'Ride with your eyes': Envision the path for fire department change

Achieving a vision requires the ability to see in both the short and long term

Years ago, I joined a group of firefighter friends to ride Kokopelli’s Trail, a 140-mile mountain bike trail that runs from western Colorado to Moab, Utah. The route is often technical and difficult, traversing desert, canyonlands and mountains. Like most people who do the ride, we planned to spend five days on the trail.

We were all incredibly psyched to begin, but by Day 3, things had changed. One guy had fallen and hurt his knee and was now riding in the sag wagon. Several people had drawn blood on the technical canyon sections. And as we got into the mountains, I found myself often walking my bike up steep inclines, feeling discouraged.

That day, the most experienced mountain biker in our group rode up beside me as I was once again pushing my bike through a twisting section of trail. I complained about my inability to stay in my pedals and maintain momentum despite my determination and fitness. She looked at me and said only, “Ride with your eyes.” It was one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received, and not just related to mountain biking.           

Whether a mountain biker or a fire service leader, “ride with your eyes” means envisioning the path you will take while still seeing where you are and where you want to be.
Whether a mountain biker or a fire service leader, “ride with your eyes” means envisioning the path you will take while still seeing where you are and where you want to be. (Photo/Pixabay)

This cryptic phrase did not mean that I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going. It meant that I was paying attention, but to the wrong things.

On difficult or technical terrain, many riders tend to look at the obstacle directly in front of them – the protruding branch to be avoided or the boulder to be surmounted. This makes sense, as you must pay attention to these challenges or you won’t succeed in conquering them.

But if you only pay attention to what is right in front of you, the result may be success in the moment but failure in the longer run. Focus completely on the rock under your front tire, and you’re likely to miss the fact that a 90-degree turn is coming up 20 feet ahead. Unprepared, you lose your momentum and the next thing you know, you’re pushing your bike through the dust.

Fire departments often make this same mistake.

The longer view: Fire service planning and vision statements

Emergency response is by definition reactive – the alarm goes off and you run on it, the fire starts and you put it out. Of course, there is a prevention element in every fire department, but this element is often not prioritized. Emergencies keep happening, obstacles keep appearing, and there may seem to be little time to do more than just respond.

When fire departments do take a longer view, it may be to craft what are known as vision statements – a summary of where the organization wants to be in the more distant and undefined future. Such statements are often aspirational and answer one or more of the following three questions:

  1. Where do we want to go?
  2. What do we want to become?
  3. What do we want to accomplish?

The best vision statements are clear and simple, sometimes as concise as “We strive to be the best.” Others may be more detailed, such as “We are dedicated to be the finest community focused fire and rescue department that meets the ever-changing needs of our community while ensuring a safe and secure environment for all through professional development, unity and teamwork.

Envision the strategy – and take action

A good vision statement is important, but it is not enough. This is where “ride with your eyes” comes in. Yes, you want to look out ahead and see what might be imminent or possible, including opportunities or obstacles in the way. But what my friend meant with her advice was that it is not enough to just look at where you want to go. You must also envision how you will get there.

For a mountain biker or a fire service leader, this means envisioning the path you will take while still seeing where you are and where you want to be. And then once that vision is in place, you must act on it, live it, and realize it every step along the way.

It means doing research to uncover trends in your community. Where are people living? Where do they want to live? What are the demographics of your current population and what are they likely to be 10 or 20 years from now? What kinds of emergency calls do you currently respond to and what is your call load likely to be decades down the road? Is there technology in development now that could significantly help you in five or 10 years? Are there technological trends occurring that will make your life harder? What are other organizations, emergency services and otherwise, doing to anticipate these changes?

One example of seeing the path to the vision’s goals includes departments that are currently dealing with unsustainable increases in 911 calls. Instead of just working harder, some of these departments are looking at underlying causes that the organization can assist with in a proactive way. In addition to saying that they want to meet the changing needs of the service community, they are dedicating resources toward identifying what those needs are likely to be in the future.

Make vision a reality

Achieving a vision requires the ability to see in both the short and long term. Maintaining momentum to meet the challenges ahead necessitates seeing the path that will take you from the present to the future. Focusing time and energy on this process of transition is essential for vision to become reality.

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