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How to Ensure That Your Department Fulfills Its Vision

This article originally appeared in the March 2014 edition of Fire Engineering magazine.

Why are we here? Why does the fire department exist? What are we trying to achieve each time we show up for our duty shift or are toned out to an emergency? Many fire departments have a mission statement that usually consists of a short explanation of what the department does to protect the life and property of the people of the community, but what exactly does that encompass, and what do the people really want and expect from their fire department?

Some might say an excellent outcome is a four-minute response time or achieving a minimum staffing level of four firefighters per apparatus or extinguishing a room-and-contents fire. On an individual level, it may be donning a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) in under 60 seconds. These are all excellent milestones to work toward and achieve, but are they truly outcomes? To figure out what real outcomes are, we must determine what the people we protect really care about and want from us. What do they really want and need? Career or volunteer, the people are paying for fire/emergency services, so isn't it our responsibility to at least know what they really care about and then do our best to give it to them?

What most people really care about are outcomes, big-picture outcomes, which is sometimes beyond our narrow fire service view. At 2:30 a.m. when they are experiencing their worst nightmare, people do not care about four-minute response times, how many firefighters show up, how quickly you can don an SCBA, or how many certifications or years of experience your firefighters have. Things like response times are not outcomes.

Ask regular citizens what they want from their fire department, and they will probably say something like, "When I have a problem and I call the fire department for help, I want them to show up fast and fix the problem. I want them to do everything possible to get me as close as they can back to where I was before the problem occurred." Simple enough. Although they might mention a "fast" response, they usually never quantify that in a certain number of minutes. Our four or five minutes will usually always seem like 15 or 20 to them. They just want us there quickly enough to be able to stop the bad stuff from happening and fix the problem. Sounds reasonable.

People value outcomes. They want us to protect five essentials things they value more than anything else:

  • Life
  • Health
  • Wealth
  • Security
  • Quality of Life (i.e., environment, employment, education, freedom, family)

Outcomes are the language of the people in the street and the policy makers, the elected officials who determine our funding levels. It is vitally important that the fire service speak and understand their language if we are to survive and provide the best possible service.

Quick response times and adequate staffing levels, for example, are important milestones to achieve, but they, in and of themselves, are not outcomes. It doesn't matter how fast you show up or with how many personnel if, for instance, those personnel don't have the training, equipment, preparation, or strong coordinated command to save someone's family. Achieving a quick knockdown of a bedroom fire means nothing if you fail to complete an adequate primary search and miss the unconscious two-year-old girl in the next room.

Everything we do every day down to the smallest detail should be focused on achieving excellent outcomes. From the firefighters' checking their SCBAs in the morning to the chief's working on next year's budget, everyone should be focused on creating excellent outcomes for their customers. For company officers, that includes making sure their crew is prepared, trained, equipped, and disciplined enough for the challenge. Slackers are not allowed or tolerated if you truly care about excellent outcomes.

As a leader, are your people empowered to make everyday decisions that achieve excellent outcomes, and do you support those right decisions made at the right time for the right reasons? Or, are your personnel worried only about what the policy or standard operating procedure (SOP) says so they will not get in trouble? For instance, an engine company responds to a car fire on the interstate. After exploring several alternatives, the crew winds up giving the driver a ride on the engine to a local business so he will not be late for an important job interview to which he was originally going. Would that crew face disciplinary action because the department's policy states that civilians are not allowed to ride on fire apparatus without prior written permission from the chief? Or would they get an "Atta boy" from the chief for going the extra mile, doing the right thing, and creating an excellent outcome instead of just showing up, extinguishing the fire, and leaving the driver standing on the side of the road?

Many firefighters would see the car fire as our only responsibility in this situation; however, if you look at the bigger picture, what really matters to the person who called us for help is getting to the job interview on time. What part of this incident will make a bigger impact on that person's life and opinion of the fire department: extinguishing the fire or getting a ride to the interview? It's all about outcomes in everything we do.

As fire service leaders and followers alike, we must examine our mission and ensure that our focus is on the creation of those excellent outcomes every day and in all things. Let us become leaders in what we do because we never lose sight of why we do it!

Inspiring Vision or "So, Chief, Where Are We Going?"

The author Lewis Carroll said, "If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there." Does your department have a clear picture of where it is going and what it wants to become? Has your department's leadership shared that vision with you? If not, one of two situations exists: You're riding in a rudderless ship and probably heading for the rocks, or the leaders know where they want to take themselves and the organization but, for whatever reason, are keeping it to themselves. Either way, it doesn't help you, your department, or the people you serve.

A fire department exists, or should exist, to create excellent outcomes for all of its customers, including its own people and everyone its members encounter every day. Concisely, we exist to do the right thing. Therefore, if the mission is what we do or our purpose, the vision is a picture of where we want to go and what we want to become or achieve. The fire department is not stagnant. We are constantly doing things such as training, public education, code enforcement, and responding to emergency calls. So where is all this leading? Where are we going, and are the firefighters on the other shift, at the next station, or in the neighboring battalion all working toward the same goal? On a smaller scale, what about the other firefighters on your rig?

The leader initiates a vision and shares it with all. When a leader shares an inspiring vision, it gets everyone on the same path and pulling in the same direction toward the same goal. There are few things more powerful than a shared, inspiring, and passionate vision! The vision is the picture of what the future will be like; it is the end result, not the journey. Together we all create the journey that will get us there. For a vision to be effective it must be 1) clear, 2) correct in that it is in line with the organization's values and supports its mission, 3) challenging (a challenge make us proud of what we have accomplished), 4) achievable, and   5)positive/inspiring (work toward what you want to create, not dispose of-be positive).

The vision must also be shared and acted on every day. A vision becomes powerful only when everyone shares it and works toward it every day. Every firefighter and officer all the way up to the chief work toward the goal together and support each other. Everyone must constantly ask themselves in emergency and non-emergency situations, "Is what I am doing right now helping the department as a whole get closer to achieving its vision?" However, you have to know where you're going before you can answer that question. So, if you don't know what your department's vision is, how do you make those decisions every day? The vision must be shared and supported by all.

We all either currently are or at some time in our past have been a part of an organization that had no shared vision or had a vision that did not meet the above five criteria, and we have all seen what the results were. When this happens, people tend to create their own personal vision that may not support the fire department's mission. We end up with firefighters who are not focused on being firefighters. In career departments, people may focus on their side jobs, on their paycheck/pension, or on gaining power/prestige by moving up the chain of command. Volunteer departments may see personnel who are concerned only with getting elected, being popular or important, or finding a job as a career firefighter somewhere else. Department leaders can fall prey to this as well.

"An essential characteristic of great leaders is their ability to mobilize people around a shared vision. If it is not in service of a shared vision, leadership can become self-serving. Leaders begin to think their people are there to serve them instead of the customer. Organizations can become self-serving bureaucracies where leaders focus their energies on recognition, power, and status, rather than the organization's larger purpose and goals.

While it is true that the vision is initiated by the leader, you do not have to wait for the chief to realize that he/she is the captain of a rudderless ship. Create a powerful and inspiring vision for your company/crew, your station, your battalion/district, or your shift. Make sure it is clear, correct, challenging, achievable and positive, and ensure that it supports the fire department's mission of creating excellent outcomes. "Vision is the responsibility of every leader at every level of the organization." 1

Everyone, including the leaders, must live the vision every day. Everything you do, every decision you make must be focused on the vision. Leaders committed to the vision may find themselves in unpopular and stormy waters. Achieving the vision may necessitate personal or organizational culture change, which can raise fears and create resistance. Getting everyone on board may not be the easiest thing to do, but it ultimately comes down to the question of why we are really here. A vision without action is only a dream. Action without a vision is a waste of time.

Values-Based Decision Making

Roy Disney, businessman and brother of Walt Disney, once said, "It's not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are." How do we make decisions in the fire service, on and off the fireground? Has anyone ever told you that when you are in a sticky social situation and you do not know what to do, you should think back and ask yourself, "What would my mother want me to do in this situation?" Why is that? It's because your mother taught you values. She probably taught you things like honesty, kindness, and respect for others, things she believed in strongly and passed on to you. She knew that she would not always be standing by your side to tell you what to do and that there would always be pressures from other sources, both good and bad, influencing your decisions. She instilled in you a set of values and expected you to make everyday decisions based on those values. If you think about it, everyday decisions based on those values taught to you by your mother were relatively easy to make-something was either right or it was not. Knowing what to do may be easy, but acting on those values is often difficult. It's easy to know what the right thing is, but it often takes courage to do it.

Everything we do in the fire service consists of decisions. To "always stand by your side and tell you what to do" (something even your mother knew would not be possible), fire departments often become very policy- and procedure-based organizations. Many departments have volumes and volumes of written policies and SOPs. However, what if you are faced with a situation (on the fireground or in the station) for which there is no current policy or procedure? What if the policy/procedure is not appropriate for the situation in which you find yourself? Often, policies are written based on something someone did. Someone messed up and there was no policy addressing that issue at the time, so one was written in an effort to keep everyone else from doing the same thing again. We cannot write a policy/procedure for every decision our people might have to make, especially on the fireground, so there has to be a better way.

Fire service personnel at all levels make decisions every day. Examples include the following:

  • A young firefighter must decide whether to thoroughly check his SCBA in the morning or just assume that it is probably okay. It is his turn to cook breakfast, and the rest of the crew is growling about being hungry.
  • A company officer must decide whether to conduct the daily training drill with his company or just document that it was done.
  • A chief must decide whether to promote his friend to a high-ranking position within the department based purely on their friendship or to promote the best-qualified person for that position from an objective point of view.

Does everything have to be a written policy or procedure, or can we empower our personnel to make decisions based on what the department believes in? Does your department give you a set of core values and then allow you to make decisions based on them? Organizational core values are those things that are so important that they will not be compromised for any reason, at any time.


Values tell us how our leaders and the members of our organization want us to behave and go about achieving the everyday mission and move closer toward the vision. They give us a framework for making everyday decisions.

Three common core values professed by fire departments are duty, honor, and courage:

  • Duty: to serve others, fulfill the responsibilities of our position, and dedicate ourselves to constant improvement.
  • Honor: honesty, integrity, doing the right thing for the right reason.
  • Courage: not only physical courage but also the moral courage to do the right thing no matter how unpopular.

Let's examine the three decision scenarios above from the perspective of being in line with these three core values:

The Firefighter and the SCBA. Duty, honor, and courage compel the firefighter to check his SCBA properly because it is his job to do so and his duty to himself, the other firefighters, and the public they serve. It is the right thing to do even though he may have to endure a few hunger complaints from the other crew members.

The Company Officer and the Training Drill. Duty, honor, and courage compel the officer to not only conduct the drill but to conduct an effective drill that realistically prepares the firefighters to accomplish the mission. It is the officer's duty to those firefighters and the public, and it is the right thing to do. Those core values also instill the courage to step up and motivate the crew to train, even though they really do not want to. The easiest thing for the officer to do would be to skip the drill and avoid the hassle of a conflict as well as running the unpleasant risk of the crew "not liking him" for a while, but it would not be the courageous thing to do.

The Chief and the Promotion. Duty, honor, and courage compel the chief to objectively evaluate each candidate for the promotion. It is the chief's duty to the department and the public to promote the best person possible. Doing the right thing means putting friendship and personal feelings aside. It also means having the courage to promote someone who will always tell the chief the truth and be willing to tell the chief "no" when that answer is appropriate, no matter how unpleasant the situation. Promoting a "friend" might be the easy route; the chief would be told only what the friend thinks the chief wants to hear. It also takes courage to risk a friendship because of doing the right thing, but if that is the case, is it really a true friendship?

Core values guide your decisions. They make it clear to everyone, from the chief to the newest probie, which behaviors are acceptable and which are not, and they must be shared and acted on by everyone. This will tend to lead a department away from a strict policy-based organization and move it toward a values-based organization. In a true values-based organization, there is only one boss, the organization's values.2

Often when the concept of values-based decision making comes up, many people are concerned about making a wrong decision and then being disciplined for that wrong decision, even if it was made with the best of intentions. We can always strive to do the best we can, but wrong decisions are going to happen, especially on the fireground. One answer is to be prepared to justify your decision based on an overriding core value. A decision was made based on the information available at the time (which on the fireground can often be very little or inaccurate information), the situation that was being confronted and your organization's core values. In a true values-based organization, the fire department leadership should be prepared to support the decisions of the firefighters and officers if they were made within the organization's core values. After all, the fire department leadership empowered those firefighters and officers to make those hard, right values-based decisions. It is much better to make a decision based on a core value and the information at hand at the time than not be able to make a decision because you do not know what the written policy/procedure says or there is no policy/procedure for the situation you are facing.

So, what are your department's core values? Does it have any that it has shared with you? If so, are they only framed words hanging on the wall or posted on the department's Web site? Core values must be lived every day by everyone in the organization, especially the leaders. A values-based organization is not just another program or policy; it is a way of life!


  1. Blanchard, K. (2010). Leading at a Higher Level. Upper Saddle River, NJ: FT Press.
  2. Blanchard, K, O'Connor, M. (2003). Managing by Values. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

CHRIS LANGLOIS is a Battalion Chief with the Omaha (NE) Fire Department serving as the Chief of the Safety/Wellness Division. He is a 32 year veteran of the fire service serving in volunteer, combination and career fire departments in both Louisiana and Nebraska, the last 19+ years with Omaha Fire. In Omaha he has served as a firefighter/paramedic, engine company Fire Captain, Training Officer, Chief of the Training Division, and now the Safety Division. He holds an Associate Degree in Fire Science, a Bachelor Degree in Public Fire Administration and a Masters Degree in Executive Fire Service Leadership from Grand Canyon University, as well as being a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program through the National Fire Academy and designation as a Chief Fire Officer (CFO) through the Commission on Professional Credentialing (CPC).

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