Writing an Effective Fire Department Vision Statement

Writing an Effective Fire Department Vision Statement
By Chief Marc Revere

What’s the difference between effective leaders and great leaders? Effective leaders encourage individual members to succeed within the organization. Great leaders communicate a vision that enhances the success of both individuals and the entire fire department.

Most agencies have a mission statement that outlines the organization’s purpose. In 50 years, the fire service’s general mission hasn’t changed all that much—it’s still some form of “protect life and property.” However, small changes have crept in; in the 1980s, with the advent of hazmat responses, protecting the environment was added into many mission statements. Today, some organizations embed ancillary concepts, such as “paradigms,” “stakeholders,” “all-risk,” “diversity,” “collaboration,” etc., into their statements to make their mission unique to the community and its needs. An example of an all-inclusive mission statement: “We exist to care for, protect and serve our communities.”

Most fire departments also have values statements, although relatively few agencies take the time to evaluate and reinforce them (see “Common Ground,” FireRescue, January 2010, p. 56).

However, I’ve found that very few agencies have vision statements that specifically indicate their desired future—where they want to be in the next 1–3 years. Those that do have vision statements often have something that sounds more like a continuation of their original mission statement—expressing what they do, not where they would like to be.

A true vision statement answers one or more of the following three questions:
1.    Where do we want to go?
2.    What do we want to become?
3.    What do we want to accomplish?
This differs from a mission statement, which focuses on what the organization does in the present.

By the sheer nature of their position, the fire chief is responsible for moving the organization in the right direction, so their role is crucial in creating the vision. And to be compelling, that vision must be inspirational and simple to understand.

5 Must-Haves for Any Vision Statement
The following five basic communication principles necessary to create an effective vision have
analogies to the Incident Command System, where common procedures and terminology are important to effective operations. Specifically, the vision should:

1.    Be simple and specific;
2.    Be easily understood;
3.    Be relevant to your agency’s needs;
4.    Use common strategic language; and
5.    Define future direction. 

Simply stated, a vision statement should be clear, concise and memorable. Just as your members need to understand your intent on the fireground, they must also understand the primary focus of the organization’s long-term vision.

Define the Vision
Where does a vision come from? And what should you use as a guide for creating a vision statement?

Steven Covey may have explained this best: “Begin with the end in mind.” When envisioning the change, ask yourself, “What is our preferred future?” Ensure that the answer reflects the beliefs, mission and culture of the organization while describing what you want to see in the future. The mission should also reflect or incorporate your strategic initiatives.

A good vision will challenge the status quo or require an analysis of future trends and demographics. Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement, “I have a dream that all men will be judged by the merit of their character, not by the color of their skin,” is an example of a vision that challenges the status quo. For a fire agency, such a vision might be: “We aim to become an internationally accredited agency with a focus on quality, cost-effectiveness and all-risk service that exceeds our community’s expectations.”

An example of a vision that maps out future direction: JFK’s 1960 “Land a man on the moon and safely return him to earth by the end of this decade.” The fire service equivalent to this could be: “Position the fire district securely (operationally, financially and politically) through and beyond the current economic uncertainty, while creating a predictable and sustainable future.”

Another example: “To build a premier fire agency.” Note that the vision isn’t to be the premier organization or even be recognized as a premier organization, thus implying the organization is in the building or growth state. This is an example of a vision that will likely change after a few years, after the building stage has been successfully accomplished. A follow-up vision might include elements such as, “to become accredited,” or “to lower our ISO rating by one point.”

Communicate the Vision
Of course, it’s not enough to define your vision; you must also communicate it in a way that produces action. John W. Gardner, who authored several books on leadership, described this process: “True direction for an organization is born with a vision. It begins when the leader accepts it. It gains acceptance when the leader models it. And it becomes reality when the people respond to it.”

Communicating the vision is crucial. You want the community and fire personnel to understand where the organization stands and what its goals are for the future. Next is institutionalizing the change, which may be the most difficult part. The reason for this is that many people either resist change or need time to adjust (see “The Challenge of Change,” FireRescue, February 2010, p. 96). It’s important to realize that even those who don’t like the status quo fear change even more. Regardless of the leader’s credentials, some people won’t trust that the leader is capable when proposing change.

Sometimes the best thing you can do to communicate the vision and build support for it is to explain it in more detail. Let’s look at an example. The following vision statement could describe almost any department today:
“To position the fire district through and beyond this economic uncertainty while creating a predictable and sustainable future.”

Now let’s look at how you could further explain the vision to overcome doubt and resistance to change:
“We are cautiously yet confidently moving forward, adjusting to the new norm while shaping a new future and future possibilities. Our foundation is financial sustainability—living within our means while having a simultaneous, proactive approach in shaping new realities. We must be very firm and clear in an uncertain world that there’s a certain future, one that we design. We’re not ‘surviving,’ nor hunkering down, nor waiting to see what the future brings. We are neither wishing nor hoping for something good to occur—we’re making it happen.”
This example clearly explains in detail what is going to occur, but equally important, it defines what’s not going to occur.

Reap the Benefits
Once you’ve defined and communicated your vision, it’s time to reap the benefits. An effective vision:
·    Identifies direction;
·    Provides organization continuity;
·    Describes the changes that need to occur;
·    Promotes focus; and
·    Creates the desired state.

In the final analysis, a vision will inspire, renew or transform an organization only if it can be translated into action. As Will Rogers once said, “It isn’t enough to be on the right track; if you’re not moving, you can still get hit by a train.” One of the best ways to get an organization moving is to develop an effective long-term strategy based on the vision.  

In the end, you can either control your destiny or let outside forces control it for you. The importance of a vision is that it gives you the control. For fire departments, this means having greater control of the future; for individuals, it means that in terms of job security, the odds favor tomorrow.

Marc Revere is the fire chief of the Novato Fire Protection District, an Internationally Accredited Agency in Marin County, Calif. He has 34 years in the fire service and is an EFO, CFO and a Harvard Fellow. In 2010, Chief Revere became the first recipient of the Ronny Jack Coleman Leadership and Legacy Award from the Commission on Public Safety Excellence.

Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. SUBSCRIBE to FIRERESCUE

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