Vision Day: A meeting of the minds to envision your department’s future

Tips for who to invite, where to hold the meeting and what to discuss at this opportunity for open and honest discussion


“Vision – the ability to think about or plan the future with imagination or wisdom.”

When we respond to an emergency, our members operate in a fast-paced, dynamic environment. A good command officer uses knowledge, experience and vision to apply the proper tactics for a positive outcome. In essence, a good command officer has a vision of how they want the event to go, and the members apply their skills to complete the mission at hand.

If we ask our command staff and firefighters to have a vision for incident success, shouldn’t we, as leaders, also have vision of where we want our organizations to go?

"Vision Day is a meeting of the minds, allowing our members and other stakeholders to be intentional and focused on reinforcing and growing the vision of the organization," Caughey writes. (Photo/Getty Images)

Most organizations have a Mission, Vision and Values statement, and many organizations focus more on the mission – it’s the bright, shiny tools, fire trucks, gear color and helmet style. The mission may be fun, easy even, but vision is just as critical for the leadership team.

Strategic plan vs. vision

Strategic plans and visions are not the same. A strategic plan provides a fire department with a process of defining its strategies and making decisions about how best to allocate its resources to attain goals. Strategic provide a roadmap of goals to achieve over various time benchmarks.

For many organizations, strategic plans are developed by a committee or, in some cases, organizations contract with facilitators to build and package the strategic plan. Unfortunately, the resulting strategic plan often then gets placed on a shelf or put in a file and forgotten, only unearthed when leadership is seeking funding for stations or apparatus.

A strategic plan will certainly include an organization’s vision, but the vision itself is really an entirely different animal. Vision is a living, breathing environment. You must be intentional about cultivating your organization’s vision and live this intentionality on a daily basis.

Shared vision

Over the decades, organizational vision was developed and “owned” by the fire chief or other formal leader. That vision was then passed down through the ranks for implementation. For many leaders, this system worked because of the passion, energy and determination of that leader, but that’s not to say it is easy. The implementation of a vision can be a career-long journey. As Chief Alan Brunacini would say, “Change comes through steady, consistent pressure over long periods of time.”

To speed the implementation of organizational vision at all levels, it’s important that fire service leaders share ownership with the members and stakeholders who must live and drive the vision daily, being intentional in this process. Such shared ownership can be amplified through a fire department “Vision Day.”

Vision Day

Vision Day is an opportunity to cultivate a vision for your organization. Vision Day is a meeting of the minds, allowing our members and other stakeholders to be intentional and focused on reinforcing and growing the vision of the organization. It is quite literally a day to sit together and see the forest for the trees, get clarity on who we are and where we are going.

Following are several key points to consider in the process of building your own Vision Day.

Participants: It’s important to select the right members to participate in Vision Day. Creating an environment with the right people in the room will add to the success of the event. Some tips:

  • Invite both formal and informal leaders. This could include some or all members of the board of directors and city council, plus the city manager.
  • From your own department, limit the attendees to officers – the supervisors who serve both up and down in the org chart.
  • Remember that the more inclusive we are with our political partners, the greater chance of success in receiving funding. If you choose to invite political leaders, pair them with your executive staff or officers prior to the event. By connecting governing body members and executive staff, you can ask them to meet and share information prior to your Vision Day. This will allow the political members to feel more connected to the process and will calm the waters with your executive staff.
  • Keep the size manageable. Too many people will limit participation; too few will limit new ideas. We had about 10 participants at our recent Vision Day. 

Location: Choose a location that is comfortable, maybe even technology-free. After all, you want your participants to see the forest for the trees. Creating a comfortable space allows an atmosphere of creativity. We chose to utilize a Boy Scout cabin in the wilderness. Note: Do NOT use a fire station or a government building. The fire station will create a roadblock in your clear thinking. Also, don’t skimp on the food. In an environment of critical thinking, people need their creature comforts. Feed your folks!

Topics: What you discuss will vary, but I recommend focusing on the 30,000-foot view, not the nuts and bolts. One idea: Start with a creative ice breaker. This helps open the minds of your participants for a visionary day.

We want to break out of the boundaries by exploring the “what ifs,” “What could be’s” and “What nexts.” It is easy to fall back into our traditional boundaries. Avoid this at all cost, and remember, this is not a strategic planning session.

Some topics to avoid:

  • Money: Don't limit what you can do because of money. 
  • Personnel: Avoid vision day going becoming a place to criticize others.
  • The “weeds”: Don't get bogged down in the nuance of day-to-day operations.

Instead, try to focus on the value of your members and the people you serve, plus where you want the department to be tomorrow and a decade from now. Think big and long-term.

Mindset: Creating a Vision Day that includes your shareholders takes courage – the courage to engage in difficult conversations that might put a ding in your leadership armor. Your courage will also be needed to listen to other people’s view of the organization’s vision that might not align with yours. If you are committed to creating an effective vision for your organization, you will first need to internally build your courage.

Great minds working together

Vision Day allows your leadership team to explore the future, to set a path for what your organization represents, and how your staff roles interact within that vision. Use free thinking and create an open environment to capitalize on the great minds in your organization. Create ownership for the future at all levels of your organization, and above all, remember, we are in the people business: We serve our people so they can serve our community.

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