Planning Approaches and Alternatives: Master Planning, Strategic Planning and Why You Need Both

The old adage is: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

There is no shortage of planning tools available to fire and EMS agencies.  Choosing the right tools for your department depends on your needs, your community’s conditions, and your current and expected growth.  

No matter the format or terminology, any good planning tool box should include these essential elements:

  • Master Planning
  • Strategic Planning
  • Standards of Cover (Deployment Planning)
  • Cooperative Efforts Planning
  • Tactical/Operational Planning
  • Financial Planning

This first article in this short series defines master planning and strategic planning and describes the difference between the first two elements.

Master Planning

Master planning is often confused with strategic planning. Master planning is a high level, big picture, process that typically plans for a timeframe of 10 to 15 years. This longer timeframe is important for any organization, and critical for communities that are experiencing growth.

A master plan answers three questions:

  • Where is our organization now?
  • Where will we need to be in the future?
  • How do we get there?

The process begins with a detailed evaluation of current conditions in the agency, then forecasts future population and service demands, and then develops strategies that can be utilized to meet future needs.

A master plan is typically completed by a third-party consultant who evaluates the fire department and its service delivery and provides a report detailing future needs.

Strategic Planning

In contrast, a strategic plan is a shorter-term, three- to five-year plan that is internally driven, though often facilitated by a third party.

A planning team made up of personnel from within the department works to complete the following:

  • Development or updating the agency’s mission, vision and core values
  • Identification of the department’s most important goals for the next three to five years
  • Definition of objectives and action steps needed to achieve the goals
  • Establishment of means by which to measure accomplishment of the above

The terms strategic plan and master plan are often used interchangeably, but as explained, they differ substantially. It's ESCI’s opinion that, at a minimum, every fire and EMS agency should have a current strategic plan in place.

Our next article in this series will look more closely at standards of cover (deployment planning), cooperative-efforts planning, tactical-operational planning and financial planning.

To learn more about the planning assistance provided by the IAFC and ESCI, please visit ESCI.us or email us at Info@esci.us.

Emergency Services Consulting International (ESCI) is the consulting arm of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

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