to the department often will include issues that may reduce the department’s ability to maintain the status quo. They often have a financial influence and may be the result of a community’s changing need, such as an expanded or a retracted need for fire department services.

Opportunities are issues that may allow the department to improve its service level, program offerings, or performance standards. Opportunities may be determined by the ability to expand the department or its budget. Opportunities may also deal with the department’s effectiveness or efficiency. They may be program specific or impact the department as a whole. The planning team may want to set some parameters for determining if an issue listed is an opportunity or a challenge.

Each issue raised during this process is a challenge or an opportunity based on the analysis of the department’s external environment. This analysis is limited, however, by the ability to recognize the factors impacting the external environment. Oakley and Krug wrote: “Even if we really try to see a situation from another’s perspective-to put ourselves in their shoes, so to speak-the conclusions we come up with still represent only our perspective of what they think.”2 To really understand the external environment, the fire department must obtain information from outside the department.

THE INTERNAL ENVIRONMENT

The internal environment can be divided into three components: (1) available resources (inputs), (2) present strategy (process), and (3) performance (outputs).3 These fundamental categories are within the control of the department.

The available resources (or inputs) may be people, fixed assets (equipment, facilities, and vehicles), and financial resources. The planning team should identify all of the resources available to the department. The most obvious resources will be relatively easy to identify. It will be more difficult to identify the less traditional resources (mutual aid, automatic aid, financial grants or gifts, technical assistance, nonfire department-related skills of department members, for example). Other resources might include community members with special talents and a willingness to help the department create its ideal future. It is important to explore both the traditional and nontraditional resources.

The second component of the internal environment assessment involves identifying the department’s current process strategies. This might be difficult at first. Few departments analyze their strategies beforehand. It might be helpful to assess the current process strategies by answering some questions:

  1. How are decisions made within the department? Are they made at the governing body level, the fire chief level, or at the lowest level possible?
  2. What strategies are used in the management or administration of the department? A wide range of strategies should be explored, including the following: management style, permitting, command and control, user fees, documentation, computer technology, use of technology, mutual aid, emergency medical service, patient transportation, firefighting operations, budgeting, fire prevention, company inspection, public education, performance criteria, resource allocation, values systems, hazardous materials, quality control, code enforcement, distinctive competencies, community involvement, customer service, personnel recruitment and retention, and training.

Segment the various programs, functions, or projects within the department, and identify the strategy behind each. For example, one strategy of fire prevention is to share the responsibility of fire prevention with the people of the community. Fire prevention is not the job of the fire department or even of the Fire Prevention Bureau-preventing unwanted fire is everyone’s job. The result of this strategy is voluntary compliance with the fire code and the use of safe and sane practices.

Another strategy may deal with personnel levels. If a fire is recognized and suppressed early enough, few fires will require large numbers of personnel or other resources. A strategy to ensure that fires are reported and suppressed in their incipient stage would encompass a code requirement that all businesses have Class A fire detection systems and that new construction be equipped with automatic fire suppression systems. The cost of the systems is the responsibility of the business owner; the result would be that there is a minimal chance that a fire would exceed the demands of an initial response force. The community can also think of this as a cost-sharing strategy.

The department will want to do a comprehensive analysis of the various strategies being used within the department. The basic question to be asked is, “Why are we doing this?” or “What is the strategy of this process?”

The third component of the internal environment is performance (the output and outcome component). Fire departments normally have a fairly good understanding of their resources. They may have a fair understanding of the strategies behind the processes of the department, but they often have less of an understanding of the department’s performance. Key stakeholders of the department judge the performance of the fire department against the criteria they think is important or simply want to use.4 At the same time, it must be remembered that the department members are also key stakeholders. Care must be given to ensure that the performance measures used are as objective as possible; they should be backed up with hard data whenever possible. And performance measures should evaluate the desired outcomes against a recognized benchmark.

Many believe performance within a fire department is impossible to quantify or compare with a benchmark. Many of our outcomes, especially during an emergency, are determined prior to our notification and involvement in the situation. It’s a tough task to identify objective performance benchmarks, but it’s not impossible. The objective is to identify those outputs that are benchmarks or key considerations that demonstrate the effects of the department’s strategies to the receivers of service, the fire department’s customers.

Performance indicators include a variety of statistics or benchmarks selected to demonstrate what is most important within that jurisdiction. Some common performance indicators that have been used include the following: compliance with benchmark goals, estimated fire loss, estimated fire loss per capita, number of fires, number of structure fires, number of vehicle fires, number of outside fires, number of EMS or medical calls, firefighters per 1,000 population, budget cost per capita or household, number of fatalities or injuries per 100,000 population, number of firefighter injuries, average number of personnel per call, number or percentage of calls per day of week or hour of day, and percentage of “back-to-back” calls.

These are fairly pure statistics that often are difficult to relate back to a specific strategy. Other statistics that may be more telling could include the following: standards of cover, percentage of residences with automatic sprinklers, number of fires caused by a code violation, number of commercial fires reaching flashover, number of residential fires reaching flashover, number of sprinkler heads discharging, firefighter injuries resulting from unsafe practices, firefighter injuries resulting from safe practices, number of “Core Zero” saves, number of code violations found vs. number corrected, percentage of court citations vs. number of violations, percentage of residential fires where detector functioned, and percentage listing of fires by cause and occupancy type.

The specific statistical benchmarks must be dependent on the strategies identified in the resource and process subcomponents. The idea is to measure the effectiveness of each identified strategy. Without effective performance measures, it is impossible to determine the effectiveness of the resource allocations, the organizational design of the department, or the strategic processes of the department.

There are efforts within the fire service to develop a common set of benchmarks to work toward a certification or an accreditation process throughout the fire service. The development of this process is essentially one that is identifying a method to establish a standard set of performance measures for the fire service as a whole.

Assessing the internal environment is a two-part process. The first thing the planning team must do is to consider the department’s weaknesses and strengths in the three areas comprising the internal environment-its resources (inputs), its strategies (processes), and its performance (outputs/outcomes). The assessment team should break down into three working groups, each group concentrating on one of these areas. The second part of the process is to identify an evaluation method for determining the relative weakness or strength of a particular item in each of the areas.

The goal is to objectively minimize the organization’s weaknesses while maximizing its strengths. Each member must be empowered to find the truth, no matter how painful it might be to some members of the department. To ensure that the planning team will not be ostracized for its findings, it is recommended that a departmentwide survey with anonymous submissions be used so that no individual finding can be attributed to a specific individual. Another option is to bring in an outside facilitator, who can more easily ask the toughest questions and suggest true, but difficult, findings. It is important to allow the working groups sufficient time to meet these objectives. Sometimes, it is easier and less painful to bring in someone from outside the organization who can ask the tough questions that must be asked and answered to achieve success.

THE RESOURCES WORKING GROUP

The Resources Working Group may have the easiest of the three tasks. This group should break down the overall task into three progressive considerations. The first consideration is how to group the department’s resources. It is easy to overlook resources if they are looked at as one group. If the department is broken down into smaller segments and the resources in each segment are identified, fewer will be left out.

The second consideration is to consider the department’s traditional and nontraditional resources. The third consideration is the relative strength and weakness of each resource or input.

The department can be segmented in a number of ways. Larger departments are already segmented into divisions or battalions, or both. For example, many departments have at least Support and Operations divisions or other functional divisions or bureaus. Departments also have defined programs that can be used to further segment the department into small, more manageable units.

The third task of the Resource Working Groups involves determining how to evaluate and describe the relative weaknesses or strengths of the identified resources. It can be as simple as creating one list for the strengths in the department’s resources and another list for the weaknesses. A more difficult but more valid method would be to compare the department’s identified resources with recognized resource benchmarks.

This will involve more research by the working group to identify and select the most appropriate benchmarks for each segment of the department. This process will be limited by the knowledge of the group and the information resources available to the group. It may find that there will not be valid benchmarks for all segments of the department.

THE STRATEGIC PROCESS WORKING GROUP

The Strategic Process Working Group will have a more difficult task, because this is really the first time the department’s current strategies are considered. This is a two-step process: identifying the existing strategies or processes used by the department and considering the relative weaknesses and strengths of those strategies. As this group begins its work, it may be a good idea to have a facilitator help this group understand strategy. Firefighters should have a better understanding of strategy than many other professions. Strategies are used daily during the emergency incidents to which the department responds.

Much like the Resource Working Group, this group should segment the strategic process into smaller, more manageable parts.

The completed work of the Strategic Process Working Group should be in the form of set strategic process statements, each with a short narrative explaining the strategy. Each department program should have at least one identified strategy. Most programs will have more than one strategic process; therefore, the working group should carefully consider each program. It may be helpful to compare notes with the Resource Working Group, since it also has to segment the department into its various programs. Each working group should compare notes and have the same approach and reporting format as the other groups in its segmentations of the department.

THE PERFORMANCE WORKING GROUP

The Performance Working Group’s task may be the most difficult and time consuming of the three groups if the department has not previously dealt with performance measures or productivity indicators. This is another point at which it may be worthwhile to bring in an outside facilitator. The group should spend the time needed to gain an understanding of performance measurement before trying to assess the department’s current performance.

Although some references use the term “output” to describe performance, it might be better to use “outcome.” Outputs measure process, whereas outcomes describe the results achieved in relationship to what was desired. A perfectly executed process is a waste of time and money if it fails to achieve the desired outcomes. (4,350) At times, output may be the proper view of performance if what is trying to be determined is the volume of units of service produced. If the quality or effectiveness of performance is being assessed, then outcome is the proper consideration. (4, 356)

This working group should spend some time considering the difference between efficiency and effectiveness. Measuring the efficiency of performance and measuring the effectiveness of performance are very different. Efficiency measures output or the cost per unit of output. Effectiveness measures outcome or the degree to which a program achieves its fundamental goals.

Most members of the fire department want to be as effective as they possibly can. They will do whatever is necessary to increase the department’s delivery of services to their community. They know that they are effective only when they are doing something that needs to be done. Work that does not really have to be done except for measurement purposes can be done efficiently, but the efforts may not be effective. Efficiency is harder to sell and requires more personal involvement in the need to be efficient. A combination of effectiveness and efficiency is often the desired outcome of the department. The working group should try to determine if the tasks of the department are being done correctly and if the right things are being done.

These considerations provide a quantitative and a qualitative analysis of the department’s performance. The members of this working group may gain great insight into the performance of the department by looking at relevant statistics. Equally valuable insight can be gained by spending time assessing the quality of the services provided against the department’s established goals. Both must be assessed by this working group at this phase in the process.

For the performance measures eventually selected, the members of the department must “buy into” the specific criteria used. For the members to feel that the measures used are valid, they must believe that the measures provide useful and relevant information that will demonstrate their real level of performance. Those who eventually oppose the measures selected by the working group need to have a fair hearing of their concerns. If they had the opportunity to express their concerns but their desires were not followed because of reasonable considerations, there will be less resistance from most department members. If people are saddled with what they believe to be inappropriate measures and had no input into the selection process, they will almost surely create resistance and destroy the morale of the department. (4, 357-358) Performance assessment is threatening to many people. This working group must be sensitive to that natural feeling and make every effort to dispel the perceived threat.

The Performance Working Group should consider the department’s current programs and policies. Keeping in mind the information presented above, it should create a list of the programs and policies to be assessed and determine whether each item listed should be assessed as an output or an outcome. Outputs should be based on statistics and should have some form of quantitative statement associated with their assessment.

Like the other two working groups, the Performance Working Group will want to segment the department as much as seems appropriate to avoid overlooking important performance measures. Like the others, it is also required to evaluate the department’s relative strengths and weaknesses based on the performance criteria established during this process. The final result can take the form of a list or table showing the performance criteria or measure, the benchmark determined to be the standard or desired output or outcome, and the actual performance level of the department.

THE ANNUAL INTERNAL ASSESSMENT PROCESS

The annual internal assessment process is a double-edged sword. Completing it will have great value to the department if done thoroughly and thoughtfully. But once it has been completed, it likely will be the desire of the chief or the governing body of the department to complete this process annually. The good news is that once it has been done and the measurement criteria are in place, the subsequent assessments will be much less work than the original one. The internal and the external environments should be assessed annually.

• • •

The Challenges and Opportunities of the external environment and the Weaknesses and Strengths (COWS) of the internal environments determine the future of your organization. For a fire department involved in strategic planning, thinking in terms of COWS changes the old concept of a SWOT Analysis. Assessing the strategic environment is an important component of strategic planning. If your organization already conducts strategic planning regularly or if you intend to start in the future, a clear understanding of the challenges and opportunities of your external environment and how they drive your internal environment so that you may maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses is critical to the success of your department.

References

1. Pfeiffer, J. William, Leonard D. Goodstein, Timothy M. Nolan. Shaping Strategic Planning: Frogs, Dragons, Bees and Turkey Tails. (Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1986), 137-140.

2. Oakley, Ed and Doug Krug. Enlightened Leadership. (Denver, Colo.: Stone Tree Publishing, 1992), 98.

3. Bryson, John M., Strategic Planning for Public and NonProfit Organizations. (San Francisco, Ca.: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1987) 124-125.

4. Osborne, David and Ted Graebler. Reinventing Government. (New York, N.Y: Penguin Books USA, 1993), 125.

MARK WALLACE, MPA, EFO, CFOD, MFIRE, is chief of the McKinney (TX) Fire Department and a former Colorado chief, public safety director/city manager. He is the author of Fire Department Strategic Planning: Creating Future Excellence, Second Edition (Fire Engineering, 2006). He frequently assists organizations to become value-driven and initiate effective strategic planning processes.

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