Strategic planning is vital in the fire service. No matter the size or type of your department, a 5-, 10- or even 20-year strategic plan outlines how the organization will address changing community dynamics, replace essential equipment and meet growth objectives. If you’re operating without a strategic plan, regardless of department size, you’re asking people to get in a boat and row when they don’t know where they’re going.
While many fire departments have become used to strategic planning, fewer are adept at aligning their policies with their strategic plan. Unfortunately, this is an oversight that can threaten the department’s ability to achieve the objectives outlined in the plan. Identifying the policies and procedures that will need to be in place or to change as the department changes is key to being ready for the next objective.
The Need for Fire Department Strategic Planning
I often talk with chiefs who say they wish they had a crystal ball so they could see what’s coming next for their community and their department. Fire department strategic planning gives you the next best thing. A well-written strategic plan will provide awareness of what’s going on in your specific environment.
Key to the process is getting a cross section of feedback from within the organization – different ranks (e.g., frontline firefighters, mid-level management), decision-makers, city council and labor representatives. But input should also come from outside the organization – from community members, other local government departments such as utilities, and the convention and visitors bureau if you have a tourist-based economy. In a city that’s primarily industry, you should be getting with your industry partners to see what they are planning for the next several years. If a local manufacturer will be rolling out a major plant expansion, you want to be aware of it and factoring in how it will impact your department.
In business, strategic plans are often focused on the growth of the organization over time. It’s not much different in the fire service. Most of us live in communities that are getting bigger, with call volume increasing. A fire department strategic plan accounts for those trends, positioning the organization to meet the changing needs of the community, instead of always scrambling to catch up. It outlines a vision of where you want to be in 5 or 10 years, then reverse-engineers how you’re going to get there.
Aligning Fire Department Policies with Strategic Planning
Regardless of whether you have a strategic plan in place or are just starting the process, your department policies must support the plan. Let’s look at a few key areas to illustrate.
As your community grows, your department will need to grow in staffing, too. For some departments this may include a shift from volunteer to combination or combination to fully career. In others, it may mean the addition of new ranks. These are changes that should be planned years in advance. And there is a huge policy component that must be accounted for, including policies and procedures that govern job descriptions, the promotional process, task books, Fair Labor Standards Act status, overtime and more.
If your strategic plan says you’re going to add battalion chiefs in three years, don’t wait for three years; start working on the policy now.
It’s important to be strategic when making personnel changes. If your strategic plan says you’re going to add battalion chiefs in three years, don’t wait for three years; start working on the policy now. Because now is the time you can bring in the stakeholders, talk to company officers, talk to your governing officials about salary, and work out those details long before the first battalion chief is hired.
Evolving technologies often require policy and procedure changes. Consider, for example, the current shift to hybrid/electric apparatus. While this change is coming faster in some regions than others, when it comes, it has a direct impact on things like apparatus checks, maintenance schedules and safety measures associated with operating the apparatus – all of which must be addressed in policy and procedure. If your department’s next apparatus will be electric, now is when you should be working through those policy changes.
And for those leaders determined to dig their heels in and resist the electric vehicle wave, there are plenty of other technologies to consider. New air packs may require changes to fit testing procedures. The scrutiny on PFAS in firefighter turnouts is bringing up the question of whether firefighters should only wear turnouts for structure fire calls. That of course affects policies governing the PPE ensembles we require personnel to wear to various call types. And a lot of fire departments are moving to equip all apparatus with air-monitoring devices. Is this equipment standardized?
Bottom line: You can have all the money in the world and put wonderful equipment in your people’s hands, but if you don’t have policies that cover use, maintenance, safety and more, you are creating risk and liability.
From clean cabs to fireground decon to exposure tracking to station renovations, cancer prevention is one of the fastest-changing areas of fire department operations. While some departments can implement many of these changes quickly, most will need to build them in over three to five years or more. Again, these are changes that have a direct impact on the policies and procedures your personnel depend on.
Fire Station Construction
Gone are the days when a fire station had a simple apparatus bay, kitchen, relaxation area and sleeping quarters. Today, fire stations are being built with highly sophisticated engineered controls – clean rooms, dirty rooms, decon rooms, etc. All these changes must be supported by changes in policy. For example, the new station is designed to keep PPE well-ventilated, but your policies don’t make clear that gear must remain in rooms that are well-ventilated. Just like a new ladder truck that won’t fit in the apparatus bay, you can easily face a situation where you’ve invested $5 million in the facility but lack the policies to use the facility properly.
New Building Construction
Construction in your community is another factor. Where I live, we’re experiencing an expansion of four- and five-story buildings. That means we need to think about ladder trucks, standpipes, mid-rise firefighting tactics and training – and the policy and procedures that go with it.
Community Risk Reduction
Community risk reduction (CRR) is another rapidly changing area in the fire service. Your strategic plan must account for how your community is evolving. Are there some areas in decline while others are building and growing? What are the demographic changes? How will those change the risks facing community members, and how will you address those risks? As CRR becomes a larger part of your department’s mission, you need to think about how it will be addressed in governing documents. Does CRR fall under the prevention division? Or does it have a separate place on the organization chart? Do you need a CRR policy? What standard operating guidelines will you need to support this policy?
The Next Best Thing
Fire service leaders don’t have a crystal ball, but we do have more tools than we often realize. Fire department strategic planning helps you envision where the organization needs to go to support the changes in your community. Policies and procedures translate this vision into reality.
And by aligning policies with strategic planning, you can more easily forecast the financial support you’ll need to achieve your goals, whether that is a budget increase approval or a bond or other tax initiative.
Don’t be afraid to peer behind the curtain of your own organization. Find out what’s missing, what’s working. And as you continue to try to anticipate future challenges, make sure your policies and procedures support those initiatives.