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Leader’s intent: Put your mission statement into action

A mission statement explains the why, and a leader’s intent explains the how

Corporate Communication Concept, Our Mission.

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The fire service itself has three main objectives – life safety, incident stabilization and property conservation – that are hammered into each of us from the minute we begin our fire training and all the way through our careers. Similarly, most fire departments have a mission statement that reflects these objectives.

Some statements refer to our all-hazards response and community risk reduction efforts, which are great concepts worked into superb marketing, especially to our external stakeholders and citizens. But what comes after the mission statement? How many organizations offer guidance on how we, the members, will achieve mission success? This is where we must follow a “leader’s intent” model, driven by our company officers at the company level and/or chief officers if implemented department-wide.

Mission statements vs. leader’s intent statements

Mission statements must be succinct. Many are several paragraphs long and try to define our purpose, even existence. Our mission statements should not be about our organizations, but rather our collective fire service mission of saving lives. In doing so, everything that we do – from prevention, training, EMS response, public education and firefighting – all becomes refocused and brought back into alignment with our mission statements. But it must be communicated through a leader’s intent; otherwise, the subjectivity begins to create discord in the organization.

The leader’s intent (also known as a commander’s intent in the military) defines a desired end-state or, in our world as firefighters, how we will accomplish our mission. Sure, we can say we strive to protect life and property, educate the public, reduce fire risk, and provide superb customer service, but how are we actually going to do that?

The answer is likely subjective to each and every firefighter based upon their views of the organization, their experience level, and their training. Yes we have robust training plans and terrific tactical- and strategic-level skills, but when was the last time that you sat down with your crew and discussed the mentality of being a firefighter? We have a plan for what hoseline to pull for a one-alarm house fire, and we are likely very good with deploying ground ladders and performing a search. But are we good at setting an expectation so that we live up to the words that we have placed upon our walls? Or on the contrary, are we settling for mediocrity because the mission statement is essentially meaningless to our members?

A sample leader’s intent model for a fire company

The beautiful thing about a leader’s intent is that it can be adaptable. A leader’s intent can be cultivated by a company officer in order to set expectations of the company and how it relates to the overall department. It can also be created by the fire chief so that all uniformed personnel understand and act in a manner in accordance with the department’s mission. On the other hand, our mission statement is not adaptable, as our core principles of life safety, incident stabilization and property conservation occur in every response. For example, I created a leader’s intent for just my fire company, detailing an eight-step process for our daily operations and performance.

Step 1: Be mentally, physically and spiritually able to perform our duties daily, at all hours, every shift.

  • Mentally equates to job knowledge such as protocols, street knowledge and tactics.
  • Physically is not only strength but also skill. Ensuring that our firefighters can deploy a handline, that they can indeed force a door, is trained upon religiously in many organizations, but the leaders’ intent solidifies its importance.
  • Spiritually is having sound body and mind. We ensure that our members are mentally present and not distracted by outside stressors. The job of a firefighter is stressful, and even more stressful when finances or relationships are impacting job performance. By establishing this first concept, we have seen an improvement with members reaching out for help, asking each other how they are doing and recognizing when a member is having an off day. In short, it has reintroduced a family atmosphere back into the firehouse.

Step 2: In the absence of clear direction, begin suppression operations. This simple statement empowers firefighters to flow water at fire and begin stabilizing our incidents. Note that we don’t describe where to flow water, but instead allow the decentralized decision-making to be made at the nozzle position. The nozzle firefighter decides where and when to operate the line, and training is tailored to give the nozzle firefighter the knowledge, skills and abilities to make such an educated decision. Coupled with training on tactics, flow path and construction, we can begin to build smarter, more capable and aggressive firefighters.

Step 3: We shall occupy searchable space in fire buildings. This statement sets the standard and prepares members for interior operations. While we do train on search and rescue quite often, it is a mentality that firefighters must possess and cultivate in order to be successful. Receiving an order to vent-enter-isolate-search (VEIS) a window should not be a surprise, and this intent step ensures that members are ready to put everything on the line for victims. It also paints a picture that, despite flames showing, our firefighters will be making entry, isolating spaces, and searching for victims when conditions dictate.

Step 4: In the absence of credible intelligence on victim locations, prioritize bedrooms, living spaces and egress corridors. We base this step on current best practices and data from the Firefighter Rescue Survey. We know that most victims are found fleeing or in their bedrooms, so we move to those areas for search unless told otherwise. This allows all firefighters to be on the same page regarding search tactics and patterns, which improves fireground performance and accountability.

Step 5: You will be asked to perform at peak levels, for an event you’ve never done before, so be prepared. This step reaffirms our commitment to having a professional firefighters’ mentality, regardless of status or pay. As civil servants, we are the only ones responding to mitigate the fire problem and rescue people. Despite internal problems or drama in the department, we must have our citizens in mind first and be ready to engage in aggressive actions to save them.

Step 6: Expect fire, expect victims. It is a fire until we say it’s not. This step defines our readiness to respond and our attitudes on the apparatus when responding and cuts down on complacency. All members have their PPE and tools ready and act accordingly.

Step 7: Solve problems and bring order to chaos, to the best of our combined abilities. This step refers to teamwork and a team mindset and that no firefighter is superior to another. Each of us has strengths and weaknesses, and incident mitigation begins by combining all of our strengths and weaknesses to collectively fix the issue. We can’t move hose alone effectively.

Step 8: Their emergencies are our emergencies, and we are here to serve them. This last and final step in our intent places a servant leadership attitude at the forefront of our firefighters. We explain that we will not tolerate selfishness over selfless service nor do we want an inflated ego. We are able to check our attitudes at the door and take ownership of the problem and work to solve it, as if it is our own family on the line.

Take the leap and execute

Bottom line: A mission statement explains the why, and a leader’s intent explains the how. Both are crucial components of successful organizations, and the absence of one can create a leadership vacuum and a misalignment of core principles. Using both components together removes any doubt as to how we will meet our mission statement and refocuses the workforce into specific objectives. This should help improve morale as well as fireground and firehouse performance. Camaraderie is enhanced and members feel more comfortable performing their jobs.

Craft your leader’s intent based upon your organization’s guiding principles. If your organization does not have a mission statement or even if it needs an overhaul, now is the time to act. Empower your firefighters, have difficult conversations, set standards, and determine what your organization truly believes. From there it is as simple as developing a roadmap of how you and your team will live up to the standards and mission that you’ve set. A leader’s intent will hold you, your team and your organization accountable to each other, the fire service and, most importantly, the people you’ve sworn to save. It works, it just takes some courage to take the leap and execute it.

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Trevor Frodge is a fire lieutenant with the West Chester Fire Department in suburban Cincinnati, Ohio, currently assigned to one of two rescue engines. He is a nationally registered paramedic, fire and EMS instructor, and fire inspector. Frodge is a member of the Butler County Technical Rescue Team, as well as a Hazardous Materials Specialist for Ohio Task Force 1.