Administration and Leadership, Columns

SOAR Planning Model

Issue 1 and Volume 35.

Before the end of 2009, I sat down with my staff to develop our strategic plans for the upcoming year. For 2010, I threw something new at them.

As part of our strategic planning every year, we do a SWOT analysis (for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats). This approach allows us to formulate our strategic plans for the upcoming years in the Memphis Fire Department.

If you’re going to change your EMS system for the better, it requires action. If you’re going to take action, it requires that you have a plan. If you have a plan, it’d better be a strategic plan. Each strategic plan should have goals and achievable objectives that have a mission. Usually a mission (plan of action) is defined by an EMS system’s vision (goal for the future).

The SWOT analysis and strategic planning process that we know today has been around for about 50 years in the U.S.

New thinking has emerged that moves away from SWOT toward a new acronym—SOAR (strengths, opportunities, aspirations and results). The focus is on the organization and the future rather than perceived threats and/or weaknesses. When conducting a SOAR analysis, the following questions should be asked:

  1. 1) What are our greatest strengths?
  2. 2) What are our best opportunities?
  3. 3) What is our preferred future?
  4. 4) What are the measurable results that’ll tell us we’ve achieved that
    preferred future?

One primary advantage to using SOAR is the staff’s level of involvement. SWOT involves only senior-level personnel in strategic planning. In contrast, SOAR uses a strengths-based approach called appreciative inquiry (AI). With AI, the planning process involves every level of the EMS system from the top EMS manager to the newly hired employee. The idea behind SOAR is to get an all-inclusive view to the strategic planning process that aligns strengths with opportunities, aspirations and desired results of the EMS system. In theory, resistance to change is minimized, and with ownership, there’s a commitment to turn the goals into action.

The first step in using the SOAR process is to decide who to invite. Also, decide if this is going to be a summit, a meeting or a series of meetings. It’s recommended you create some type of survey tool to capture the strengths, resources, viewpoints and aspirations of stakeholders in preparation. Surveying people you’ve transported and employees within your EMS system is a good starting point.

Next, identify your EMS system’s strengths and opportunities. What were some of your best moments? These moments could be an incident, but they can also be something that’s not response related, such as a very positive EMS week or awards ceremony.

The third step is to dream. What are the goals and aspirations of personnel within your EMS system? List them all. Nothing is outside the realm of possibility. Every employee involved in the process should be allowed to express their vision of the future.

Now, decide which aspirations or opportunities have the best potential to move the EMS system forward. Those opportunities can be operational, clinical, logistic or administrative. Write goal statements for each opportunity/aspiration. Also determine and document who’s responsible for a specific task, the expected completion date and the measurable outcome.

Finally, implement your plan. As the EMS manager, you should monitor the success of each opportunity and aspiration. Sometimes, opportunities and aspirations need to be modified as something internal or external changes within the EMS system. Within my fire department, the EMS staff aims to meet once a month to measure the progress of the strategic plan. These regular meetings keep us focused and working toward task completion.

One of the most disappointing things I’ve seen over the years is that some EMS systems and fire departments do strategic planning, generate a fantastic document and then let it sit on the shelf. Strategic planning is a process for moving your organization forward. Don’t let your strategic plan sit on a shelf and collect dust. JEMS

Gary Ludwig,, MS, EMT-P, is a deputy fire chief with the Memphis (Tenn.) Fire Department. He has 32 years of fire and rescue experience. He’s chair of the EMS Section for the International Association of Fire Chiefs and can be reached at