Is Your Organizational Compass Still Pointing North?

You must calibrate your compass to insure that your are traveling in the proper direction.

By Brian S. Gettemeier

Many fire service organizations have transitioned from a rules-based organization to a values-based approach to management. It makes perfect sense. The fire service consists of highly motivated, trained, and trusted individuals. We do not work in a widget factory; our work is not the same every day. Some days our members find themselves in incidents or predicaments no one could ever imagine. A values-based document provides an excellent guidepost for our members to know the level of service and engagement that is expected of us. A values-based organization gives us the ability to think and act beyond policies and procedures–to do what we do best, solve problems under great pressure in unusual circumstances.

The values document is designed to be a trail map to lead the organization and its members in the same direction with a common goal.

In the corporate world, vision statements and value documents are about creating a brand. Brand recognition is about sales based on the value and quality of the brand.

In emergency services, we want our consumers to recognize the quality of our brand. At right  are some examples of emergency services mission, vision, and value statements.


American Express

Nordstrom’s Commitment

Coca Cola


The Desire to Serve and the Courage to Act – Streator (Il) Fire Department

Your Life – Our Mission – Metro West (MO) Fire Protection District

  • The vision of the Metro West Fire Protection District is to be THE leader in providing public safety, protection, and education by setting the benchmark for all service delivery through international accreditation and excellence in responsiveness.

The Los Angeles Fire Department

The Phoenix Fire Department

Mission and values statements can be found throughout emergency service organizations. But how many organizations have truly invested the time to train the membership on the proper use of these documents? We would not give a group of individuals a compass and drop them off in the middle of a dense forest and expect them to successfully navigate their way to safety, would we? No, we would train the individuals on how to use the compass properly. In fact, you cannot hand your people a compass and expect them to do the simple task of heading true north. Most people are not aware of the fact there are two norths when it comes to navigation–true north, the one on the Earth’s axis that all maps point to, and magnetic north the one the compass points to. Magnetic north is actually 1,300 miles south of true north. Failure to compensate for magnetic declination will result in a person being off course. This same principle holds true for a values-based document. A slight miscalculation can result in an individual or the entire organization being off course.

Once the values-based document is developed, one of the first actions must be to train the membership how to use it. Our membership must be able to cite this document with mastery. Anything less than mastery should be considered a failure. This is your organization’s lifestyle. The membership must truly believe in the values. Failure to follow would essentially be moral freelancing. If your membership cannot cite the document, ask why. Is it a failure on the part of the employee to read and understand the document? Is the document too complex and cumbersome? Is it a failure of the organization to ensure its values are being taught and followed every day? An organization cannot pick and choose when to employ its values. It must be ingrained into every aspect of an organization’s decision process relating to committees, purchasing, hiring and promotions, calls, and how we conduct ourselves on and off duty.

Setting the Course for External Customers

Guided by our values-based documents, the fire service does an excellent job of serving our external customers during emergency response. Even a mediocre response will often times yield a situation better than the original one the customer expected.  We do an excellent job of solving the situations presented to us. That is our job, we are problem solvers. It is nothing more than common sense for our guiding document to tell us to treat our customers right. For example, an organization’s core ideology may dictate that it is a company’s duty to check and replace smoke detectors when at a customer’s home during a call. Simple. It is, of course, the right thing to do.

Setting the Course for Internal Customers

However, where our organizations sometimes fall short is in meeting the needs of our internal customers, the employees themselves. It seems counterintuitive that an organization needs a document that says, “Treat your fellow employee right.” However, the internal customer is where the organization often underestimates the impact of these core ideologies. Does the document meet the needs of our membership? Does the membership believe in the document? More importantly, does the membership believe that the organization believes in the document?

Most of us have joined the fire service to be part of something special; we embrace the paramilitary style. Therefore, many of us will embrace and remain loyal to the document that defines our organizational direction. Simon Sinek, an author and motivational speaker has stated on Twitter, that “customers will never love a company until the employees love it first.” But what happens when the organization falls short upholding the document?

Standard operating procuedures, Best Practices, and a Values Based document can be found in engine houses across the county.

Failure to meet the needs of our internal customers can lead to an organizational disconnect and can create malcontent of otherwise good employees who strive to exceed the written organizational goals. This is especially true if it is perceived that the organization has drifted off course due to personal gains and agendas. For example, if a core ideology of the organization is to support the educational goals of its members yet one member is approved for an opportunity and another is denied for a similar opportunity, it creates friction within the membership. Even other members within the organization who are not involved or affected by this decision may develop feelings of bitterness against the organization based solely on the fact there is a perception that its guiding document is not being followed.

The membership is the foundation of a values-based organization. Small erosions in the membership’s commitment to the document can undermine the entire foundation of the organization. Often these erosions start small and go unnoticed until the compromises are great and potentially beyond the point of no return. During an emergency scene, we continuously size-up the event to make sure we are always improving. Maybe it is time that our organizations size-up our guiding documents to make sure we are improving.

The Need for Document Calibration

Magnetic north is dynamic; over time, it changes. Likewise, a compass needs to be calibrated to compensate for magnetic declination. The same can be said for an organization’s values-based document. Has the direction of our organization changed to compensate for changes internally or externally? When was the last time the organization calibrated the values document to ensure the proper course is being followed?

A fancy binder... ...with blank pages

These documents have come to our organization for a variety of reasons: industry trends, increased credibility, or as a result of a college or Executive Fire Officer Program project. No matter how or why the document is adopted, the results must be the same; it’s a lifestyle, not a document, not a reference manual to be stored on the shelf. These documents are meant to be used every day, put into practice, demonstrated by our membership. How many organizations adopted one of these guiding documents only to place it in a pretty binder on the shelf, never to be opened again? If that is the case, we might as well put blank paper in the binder, because it has the same amount of credibility. If your guiding document is not being followed, fix it–or do the organization a favor and throw it in the recycle bin, where it has a renewed opportunity to be worth something. It’s every member’s responsibility to make sure your organizational compass is still pointing north: To take pride in what we are a part of, and to ensure we are all traveling toward a common goal.

Brian S. GettemeierBrian S. Gettemeier has been in the fire service for 23 years, with the last 20 years as a career firefighter with the Cottleville Fire Protection District of St. Charles County, Missouri. He is a second-generation firefighter and has a bachelor’s degree in fire service management from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale along with numerous state certifications. He teaches all-hazard classes for numerous organizations throughout the state of Missouri.

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