Mission critical: Plot your fire department's course

Volunteer fire departments need a clear and guiding mission to serve their communities now and tomorrow


As firefighters, we are very good at putting out fires. We have trained to respond with no notice, to any incident and react immediately.

The problem is that we are so good at responding to emergencies that we fail to plan. This includes any concept of strategic planning for the fire department itself. We just figure we will always be here and can handle any problem handed to us, even if this is not true.

The success of fire-prevention efforts has reduced the number of working fires, and our communities themselves keep changing.

We've changed
The idea of creating and having a volunteer fire department because someone's barn burn down may have worked in the 1800s, but it won't keep us going now. A volunteer fire department is now a business, with employees (even if they are unpaid) that serves customers and is paid for those services (even if it is through fundraising and flipping pancakes). 

As a result, we can no longer just respond to emergencies. We need to have a mission that guides us and a process that measures our success. We need to show the customers that we are providing a value in achieving this mission.

It is not enough for us to say, "we will be there when you need us." Emergencies don't get funding, but missions do.

Mission statements are often the subject of ridicule because they are just 'words on the wall.'

Volunteer fire departments that have mission statements, often have ones that are too long and were created in silos. The classic test is that if a mission statement cannot be recited at gunpoint, it is too long.

Also, if your members do not understand or appreciate what the mission of the organization is, they can never achieve it.

The future is that way
In order to get away from our firefighting nature, you need to make a conscious effort, possibly through a visioning exercise, to understand your mission. The first step may be a simple question to all of your members of: Where will the organization be in five, 10 or 20 years?

The answer "fighting fires" is wrong in this case. We will always be fighting fires (probably), but an organization needs a true mission for all of the things that are needed to fight the fires such as people, funding and equipment. 

The other problem is that if the mission is to fight fires, then anything outside of that is against the mission. 

The challenge is to think broad yet keep the focus on what matters. This is where getting nonfirefighters involved — such as community leaders — may help. 

The question becomes how to create a mission that serves your department, your members and your community equally. The end result of the mission statement should be a guiding principle for daily operations and future decisions.

What exactly your mission statement is will vary from department to department. Some may quibble over whether you are developing a mission or vision statement, but either way, departments need a guiding principle that goes beyond just reacting to emergencies.

Your mission needs to be at the forefront to ensure you are on the right path between fires. With this in hand, volunteer firefighting will, over time, shift from a reactionary mindset to a future-looking organization.

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