VOLUNTEERS CORNER ❘ By EVAN KUTZIN
Walk into the headquarters of a progressive fire department and it’s likely that you’ll find its Mission and Vision Statements hanging prominently in the lobby or outside the chief’s office, displayed proudly for the community to see and to keep department members energized, engaged, and motivated. Clearly articulating the department’s mission and vision has become the primary means of launching the strategic planning process not only within the fire service but throughout the public and private sectors, nongovernmental organizations, and nonprofits alike.
Although the process of defining an organizational mission and vision has been discussed in Fire Engineering in the past, a quick review should help to better illustrate the more personally impactful concept that this article presents.
The Strategic Planning Process
Strategic planning is the practice by which organizations can facilitate effective and efficient process management by means of understanding strengths and weaknesses. A good strategic plan should be an overall approach or framework to outline what the organization is trying to achieve: goal setting. The strategic planning process should force participants to step back and look at the dynamics from a “30,000-foot” perspective outside of the day-to-day activities. Here, you will be talking in generalities, not specifics. It should provide the “big picture” of what is currently being done; where it is headed; and, ultimately, how it expects to get there. Strategic planning should also provide clarity about future milestones and achievements rather than a course of action for day-to-day operations. The plan should map out a clear path from the present through the ultimate vision of the future. Where will the organization be in five, 10, or 20 years? The organization should also understand that the planning process in and of itself may turn out to be more significant than the actual results. The introduction of disciplined internal dialogue may be enough to develop a widespread, long-term planning philosophy.
Strategic planning should be a fluid process with the goal of assisting the organization in determining its immediate and long-term objectives, recognizing and reducing risks, identifying ways to increase efficiency, and helping to maintain stabilization. To achieve these ultimate goals, the strategic plan will need to outline the following questions:
- Who are we?
- Where have we been?
- Where are we now?
- Where do we want to go?
- When will we want to get there?
- What do we need to do to get there?
- How do we do it?
- How do we measure our success?
Before you lay out the mission and vision, develop the growth strategies and identify the benchmarks of success, you need a means to evaluate the organization as it stands today, to determine the current position and identify issues that may need to be addressed in the plan. This should involve a process that evaluates the organization’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats known as a SWOT analysis. Strengths may identify internal areas or functions where the organization excels and where skilled and knowledgeable staff may be present. Weaknesses identify internal areas that are lacking, need improvement, or have an unclear direction. Opportunities shift the focus to the external, looking to identify underserved markets or functions, emerging needs, outside collaborations, and public perception. Finally, threats may identify external risks to the organization and its success or growth. This may include new codes or regulations, financial or budgetary risks, and human resource constraints.
The strategic planning process will then shift from the analysis phase into full-on strategy development, where the mission and vision statement will be organized to define the who, what, where, when, why, and how. The mission statement development doesn’t create the fundamental purpose of an organization; rather, it tells the story of it—it defines the critical processes and informs stakeholders of the desired level of performance. The vision statement then outlines what the organization wants to be or how the world or sphere in which it operates should be. It concentrates on the future, is a source of inspiration, and answers the question, “Why?” The vision casts a wider net, describing what will be achieved in the wider scope if the mission is successful.
Strategic Planning on the Fireground
You can also use the term “size-up” as another name for strategic planning. We are already accustomed to doing this in the operational hazard zone every day on the fireground. We arrive on scene and size up the situation as described in the acronym COAL WAS WEALTH. Throughout the incident, we develop incident action plans and define the scope of our work. We announce the strategy (i.e., offensive or defensive attack, protecting exposures, primary search), set performance indicators (e.g., visible fire knocked down, under control, victim located), and leverage all of the tools available to us (i.e., engine to establish initial attack line, truck to the roof for vertical ventilation, rescue to search for occupants). We understand the standard conditions with which we may be presented, the standard actions we take to stabilize the situation, and the standard outcome we expect.
The fireground is always evolving with an array of dynamic issues that we must constantly evaluate during the incident. It’s our professional responsibility to the public we serve to have this operational size-up concept “under control.” However, if you’re not yet deploying this process in your organization’s management and leadership zone, perhaps you should be.
Your Personal Strategic Plan
My big question here is, “Have we learned to use this size-up in our personal lives and professional careers in a similar manner?” Go back through the above strategic planning process outline and replace the italicized word organization with an appropriate pronoun to define yourself (e.g., I, we, us, our, and so on). Step out of the realm of planning for an organization or incident and think about this process as planning for your future in the fire service and perhaps even how the fire service fits into your life as a whole.
A Culture of Excellence
As volunteer firefighters and officers, most of us have careers outside of the department. Yet, we find that our day jobs may not define who we are. When we meet someone for the first time and start talking, we may never bring up our line of work—the one that pays the bills; our careers may just not speak to who we are as a person. That’s not to say we don’t like our jobs or we don’t see them as our future. We may just not have the same sort of passion for our full-time occupations as we do for the volunteer fire service. How many other professions have employees who proudly display their companies’ logos on a T-shirt, jacket, hat, car decal, gold pendant, or tattoo on their arms? We do this because we are proud to identify as part of the team that is the fire service family. We have a desire to serve, and we enjoy doing so. As much as we hate those middle of the night carbon monoxide calls, we still get up and do the job. Paycheck or not, the fire service is a profession and a true calling for many of the 750,000 volunteers in the United States.
Right now, there is a wave going through the fire service to develop a new culture of excellence—building reliable and effective leaders at every rank—by balancing the new rules with the old traditions. Peter Drucker, author, educator, and described “founder of modern management,” once wrote, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” Integrity/doing what’s right for our organization, our coworkers, our customers, and ourselves as leaders must be its own reward because for many of us, there’s no money involved. Our people are our most important assets; without them, there is no team.
Whatever role you choose to take in the fire service, from the top down, own it. You control your own happiness in the firehouse, so if you don’t like what you see, fix it. And, if you find yourself sticking around the fire service for all the wrong reasons, I assure you there is no one stopping you from getting out. We can’t all be experts at everything, so find at least one thing and master it—be that go-to person. In all aspects, be the best that you can be to your own abilities, then push yourself a little further and be a “forever student”; never stop learning. Whether we realize it or not, we are aggregates of every experience we’ve ever had in the fire service and beyond. We build muscle memory every day we get out of bed and every time we climb on and off the rig. We think and act based on our combined past experiences. At the end of each tailboard training or drill, go around the group and list one new thing learned that day—you may be surprised by the responses you hear.
Use the strategic planning process to evaluate who you are internally as a person and a firefighter. Ask yourself where you’ve been and where you want to go with your fire service career—and even with life in general. I encourage you to start by building your résumé; it’s the best way to tell your story. Be proud of your accomplishments. You pushed your way through some pretty long, difficult classes. You pushed yourself when nobody else would—mentally, physically, and even emotionally. Whether you took a class because your department required it, for your own personal knowledge, or just to see if you could make it through, it doesn’t matter. Was it just to pad your résumé for a promotion or a department election? Or, did you take the training to learn something that could save a life someday, help you grow as a firefighter, or be a better person or leader? Be proud of the citations, commendations, and awards you received. There is value and morale in pomp-and-circumstance; your years of service and commitment to the department do count for something. However, you must always stay humble—the résumé you built is only for you to know where you’ve been. It’s not your podium from which to stand and preach. Your years sitting around the firehouse and that folder of certificates don’t make you the world’s best firefighter, officer, chief, or leader. Your résumé is the story of your career as a firefighter and the data for your own SWOT analysis.
Into the Future
Only now that you know where you’ve been, résumé in hand, can you start to look to the future. Where do you want to go in the fire service? Are you content where you are, or do you see yourself moving beyond your department? Maybe you want to move on to a bigger, busier volunteer or career department. Maybe you want to mentor a probie or teach the next generation at the fire academy. It’s a proud officer moment when one of your members gets on the job in their “dream” department. Remember, you helped build their passion and fire service foundation. Maybe you want to make the trip to the Fire Department Instructors Conference International for the first time or maybe you want to write an article for Fire Engineering. Then, look at what you need to do to get there. Perhaps you need to study more, train more, or even play the firehouse politics more. It’s often who you know, not what you know. Then, how will you know when you get there? How will you measure your success? Is your rank, replete with the white hat and chief’s car, all that matters to you? Or, is your goal to be the wise and trusted senior firefighter. Maybe it’s a bump in salary, awards hanging on your wall, a simple compliment, or a pat on the back after having an impact on someone’s life. Make this your mission statement.
Your life will be full of successes and failures. You won’t always be in the right place at the right time. After you miss the “job of the year,” as the old saying still goes, “See you at the big one”; there will be many more. You can control only what you can control, but you do have the power to answer the “why” and to define how you will be remembered—in life and in the fire service. Why do you do what you do? Why are you here? Why did you choose to make sacrifices? Don’t let people remember you for what you did; instead, let them remember you for why you did it. Write your own ending and let your legacy be your pension in life. This is your vision statement.
EVAN KUTZIN has been a firefighter since 2001 and serves as the deputy chief for the Old Tappan (NJ) Fire Department. He has been a fire officer since 2007 and has served in several volunteer and career capacities for fire and emergency medical services combination departments in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Kutzin is a New Jersey-certified fire instructor, a fire inspector, and an EMT-B and works full-time as a fire marshal for one of New Jersey’s public colleges. He has a master’s degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University in administrative science with a concentration in global security and terrorism studies.