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Maintaining a Mission-First Fire Service Culture

     Every department, group, organization, team, etc was initially created to achieve a mission. The founding members of the organization clearly understood what that mission was, and focused their efforts on achieving it. Over time though, the organization can lose focus on that mission.

     What is your fire department’s mission? Why does it exist? What is its purpose? What is it’s WHY? Yes, I know that there are many departments with well thought out, although perhaps long winded mission statements. However, do your people really know what the mission is, and more importantly do they focus on that mission in everything they do and every decision they make every day? It is the job of the leadership to clearly define and exemplify the mission to the organization, and this requires more than just an eloquently written mission statement paragraph that no one can remember.

     Arguably, the sole mission of any fire department, boiled down to one word is SERVICE, service to the people of our community and to our personnel charged with fulfilling that mission. This consists of more than just putting out fires and taking people to the hospital, it means service in any way that we can be of service to enhance their quality of life. That mission must come first and be the primary consideration in what everyone does every day, from the newest firefighter to the fire chief, and regardless of assignment. We are all here for the same mission. Mission first.

     Suppression and EMS/Operations personnel, firefighters, drivers, company officers, chief officers, training staff, code inspectors, fire prevention educators, IT staff, Supply/Technical Services staff, department administration, civilian staff, etc all have the same mission, even though they may contribute to it in different ways. Think about it. Code inspectors and fire prevention staff probably save more civilian and firefighter lives each year than all of the rapid intervention teams and operations personnel put together. How many lives have they saved by making sure exits are clearly marked and not blocked, by making sure that building plans are developed according to codes, by educating people on how to get out of their homes, and making it less likely that first arriving firefighters don’t have to extend a much higher level of risk, in an already bad situation, to get those people out? Mission first.

     Want to know what a department’s real priorities are, in black and white? Don’t read its lengthy mission statement framed on the wall, take a look at the budget. Nowhere else is it so clearly defined in black and white by the leadership of the department what the priorities are than in the budget and the budget decisions that are made. The mission of the fire department is not to try to cut the budget as much as possible. While financial responsibility is a high consideration, the mission is to serve, and the budget should be developed and used as effectively and efficiently as possible to achieve that mission. For instance, we always talk about how important training and fire prevention are, but does your budget reflect that priority, or are those the least funded areas and the first to get cut? While department management sets the budget, all personnel, including labor organizations are also responsible for focusing on and holding management to the mission through the budget. During labor contract negotiations, are labor leaders requesting requirements and funding for mandatory training and education in addition to requirements for mandatory staffing levels? Staffing levels alone do not increase safety, effectively trained staffing levels do. Mission first.

     Sometimes an organization that was once clearly focused on the mission, begins to get fuzzy on it, and the organization begins to focus more on numbers and metrics rather than the real mission. This often occurs because numbers and metrics are easy to measure and enforce. I like to refer to those things that we may be required to do, but that don’t necessarily help us achieve the real mission, as fluff. For instance, we focus more on achieving a certain number of training hours each month or year, a certain number of preplans, inspections, tasks, forms completed correctly or boxes checked rather than whether or not all those things we are doing are actually helping us achieve the mission. Don’t focus on the numbers or the metrics, focus on the results and the mission. Is your training program focused on achieving a set number of hours or certain certification levels, or is it focused on developing a certain level of knowledge, skills and abilities in your personnel so they can effectively achieve the mission in a safer manner? Mission first.

     Trying to simply avoid errors, rather than focusing on achieving excellence also distracts us from the mission. We do this when the organization becomes more worried about whether a policy or procedure was followed correctly, instead of whether excellence was achieved in the result. Ret. U.S. Navy submarine Capt. David L. Marquet states, “ When it comes to processes, adherence to the process frequently becomes the objective, as opposed to achieving the objective that the process was put in place to achieve. The goal then becomes to avoid errors in the process” (Marquet, 2012). Mission first.

     All personnel should be focused on the mission in every action they take and decision they make every day. The mission, articulated and exemplified by the leaders, should be clear enough to allow everyone to ask themselves, “Is what I am doing, or about to do, helping the organization to achieve its overall mission?” If the answer is no, or I don’t know, what’s the point, and why are they doing it? On every level, at every rank, and in every position, keep the organization focused on the mission first!

CHRIS LANGLOIS, is a Captain with the Omaha Fire Department and a 29-year veteran of the fire service serving in volunteer, combination and career fire departments. He has been with the Omaha Fire Department for the last 16 years, including over 5 years with the OFD Training Division. He currently serves as the captain of an engine company and is a Plans Team Manager with the Nebraska Task Force 1 US&R Team. He was the 2014 Nebraska Society of Fire Service Instructors- Instructor of the Year and was an FDIC instructor in 2013 and 2014. His national certifications include Firefighter II, Instructor II, Officer II, Driver/operator, Incident Safety Officer, and NREMT-paramedic. He holds an associate degree in fire science, a bachelor's degree in public fire administration, a master's degree in executive fire service leadership and is in the 4th year of pursuing his Executive Fire Officer certification

 

Marquet, D.L. (2012). Turn the Ship Around! New York, NY. Penguin Group

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