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Executive Officer Leadership: Mission: Protect

In a review of many mission statements for fire departments, I have found one word that continually pops up: Protect. Let’s look at what that word means, as it’s probably the one word in your mission statement that says the most about what you are tasked to do.

In an Internet search, I found hundreds of definitions, but when you boil all of them down, the basic meaning of protect is to keep (someone or something) from being harmed, lost, damaged etc. When you carefully look at this one key word, it’s very evident that it’s a powerful word and a responsibility all fire departments are built on.

To protect is an action as defined, and it’s proactive (prevention), not reactive (response). Therefore, the emphasis of all fire departments should and must be on the proactive form of protecting our communities rather than the reactive form of responding to an incident. This is where a strong and prominent fire-prevention program comes into play.

However, how many of you can honestly say that fire prevention is the most important part of what all firefighters and fire departments do on a daily basis? I would venture to say not many can, and this is a cultural change that must take place if we’re going to protect the communities we serve.

Inspection activities, arson investigations, public-education programs, building-plan reviews and code enforcement are the functions that make up a complete fire-prevention program. While not all fire departments are directly responsible for all of these functions in their communities, it’s the responsibility of the fire chief to make sure these functions are performed.

This doesn’t mean they’re done when you have time or you just check the box to say they’re complete. It means you dedicate the proper resources to these tasks on a daily basis to protect your community. Doing anything less is to fail to live up to the mission statement you have set forth for your department and community.

If you look at your budgets, you’ll probably see that only 5% or less of the budget is dedicated to the proactive function of prevention, while most of the budget goes to reactive functions that don’t protect the community but simply respond to incidents that could have been prevented.

The traditional culture in the fire service is deeply rooted in a response-mode philosophy and it’s where we’ve traditionally placed all of our training emphasis. This has to change.

If you ask most firefighters if they came into the fire service to inspect buildings and offer public education, they’ll tell you that was the furthest thing from their mind. In fact, if they’re truly honest with you, they’d tell you that if they’d know that would be the case, they wouldn’t have applied in the first place. They want to run into burning buildings and save babies.

Well, that very seldom happens. In fact, less than 5% of their time is spent on firefighting, if it’s even that high in many places. It’s up to you, the fire chief or chief officer, to change that perception of today’s fire service. You must place the emphasis on being proactive in protecting the community through good quality fire-prevention programs.

The emergency responses will come because humans will continue to fail to be safe 100% of the time, no matter what we do. However, if you want to meet your mission of actually protecting your community, you have to start today by being proactive with the safety programs that are aimed at truly protecting your community.

I’ve always said that we need to be in the business of putting ourselves out of business, and this needs to start today and with the current and future fire service leaders. This great country lags far behind most industrialized countries when it comes to preventing deaths and damage due to fires. We need to change that, and there’s no better time to start than now!

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