The fire service mission: A standard of accountable performance
Understanding what guides firefighters' efforts, decision making and general direction leads to improved operations, community service and safety
By Pedro Cáceres
As fire service leaders, we’re faced with many questions. Do you know where you are going? More importantly, do your people know where you are taking them? How do you hold yourself and the organization accountable?
Answering these questions reveals why understanding the mission is so important. You often hear leaders speak of their organization as a “mission first” department, but they are unable to define their own mission. Worse yet, their members are unable to define or even speak to the mission.
The mission is often expressed in a long statement which is often designed to cover lofty goals and political priorities. The true mission for the fire service does not need to be a complex algorithm that addresses every specific community concern. A mission of this type leads to confusing and sometimes competing priorities. This makes it difficult for personnel to prioritize in order to make correct decisions. Under these circumstances, the mission gets lost.
Make a positive difference
Today, I see the mission for my shift and for the fire service in general in simple terms. I believe our mission is to make a positive difference in the lives of those we serve. This is a simple mission, but not an easy one.
When I was first promoted to battalion chief, I spent the weeks prior to assuming the position thinking about how I would lead my shift. I tried to define the mission for our shift. I wondered what would drive our efforts, our decision making and our general direction?
This has been an ongoing process which has required feedback and refining over time. This mission requires significant work. However, this work is worth the effort because the mission guides much of what we do every day.
Three expectations for fire officers, firefighters and EMS
I have three general expectations which I emphasize to my officers and EMS supervisors regularly. These expectations are the strategies that support our mission.
1. Emphasize education
First, I expect fire officers, firefighters and EMS personnel to be well-educated. This does not necessarily mean that they must have a college degree, although that often helps. I would like for firefighters and officers to read and to learn about our profession, and the environment in which we operate, including the political, economic and social factors that affect us every day.
Firefighter training is also an important part of education. I would like firefighters to know their job well. Firefighters should understand and master the technical components of the job. This lifelong learning process is a way to improve individuals, companies and the entire department. It also helps to address succession planning as we are all engaged in the learning and self-improving process. Education can be achieved by attending a college or higher learning institution, such as the NFA, but also by reading, training and sharing experience. I try to maximize those development opportunities for all members of the department.
2. Stay fit
Second, I expect fire officers and firefighters to be in reasonably good physical condition. Knowing your job well will not be helpful if you do not have the physical stamina to complete the work. Firefighters will not make a positive difference if they cannot complete tasks efficiently and effectively because they lack the conditioning necessary to execute those tasks.
Firefighting is a physical occupation, especially when it matter the most. When lives are at risk and we must put our lives on the line, firefighting will require knowledge and physicality.
3. Maintain a positive attitude
Third, I expect fire officers, firefighters and all EMS personnel to have a positive attitude. No one will make a positive difference in anyone’s life if they do not have a positive attitude themselves. I do not tolerate negativity, conspiracy theorists or the attitudes of angry personnel to undermine our ability to properly serve our community.
I understand that some things may be frustrating at times and that things happen which can affect our moods, but as professionals, we cannot allow those frustrations to surface before the public’s eye and get in the way of our mission. If firefighters must vent, they are encouraged to do so in the privacy of the apparatus or the firehouse, then move on and refocus on the mission.
We sometimes lose track of what is really important, and worry about things outside of our control or that ultimately have little effect on what we do. We have to make sure those little frustrations do not build up enough to disrupt the pursuit of the mission.
Improving firefighter safety and wellbeing
Having a mission and a supporting strategy has additional benefits for the entire organization. If the fire officers, firefighters and EMS personnel understand their mission, it allows them to also make better decisions when faced with complex or unusual situations.
Understanding the mission allows all members to double check their solutions before they act, thus minimizing conflicts. Their education, training, physical ability and positive attitude will allow them to confidently evaluate, decide and execute to achieve a positive outcome regardless of the situation.
The mission becomes a simple standard of performance to which all personnel can be held accountable. Whether they have to make an interior attack or manage a difficult patient on an EMS run, this strategy will allow them to make decisions with the knowledge, ability and the guiding principles to execute as required.
Having a clear mission and supporting strategies addresses one more big concern. As a chief officer, my primary concern is the safety and wellbeing of all our responding personnel. However, if fire officers, firefighters and EMS personnel are educated, well trained, physically fit and have a positive attitude, their chances of making poor decision or getting hurt are tremendously reduced. Understanding that the mission also improves the safety and wellbeing of the firefighters is reassuring.
I understand that the world in which we operate is complex. Laws, standards, politics, economics, human behaviors, personalities and a multitude of other circumstances can complicate our everyday activities. This makes it even more important that we focus on the mission.
We can easily get tangled up in the demands of our responsibility areas and lose track of why we are even doing the things we do. Knowing the mission and pursuing it every day will keep us focused on what is important, which is making a positive difference for those we serve.
About the author
Pedro Cáceres began his career with the Wayne Township Fire Department just over 23 years ago. After obtaining an architecture degree from Ball State University and working as an architect for a few years, he transitioned into a full time career in the fire service. He has been promoted over the years to various ranks from private up to his current rank of battalion chief. He has served as the division chief of support services and as division chief of training and safety. He is a member of the Indiana Task Force One (INTF-1) team as a rescue officer. He is a member of the Indiana Smoke Diver Association. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy. He also earned a Master’s of Public Affairs from Indiana University.