Words

When strategy is the difference between life and death.

Mark O'Keeffe   |   Image by Eunice Yip

Picture this: you’re standing in front of your business as it starts to smoke and go up in flames. You get out with the clothes on your back but where is everyone else? Through the ringing of the fire alarms you hear the sirens approaching—the fire brigade are on their way.

What will be their strategy to make sure that everyone is safe and your business doesn’t end up in ashes?

 

 

Dramatic analogy right? For most businesses, strategies aren’t life or death situations, however there is a lot that can be learned and applied from the way that an emergency service formulates and implements strategy.

 

Fire ready.

A few years ago I left the city and headed bush to a great little community east of Melbourne called Warrandyte. A beautiful place amongst the magnificent gum trees where the Yarra river runs the right way up, and meanders quietly on its long and windy journey to the big smoke. It’s my idea of paradise.

However, living in the bush does come with one small drawback—Warrandyte has one of the highest fire risk profiles in the world. So high in fact that there are three fire brigades servicing this one little town.

Shortly after moving I thought—if I’m going to live in a high-risk environment then I better have some sort of plan in place. So I went down to the local brigade for an information night and long story short, I signed up to become a volunteer firefighter.

It sounded like a great way to play a part in my new community, plus I’d get the knowledge needed to better understand the environment I lived in. It also came with the promise of learning some very handy life skills along the way like how to administer first aid, and how to work under pressure as a team in dynamic environments.

I’ve also learned other skills that are just plain useful, like how to tie proper knots, safely climb a ladder (cat up tree jokes aside), take a door off its hinges (you’d be surprised how many kids get locked in the toilet), and how to extract a teenager stuck in the family home cat door (a story for another time).

 

 

When strategy is the difference between life and death.

During this time I have discovered a very serious side to the job. Sometimes it’s life critical. There are often situations where every second counts and every instruction given on the fireground in that moment can have a positive or negative impact on the mission outcome. One simple mistake or bad decision can result in a succession of mishaps. As one wise member once put it “it’s like experiencing a death by a thousand cuts”. Ouch!

So what is the key to a successful outcome on the fireground? A well thought out strategy! If there is no strategy, there is no plan. As they say, “a failure to plan is a plan to fail” and failure leads to catastrophic results when fire is involved.

For most businesses, strategies aren’t life or death situations but there is a lot that the business world could learn from the way that an emergency service formulate and implement strategy.

 

First things first: what is a strategy?

There is no magic in strategy. Put simply it’s a plan to increase the odds of achieving a successful outcome to a current situation. Be it on the fireground or in the boardroom, a solid strategy will bridge the chasm between a current problem and a desired outcome—a goal or goals. A strategy can’t exist if there is no goal—you can’t make a plan to achieve something if you don’t know what it is you are trying to achieve.

 

How to formulate and implement strategy, emergency services’ style.

Fire brigades across the globe have adopted a method of delivering strategy defined by the acronym SMEAC. The fire fraternity love a good acronym—and as far as catchy acronyms go this one is far from good—but it stands for:

S — Situation
M — Mission
E — Execution
A — Administration and logistics
C — Command and communications

SMEAC is an effective tool for communicating everything a firefighter needs to know about a mission in a structured format, making it easy to identify each specific requirement in a predictable and deliberate order. Originating in the military, it has been converting strategies into action for generations. It’s a formula that is tried, tested and works over and over again.

It’s also great guiding principles for businesses responding to challenges or opportunities. Let’s go into the detail and see if we can apply the fundamentals from the fireground to the boardroom.

 

S is for Situation

What is the situation?

The alarm has gone off. It’s into the big red truck and off to the scene. First task is to understand the situation at hand. What is the problem or challenge we are facing? On the fireground this is called a ‘size-up’—the process of gathering and analysing information that will influence the decisions fire officers make and the actions firefighters take. In a fast-paced and dynamic environment like a fire, a size-up can happen in literally seconds. There are two important questions during a size-up of a situation like this.

Situation: “We have a five story structure with a fire on the second floor. Occupants unaccounted for.”

  • Facts: what do we already know?
  • Probability: what is likely to happen?

The incident controller would be sizing-up the situation as soon as the pager buzzed. They would be going through all the known facts: the type of structure; the fire location and its stage of development; the effect it has already had on structural integrity; identifiable hazards; surrounding exposures; risks and threats to safety and life. They will also be considering the resources currently available and capabilities of the present team.

Time to start weighing up the probabilities. What is likely to happen as a result of our actions or inactions? Here the incident controller is piecing together an initial strategic plan. The actions that are to be taken, their priority and sequence.

Once we have all the necessary information and a good understanding of the situation and our initial strategy, it’s onto stage two: the mission.

For business: What is the challenge or opportunity we are reacting to? Facts: What do we already know? Probability: What is likely to happen if we don’t address the situation?

 

M is for Mission

What is the desired outcome to be achieved?

It’s time to identify the mission objective. Back on the fireground the incident controller will gather their troops and deliver a brief description of the situation at hand and the outcome that needs to be achieved.

Mission: “We have a five story structure with a fire in the kitchen on level 2. Mission is to complete a primary search for the missing occupants and to contain and extinguish the fire.”

This mission statement is intentionally short. At this stage, there’s no need to include any extra detail, that’s what the E, A and C are for.

For business: What is the outcome we’re here to achieve? What are the measurable goals and milestones to aim for along the way.

 

E is for Execution

What are the tactics to be implemented?

Time to mobilise the strategy—or strategies—to fulfill our mission.

Execution: “Team 1 is to enter from the front entrance and proceed to the seat of the fire and complete a direct attack to contain and extinguish the fire. Team 2 is to conduct a primary search for the missing occupants.” Here there may be additional information given about the structure, known risks and hazards etc.

The firefighters are about to put all their knowledge, skills and experience into practice. Applying search tactics and fire suppression techniques to complete the collective mission. The incident controller will monitor the situation and put an action plan in place to measure progress and constantly evaluate the effectiveness of the strategy.

For business: What types of actions and tactics are required to execute the strategy and achieve goals? Set priorities and order of execution.

 

A is for Administration (and logistics)

What are the essential resources, skills and equipment required?

Are we able to execute our strategy and complete the mission with the resources, skills and equipment available or do we need to call for backup? If we’re calling for backup, what are the additional resources, skills or equipment we require, and at what stage in the strategic plan do we need these?

Administration: “Two charged lines (hoses) are positioned at the entrance along with forcible entry tools. Support crews are on route and will be tasked shortly. A medical triage is set up at a safe location east of building and paramedics are on route.”

For business: What personnel, resources, assets and funds will we need to execute the tactics?

 

C is for Command (and communication)

Who is in control?

It’s time to establish the chain of command and communication channels so that everyone is clear of their roles and responsibilities. On the fireground we all know our position, rank and qualifications. The last thing you want in dynamic environments is confusion.

Command: “Both teams are to take portable radios. Fireground channel is 308. Report back to me at regular intervals on your position and status. Any questions? Go!”

For business: Who is responsible for delivery of the strategy and tactics? Who do teams or individuals report to on progress or problems? How often and via what means of communication?

 

Review and repeat

When actioning strategy of any kind – be it on the field or in a business, the 5 step SMEAC framework is a great tool to ensure that you’ve covered all bases, and that your team understands the situation at hand, the mission, their role and responsibilities.

It’s essential to remember that strategies should be flexible and they are never set-and-forget. You may find that certain strategies won’t lead to the desired state or outcome. Conditions change, additional resources may become available or be taken away, new information may be discovered along the way that requires the strategic direction to pivot or change entirely. But having a solid methodology like SMEAC behind you means that you can act quickly, confidently and decisively when challenges or opportunities arise.

Implementing a strategy any time soon? Cross check your plan against our SMEAC cheat sheet to ensure all bases are covered – Download our SMEAC action plan cheat sheet.