Lead Your Rural Agency to Success with an Organizational Philosophy

By DEVON WELLS

Who is in charge of your rural agency? What is your role in the department? If these questions are difficult to answer, you are not alone; most of us have a hard time when we truly think about these questions. It is easy to say that the “chief” is in charge and your role is “just” a firefighter. However, when you truly dive into who has a leadership role in an agency and what your specific role and responsibilities are, you find that the leadership line is blurrier than you originally thought.

Unfortunately, most agencies do not look deeply into their leadership roles and responsibilities unless there are problems. Often, these problems “sneak up” on the membership and are not recognized seen as unknown issues or as rapidly occurring departures from a road that was previously perfectly smooth. Most of these issues have been growing for some time, and we typically find ourselves looking away from them because they are difficult or uncomfortable to address. This is true with most change, and it creates a larger task for departments to handle later when problems start to fully surface. Think of it as a “leadership iceberg”; you see the top part of the ice floating above the water and believe you can navigate around it easily. However, a closer inspection of the iceberg reveals an expansive block of ice under the water that will destroy your tiny vessel if not completely understood and discovered. If this is the culture of YOUR agency, then it is YOUR responsibility to help it change to a more productive and progressive model. Consider the old saying, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got!”

Create the Organizational Philosophy

Change in rural organizations is not an easily navigated course. Address the organizational philosophy and seek buy-in at all levels of the department. This typically takes place through meetings and strategic planning sessions that begin with a lot of friends and co-workers in the room, eventually heavily disagreeing with each other, and then ending with a peaceful creation of a strategic plan. It’s not an easy task, one that requires direction by an experienced facilitator. The end results are a consolidated vision, mission, and values statement as well as other organizational philosophy components.

What is an organizational philosophy? It establishes what is important in the life and business of the organization. It encompasses the entire organization, not just the beliefs of a few senior officials. It is the organization’s view of humanity, its role in society, and the importance of relationships. Leaders must be capable of revitalizing or establishing a shared vision—mission and consensus values that help people throughout the organization see the bridges that span gaps between where they are now and what they want to achieve. Leaders are responsible to align their actions with the organizational philosophy and hold others accountable to them.

The vision statement. This is the dream of the department, expressed in its planning activities, its leaders, and its member’s actions. It asks, “What does a perfect organization look like?” and “If we could invent a perfect organization, what would it be?” These are expressed as the vision—the long-term direction an organization wants to pursue. Organizations should feel comfortable stretching their reach and placing large goals and desires into their vision that are realistic yet difficult to attain without continued progression. The vision cannot consist of easily achieved items and actions that are already occurring. That’s not a vision; that’s reality.

The mission statement. This statement should answer one question: “Why do we exist?” The mission statement needs to be simple, short, and easily memorized by ALL members of the organization. If they cannot recite it, how do they know why they exist? This should be the answer members give to well-meaning citizens who ask about the need for a fire department in their town. Without everyone saying the same thing; the agency looks disorganized with a nonunited workforce.

The values statement. This is a cohesive set of consensus values from all members, regardless of rank or seniority, and requires a process to create. The pursuit of a set of shared values is challenging, but it is well worth the outcome. By establishing each individual’s personal values, you can find a set of consensus values. This is not the opinion of the chief or even the most senior members; it is a consensus set of values that drives the organization in its decision making. All members must feel as though their value set is contained in the statement.

Now, Get to Work!

Once you establish the organizational philosophy, the true work begins! Leaders—formal and informal—must be tied to the philosophy for change and progress to succeed. It’s now time to take hold of the vision, take action, and gain momentum on the direction of the agency. In regards to fixing problems, Albert Einstein once said, “The significant problems of our times cannot be fixed with the same level of thinking that created them.” You must think and act different to achieve something different.

Case in point—the Chuloteca River, which crosses into Honduras. This country had been devastated by many hurricanes in the past, always destroying the bridge over the Chuloteca River, a main thoroughfare for the country. In 1996, Honduras commissioned some of the best bridge engineers in the world to design and build a bridge that would stand up against the force of hurricanes. This group of professionals thought differently and a designed a bridge that withstood numerous storms and hurricanes, never faltering. When Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras in 1998, the country was devastated, but the bridge withstood the storm, only suffering minor damage. However, only one part of the problem was solved. The storm then rerouted across the Chuloteca River, now rendering the super-strong bridge useless. It was renamed “The Bridge to Nowhere” and has since been reconnected to roadways and placed back into service, but only after a different way of thinking was used to address a new problem.

Rural fire agencies are quite different when compared to larger suburban and metropolitan organizations. The “storms” that face small, rural, and all- or mostly-volunteer departments can be disastrous, even when the best defenses known at the time are in place. The potential of multiple members leaving because of interpersonal conflict, businesses being disrupted because of a dispute at a training night, or communities losing trust in an organization because of the actions of a few top leaders is exponentially higher in small towns; this is the reality for most of the American fire service. When your volunteer department officers are also business owners, potentially related, and go to the same school and community functions, it draws everyone together. This relationship is a double-edged sword that requires a well thought-out, consensus organizational philosophy that guides the organization in the right direction.

Leading rural volunteer agencies is a difficult task. However, when focused on creating a bright, efficient, happy organization, you will find success. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery emphasized, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood…but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Give members a vision, mission, and values and they will represent the organization well.


DEVON WELLS is a 26-year fire service veteran; the President of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors; and the manager of the Emergency Response Program for Tactical Aeronautics in Hood River, Oregon. He is also the former chief of Hood River (OR) Fire & EMS. Wells presents nationally on safety, leadership, organizational philosophy, and rural fire officer topics. He is on the NFPA 1700 committee on the Fundamentals of Fire Control Within a Structure Utilizing Fire Dynamics and the Underwriters Laboratories Training Fire Study technical panel.

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