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Emergency Services: The Best Strategic Planning Tactics (Part 1)

By Randall Hanifen
Contributor, EDM Digest

This is the first article in a series on strategic planning in emergency management organizations.

The time of year is coming up in most emergency service organizations that the development of budgets is coming due. But developing a budget requires strategic planning and knowing what you want to accomplish in your organization over the next one to five years.

However, many emergency service organizations have no formalized plan for where their organization plans to be in five years. My belief is that the idea of strategic planning scares most organizations, due to the level of complexity many plans contain.

The Traditional Format of Emergency Services Strategic Planning

Typically, a strategic plan needs involvement from many internal and external stakeholders to be properly developed. From a fire department perspective, the people involved should include one person from each level in the organization, the governing municipality, labor unions and local citizens. This involvement ensures that the plan has buy-in from everyone who will be affected by the plan.

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Depending on the alignment of these people, strategic planning can be a very synergistic process or a very contentious process. It can also be affected by organizational culture.

Even if the process is on the contentious side, however, a true leader is able to use divergent mindsets and play into what everyone wants and needs. The strategic planning process becomes a negotiation in the sense it brings different parties together, allows the plan to be the objective part of the problem and takes away some of the feelings.

Once everyone is in agreement or at least acknowledges a plan’s strategic direction and some of the higher strategic goals, the next phase is to add measurable objectives to strategic planning. For instance, one objective may be to reduce the rate of fires and fire losses in a community. This goal seems simple, but is actually a very broad goal that has many facets to consider. For instance, community risk reduction objectives may call for the development of a campaign that is targeted at the highest cause of fires, which in many communities is cooking fires.

Another objective could be the instillation of sprinklers or under-hood suppression units, which could be designed to result in tax credits. Lastly, the reduction of losses once a fire has occurred are often accomplished through fire suppression forces, which find success through the proper number of personnel expertly trained to contain fires. The objective may be to increase the fire suppression forces in high-fire incidence areas of a community.

There are also tasks – ranging from one to over 20 – that will be needed to complete a strategic plan’s objectives, which will be the most detailed part of a strategic plan. This part of the plan can also change with great frequency, as any project is susceptible to numerous changes through its lifespan. When there are changes to the project, the tasks will change accordingly.

Some people prefer to only include large tasks in a strategic plan to reduce the number of changes, while others like very detailed tasks to ensure that any personnel working on a project know exactly what tasks must be completed. But this level of detail will be driven by both the project specifics and the people working on the project. As a project manager becomes more comfortable with the strategic planning team, the level of detail will not be as prevalent.

Frustrations with Emergency Services Strategic Planning

Many people in the fire service complain about strategic planning due to the level of complexity and interdependence on all of the aspects of the plan. A strategic plan can be cumbersome, but its development is often very time-consuming in a profession that often does not have many personnel in positions who have the time to complete this task.

Often, emergency services have organizations with many operations-based personnel who are tied to a shift and remain busy answering calls. Secondly, only a handful of people in many public safety organizations understand and can develop strategic planning documents, which limits the number of people who can work on the document simultaneously.

Lastly, many emergency services personnel have not worked in an organization that uses detailed strategic planning. As a result, they lack a belief in the development process.

In my next article, I will discuss the reverse engineering needed to bring strategic planning into an emergency services organization that has not used the process before.

Dr. Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. from a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.

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