Can You Put A Fire Out Without a Strategic Plan?

by Dr. Tim McGrath & Dr. Victoria McGrath

Absolutely - it's done every day.

Therefore, is Strategic Planning anything more than a management "buzz word" of the decade? What exactly is Strategic Planning? Is it important? Or more importantly; is it worth your time and effort? Our contention is that it is essential; especially in these fiscally challenging times.

What is it?
There are a number of definitions for strategic planning:

  • Strategic planning is the process by which members of an organization envision its future and develop the necessary procedures and operations to achieve that future (Pfeiffer, Goodstein, & Nolan, 1986; Rothwell, 1989)
  • Strategic planning is the process of identifying an organization's long-term goals and objectives and then determining the best approach for achieving those goals and objectives (Boston University)
  • Planning for a set of managerial decision and actions that determine the long-term performance of an organization (ecommerce)

In essence, a strategic plan is a road map to lead an organization from where it is now to where it would like to be in five or ten years. Thus, when you are asked to create a budget that is 15% less than this year's, you can look at the strategic direction that has been set and begin to ask the hard questions - if we eliminate this - are we eliminating an essential component of our vision, or our core services?

Fire Departments, just by its very nature, have a tendency to accumulate a number of responsibilities - high angle rescue, dive rescue, hazardous materials, urban search and rescue, and the list continues to grow. Although all of these are extremely important, are these essential responsibilities of your particular department? What does your data show regarding the frequency of these events? Is it time to explore partnerships with surrounding departments to consolidate your services?

If you had developed a long-term planning document, it might have provided a clearer picture of what the future held and your department might have already started planning for such circumstances.

How to Develop a Strategic Plan
Many organizations go to great lengths to produce voluminous documents that outline their vision, mission, and strategic initiatives - never to look at it again after production. Whereas strategic plans that are developed and utilized the most are:

  • Simple
  • Written
  • Clear
  • Based on current realities

Most organizations start with a SWOT analysis - Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. With these identified either by you and your command staff, (in some departments all rank and file are included) you have the basis to determine what you are good at and need to continue to build upon; what areas you need to further develop; where do opportunities exist that need to be captured; and what threats should you at least be aware of, if not planning for.

Essential to a strategic plan is the development or reaffirmation of the department's vision - what type of department should it be; as well as its mission - what is the purpose/function of the department.

These three pieces of information - the SWOT, your vision and mission should be the guiding instruments in your decision making processes. Do you take on this responsibility? If so, does it get you closer to your vision and still fit within your current mission; or is it something that would be 'nice to do' but in today's economic realities - not realistic.

Most simple strategic plans highlight four or five strategic initiatives that culminate the SWOT analysis. With these initiatives - short and long term goals are established and/or updated during the budget process. Those goals that have been completed should be highlighted within the department to demonstrate its accomplishments; and communicated externally to show your elected/governing officials as well as the public the outcomes achieved.

Why Do Strategic Planning?
Think of a strategic plan as the roadmap for the organization. As an analogy - would you go fishing in Lake Michigan, even with a boat stocked with gear, bait, and coolers of beer, if you didn't have a rudder? Without a rudder, roadmap, whatever you want to call it - how are you going to get from here to there?

In this day and age, it is essential as the chief administrator of your organization to be able to clearly articulate to your governing officials the purpose and vision of your department. In other words:

  • Fire Departments can no longer just react to issues
  • You must begin to anticipate future change rather than merely react to it (or in some cases be forced to react)
  • You need to meet the obligations of the fire service and the community through:
    • Careful allocation of resources
    • Use of resources in the most efficient manner by
    • Determining priority areas (Identification of, pursue, and achievement of goals)

Thus, the strategic plan becomes a tool for the decision makers as to the department's priorities; its tie to the community; developing an action plan; and finally develops the rationale behind your allocation of resources.

If you have read this far in the article, you either have a strategic plan or feel that one may be of benefit to your organization - you unfortunately are in the minority. Rather, the vast majority of fire chiefs who didn't read this article or dismissed it, do not feel strategic planning is necessary or see it of value. Rather one must assume that these individuals will continue to react to situations and base their decisions on preserving tradition.

So you can put a fire out without a strategic plan? Yes, but our research on finding extremely successful fire departments found that these departments had a well-defined, simple strategic plan that helped guide their decision making process. They used it as a tool to get buy-in from their members, and communicate their functions to the governing decision makers. Maybe it is just a coincidence!