Do Mission Statements Matter in the Fire Service?

I experienced something for the first time during my recent visit to Germany. It wasn’t driving the Autobahn, I did that during my first visit there (and yes, it’s a blast!). No, what I encountered for the first time in my fire service career was a leader of a fire department who explicitly used his department’s mission statement to guide important decisions. In this case, it was a decision about a personnel matter he shared with me. He was genuinely passionate about making sure he followed the values set forth in the statement. As he shared the story, he cited the values and explained his approach with the individual.

The fire chief, Robert Coonce of United Stated Army Garrison Rheinland-Pfalz, was the first chief in my 22 years in the fire service that I directly observed applying the mission statement to a serious employee matter. Now, to be fair, I’m sure there are plenty of chiefs that use their mission statement as a guide for decision-making, I’ve just never seen it done the way Chief Coonce expressed it.

Too often it seems mission, vision, and value statements are idealistic phrases that look great on the wall, but aren’t used when challenges occur within a department. It certainly calls to question why they are even created in the first place. Shouldn’t these statements be unambiguous guides for organizations when the going gets tough? Or for getting members back on track when they lose their way? What I observed in Germany was a chief that, when the going got tough, fell back on a tool designed for the entire organization –top to bottom. He used his mission statement to set an example about how to treat members of his department. He specifically mentioned the values of honesty, integrity, and respect as described here. Here was someone not merely talking the talk, but truly walking the walk.

Citing an article from Psychology Today, I’d like to present the following food for thought:

Mission statements define the “Who”, the “What” and the “How” of an organization. Usually it’s a less than a handful of sentences that can be easily summed up in a succinct phrase like

  • “Leaders in our profession; Role models in our community.”
  • “Be Nice. Prevent Harm. Survive”
  • “Compassion, Competence and Character”

Chief Coonce’s approach is both refreshing and inspiring. Words do matter, but living those words, now that’s where the rubber meets the road. It’s proof that organizational culture and credibility can be built on thoughtfully created mission statements.

Stay safe and thanks for reading.