Thursday, March 19, 2015

"The Ghost"

"Get outGet out of my office!"  Raucous shouts bounce off the concrete walls of the  Sierra College field house.  A hulking football player shuffles through the door with his head down and starts for the showers.  The disembodied voice booms again, "Who's next?"

The next challenger steps into the ring.  The grayish-blue haze of cigarette smoke was the first thing to greet those who dared challenge "The Ghost" in a round of bones, next came mocking shouts of good-natured ridicule.  "The Ghost" was king of the broom closet, he let everyone know it and would not be dethroned by anybody.  Freddie Solomon would unceremoniously dispatch those foolish enough to enter his office - the janitors closet - and test him in a match of bones (dominoes).  He sat atop a metal stool at the workbench, mops and brooms the members of his court, smoking a cigarette, clad only in his grass-stained football pants and his cut-off 49ers undershirt - his rule absolute, his authority unquestioned.

The previous invader vanquished, he sought another victim.  I would cower as I walked past the door carrying an arm load of soiled jerseys to the laundry room.  I knew anyone who walked by the open door with the smoke wafting from it would be subject to the king's ire.  "Hey, little vonAppen!  You want some too?"  I didn't want to challenge the king in his court so I would smile, wave, and go about the business of cleaning up the dirty laundry.  I offered deference in the presence of royalty.

"That's what I thought!"

As a youth I spent 6 weeks with my father in the blistering heat of Rocklin, California at Sierra Community College as a ball boy at 49ers training camp.  My father and I shared a tiny dorm room on the campus during the summer starting when I was in the 6th grade and continuing through high school.  I made $100 cash per week - huge money for a kid at the time.  My father was an assistant coach for the 49ers from 1983 - 1989 and I had the privilege of being a part of something that most kids can only dream of.

The days at training camp were long for everybody, most of all for the players and coaches.  Luckily, I possessed the boundless energy of adolescence and was up by 6 am and off to breakfast at the cafeteria, then to the field house to get ready for the morning practice - the long days didn't phase me much.  I reported to the field house and helped distribute the clean laundry from the night before, hanging the players freshly washed and often still warm jerseys on their lockers before practice.  I then set off on foot (or sometimes on a "borrowed" golf cart) to the 3 practice fields beyond the locker room and placed cones in neat rows every 5 yards along the boundaries of the fields.  Next, I headed to the baseball dugout to grab tackling dummies and horsed them to strategic locations across the various fields in preparation for the morning drills.  By now, my feet were completely soaked from the heavy dew on the grass and I sloshed in my shoes back to the field house to pack a bag of footballs for the players who were now about to hit the field.

When I was 12, I was awkward, ungainly, and I couldn't catch a football - at all. My job as a ball boy involved a lot of catching and throwing.  It was painfully embarrassing for me when a player, like let's say, Joe Montana would throw me a ball and I would bat it around as if he had just tossed me a hand grenade with the pin pulled.
Freddie loved to teach, even if it was the simple act of catching a football.
Number 88, "The Ghost," was always out on the field before everyone else.  Freddie was a wide receiver for the team back then and he took an interest in me.  He could sense my panic and consternation as a ball zipped in my direction bounced off my hands as I awkwardly tried to grab it.

"Hey, little vonAppen. Come over here. We have some work to do."

I trotted over and off to the side of the field we'd play catch.  Or more to the point, he would throw me the ball and I would try not to bludgeon it to death with the baseball bats I called hands.  Fast Freddie played soft-toss with me to build up my confidence.  He worked with me before practice in the wet grass, after practice in the gathering heat of late morning, and stayed late after practice again in the withering incandescence of the afternoon sun to help me learn how to catch the ball.  Freddie loved to teach, and he especially loved helping kids in any way he could even if it was as simple as teaching them how to catch a football.

"Little vonAppen, listen up, turn your hands this way when the ball comes at you like this," he would patiently demonstrate the correct method for plucking the ball from the air.  "Thumbs together - like this.  Pinkies together - like that."

Frustrated, I dropped the ball time and again and he'd say, "That's alright.  Stick with it.  We'll get there.  Don't quit."

I didn't always want to stay after practice but Freddie wouldn't let me quit.  I had to get better or else he wouldn't let me off the field.  It wasn't about playing catch.  It was an exercise in kindness, interest, and patience.

Freddie took time when he was hot and tired and spent it with me so I wouldn't look like a fool when I was on the field with the team.  In his way, he left his mark on me forever.  For the years he was with the 49ers and throughout my football playing days I always thought of him as I caught the ball, looked it all the way in to the crook of my arm, and tucked it tightly to my body to ensure I wouldn't fumble.  Freddie didn't just teach me how to catch a ball, he taught me about patience - not just in teaching, but how to find patience in myself.  I learned that this little big man always had time for kids and gave of it freely even amidst the stresses of an NFL training camp.
"Your soul is nourished when you are kind."
Since his retirement from the NFL Freddie has been serving as a mentor for at-risk youth in the Tampa, Florida area which he has called home since he hung up his helmet for the last time.  He has been a community coordinator for the Hillsborough County Sheriffs Department since 1991 and the department recently dedicated the sheriffs annex in his name.

The inscription on the plaque with a life-size image of Freddie Solomon with children in football uniforms says:




-Freddie Solomon

Freddie was diagnosed with colon cancer that spread to his liver last year.  He has been battling the disease and enduring brutal bouts of chemotherapy.  His spirits remain high.  In his address to the public at the dedication of the annex that now bears his name and likeness he said, "It takes a family.  It takes a team to make it work.  I'm only as good as the people around me."

In a small way I was witness to Freddie Solomon's charity and for a fleeting moment in time I was touched by his kindness.  He has built a life of making things better for other people.  Only now, as he battles cancer am I aware of the impact the small token of teaching had on me.  The night I found out that Freddie Solomon had cancer I lay awake and stared at the ceiling pondering how small gestures from big personalities leave lasting imprints on lives.  I thought of what a fierce competitor Freddie is and how kind he was to me as a kid.  When we're young, we think those people, be they loved ones or sports heroes, will always be there - forever.  In our fallible memory, they're suspended in time, always the way they were years ago.  Sometimes, these treasured memories are our favorite places to visit.

I am thankful to have crossed paths with such a great human being.  For me, there is more work to be done, much more.  Freddie has taught many people, young and old, that we must pay forward the virtues instilled in us by those we call dear.  He taught those whose lives he has touched that teaching is about humility, patience, and unearthing the best in others.

King Solomon said, "Your own soul is nourished when you are kind."

Thank you King Freddie.  Your soul most certainly is well nourished.

God Bless.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015


By: Mark vonAppen

A well-intentioned co-worker took me aside as I prepared for a promotional exam, placed his hand on my shoulder and asked, “What’s your deal?”

In return I offered a puzzled look as the conversation stumbled awkwardly down a familiar path.

He continued,  “You need to tone it down. People are saying you're a bit over the top.  If you want to get promoted, you need to disappear."


I stiffened inside as I listened to his words.  What was wrong with me that doing things my way went against what was socially graceful, safe, or right?  It was the part of myself that I despised, but I had always seemed unable, or unwilling, to change it. What had made me such a misfit, living my life with my head lowered, so dead-set on testing limits, permanently at odds with the world around me?  Why was I forever pushing upwind, uphill, and upstream?


I began to consider what I was being asked to do.  Was I wrong?  Was it me?  I realized then that I was being asked to compromise what I felt was right, to realign my true north, and my heels dug in once again as they had from the moment I was born.  I was being asked to do what was easy as opposed to what I knew was right.  It wasn't me, quit had never been in my vocabulary, but fight and adaptation were always part of my life.  History has proven that wars are won by those who are students of battle stories, those who press on despite the best efforts of those who try to hold them back.  

A wide, satisfied grin spread across my face.  

Oh, sorry.  

Wait a minute, I'm not sorry.

I will not disappear.  I won't be put in a box.

A big part of what it means to lead is having the courage to disobey. The path of most resistance is where the biggest change occurs.

I not so subtly rolled my eyes and my inner monologue went something like this, "Here we go again..."

I had heard it all of my life, so I took a deep breath, counted to five and let the words permeate.

I offered an even, biting retort.  "Good.  That's the point.  I'm fired up.  I love this job and I'm not sorry about it.  No apologies, no excuses.  Not then, not now, not ever.  Excuses are useless to me, my friends don't need them, and nobody else will believe them.  I will strive to be at my best everyday.  For me, it’s not about appeasing the masses.  It's about improved performance.  My job is to make my crew as safe and effective as we can possibly be.  It's not about checking boxes.  I'll let my crew's performance do the talking.  What's your deal?"

If you have no ideas then you can't be a nuisance.  A big part of what it means to lead is having the courage to disobey, not in a sophomorish revolt against the establishment for the sake of conflict, but because you feel that there is a better way to be found through independent thought, innovation, communication, and teamwork. 

The path of most resistance is where the biggest change occurs.  Are you going to do what's easy or what's right?


No, thanks.  I'm not going out quietly.

Don't like it?  Tough.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Prepare To Win

By Mark vonAppen

There is a way of doing things that spoils the ending for us every time.  It's about having a standard of performance that is communicated and understood from the bottom of the organization to the top. 

It's called preparing to win. 

We can't just show up and say, "Hey, I think we're going to win today."

That's not how it works. 

When we are preparing to win, we practice hard and set goals for each training session.  We don't go out and simply go through the motions.  We don't phone it in.  

We set our minds on winning, even on the drill ground.  Practice is where we develop good habits. We must train proactively for any situation.  We have to know how we will react given any circumstance—we can’t guess.  We must practice for every possible scenario so we don’t get surprised.  We train to the point where we can anticipate what is going to happen next.
If we are doing our jobs, we are preparing to win every day.
Photo by author
When we are preparing to win, we perform the basics until muscle memory kicks in, then we add a sense of urgency and turn up the degree of difficulty.  We have to fight fatigue.  When fatigue sets in, we become clumsy and inattentive.  Mastery of the basics means our minds are available to deal with each threat as it presents itself.  That is what reduces injuries.

If we are doing our jobs, we are preparing to win every day.  

When we are preparing to win, we are writing our own ending.  When it's over we can honestly say, "That turned out exactly how we expected it to."

We should never be surprised by the way things turn out.  We are either preparing to win, or we are preparing to lose.  Either way, we know what the result will be.  

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Books, Smarts

Craig Rose photo
By Mark vonAppen

Increased value is being placed on education in the fire service these days. Without question, education is important, but it is the ability to blend academics with the physical, emotional, and mental aspects of our craft that enables us to be effective.  Time and again we see it, books don't translate directly to smarts.

I know plenty of people with a trail of paper behind them a mile long that can't process information in a rapid fire fashion, which leads to poor decision making under pressure.  When you get them out of the classroom, they fall flat on their face.  I also know plenty of people who have an equally long paper trail who think extremely well on their feet.

We all know them. 

On the flip side, I know people who barely made it out of high school who are some of the smartest, and most functionally intelligent people I know.  It is the ability to have both street smarts and a solid base of education in applicable subject matter that makes the great ones great. 
It's the ability to take what we learn and practically apply it to the correct situation that turns books into smarts.   
In terms of education, we have to stay abreast of the latest scientific studies.  Perhaps equally important, we must know, in no uncertain terms, what we are personally capable of in all situations. Without the ability to apply it to the correct situation it is just as well left in the book it was found in.  We must continually function at a high level in an area where discretionary time does not exist.  It's a tremendous challenge.  

The answer is relentless training and contingency planning that involve stressful situations which are germane to those we will face outside of the cool, calm, confines of the classroom or simulator (I call it the "pretendulator").  The great ones "what if" things to death, and never stop preparing.

It takes a lot of work.

Do I want smart people on my crew?  Of course, but they have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time while crossing the street during rush hour traffic.  We don't operate in black and white.  We operate almost entirely in the grey.  Those who look only to books or procedure for all of  their answers are rigid, inflexible, and at times, dangerous.

Complacency is the enemy, and success never comes easily.  Education by itself doesn't mean a whole lot to me.  Books can't be judged by their covers.  We must judge people by the size of their hearts and on their ability to perform.  

It's the ability to take what we learn and practically apply it to the correct situation that turns books into smarts.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Get Smart

Craig Rose photo
By Mark vonAppen

There is an ongoing devaluing of the fire problem from within our industry which leads to a lack of education among firefighters.  We seek the easy fix, the next distraction, or the short answer because we don't have the attention span to sit and read (I'll keep this short, I promise), watch a video, or get out and train. We are losing the ability to walk and chew gum at the same time.

We have to take enormously complicated tasks and reduce them to simple concepts, apply them to the correct circumstance and do it all without forgetting the what and why.  All of this has to occur in a condensed time frame while our body fights our mind's (I know they're connected) ability to process information.  It's a complex balancing act in an immediately unforgiving environment.  It's a knife fight in a phone booth.  The timid and uneducated will fail there without question.

It's a knife fight in a phone booth.  Get smart. Get tough. There is no place to hide.

Until we place a premium on education and create functionally intelligent (physically and mentally) firefighters and promote functionally intelligent chief officers who have a firm grasp of the technical and tactical aspects of the job we are doomed to continue to dumb down the importance and the danger of what we do.  Education makes you respect the job.  Ignorance breeds bravado.  Fatigue and ignorance make cowards of us all.

The target does move.  The game has changed.  We try to do more with less even though we know we can't.  The more we try to do with fewer people, the better and smarter we all need to be.

Get smart.  Get tough.  There is no place to hide.

Friday, October 10, 2014


By Mark vonAppen

True story...

A captain, chauffeur, and 3 firefighters are sitting in the office at the firehouse in front of the station computer when the chief walks in and says, "Hey boys, what's doing?"

Though it has all the beginnings of a good one, this isn't a joke, although a sharp-tongued comment is forthcoming, rest assured.

Peering over the men’s shoulders the chief sees the image of an apartment building with smoke billowing from it flickering across the screen.  At the sight of it the he scoffs and rolls his eyes, "Humph, size ups, huh?  Yeah, that’s good to know, but its only 1% of what we do.  99% of being an officer is administration."

To this clearly out of touch, and off-base comment the quick-witted, and brazen chauffeur replies with a chuckle, "Yeah chief, but that 1% is 100% of what will kill you.  Don't you have some papers that need pushing?"

The rest of the crew snickers and internalizes a brusque, "Aw, damn!"

The captain shoots the driver a dirty look in mock-disapproval, knowing his phone will be ringing later.  Inside he wishes he was as whip-smart-hilarious and fearless as the chauffeur, but in his position...

The ear-bending phone call he will get from the chief will be worth the laugh he and the crew enjoyed.

The chief checks his watch, puffs his now flushed cheeks and declares that he is late for a meeting and slinks from the station, forgoing adieus.  It’s hard to argue when something makes sense.

Sound familiar?

The sell-out comment regarding statistics from the chief is as much a statement of fear and insecurity as it is about minimizing the importance of preparing for emergency response.  In the dynamic realm of the fire service, the military, and even competitive athletics - rehearsal, sweat, and preparation are everything.

The truth of the matter is in any endeavor where the stakes are high – dynamic, low frequency, high-risk situations - the amount of front loading, training and rehearsing, prior to the incident is, and must be, in total disproportion to the amount of time actually spent solving the problem. It is the natural order of things, problem solving occurs well in advance of any incident.

Simply put, if we are doing things right, the better part of our time should be spent on the less than 1% of emergency incidents that pose a risk of serious injury or death to our crew.  We must practice most vigorously for those situations that will kill us if we don't get it right.  We must train proactively.

Stop for a moment and consider how often we are actually called upon to perform the skill set that we put so much time, thought, and sweat equity into.  How much of our time is truly consumed by the act of battling fire and performing hair-raising, death defying acts of courage to save the public from the ravages of unrestrained fire?  

Not much time really.

For the majority of us, the truth is the time spent on the pipe at a job is limited if not finite.  The time spent beforehand determines our fate.  It is up to us to discover that fate and determine it for ourselves.  We must know our competition, but more importantly, we must know ourselves.

The time spent in rehearsal pays dividends when the curtain goes up and we're called upon to perform.  It isn't glamorous, it isn't exciting, but it is what separates the great from the mediocre and it helps ensure that when called upon to perform the 1% of what is 100% important we will function as we are trained. We're only as good as our last performance, and we're only as good as the work we put in before we are to compete.

Break down the amount of time that a professional football player spends in preparing for battle on Sunday. For arguments sake, lets say a 60 hour work week boils down to 15 minutes (maybe) of actual hand to hand, kick-the guys-ass-in-front-of-you-combat on the gridiron. The culmination of a weeks worth of work, not to mention training camp (usually 5-6 weeks), ends up working out to around .41% of time spent on the end product, the game.
Is this a disproportionate amount of time spent practicing something that football players rarely in terms of time and effort actually do? 


For the athlete results are all that matter. In the end, a player’s livelihood depends on how they perform. They are judged in wins and losses and nothing more.  Great athletes know the value of hard work and preparation, and the successful ones never stop preparing.
If we are doing things right, the better part of our time should be spent on the 1% of incidents that pose a risk of serious injury or death to our crew. 

The SEAL team that recently took down Bin Laden in Pakistan trained relentlessly, running scenario after scenario in a full-sized mock up of the secret compound - for what was to be a 20-minute operation.  They rehearsed for plan A, plan B, and plan C assiduously so that when things weren't going as planned, things rarely do, the team had a fallback plan, and another, and another.

Matt Daniels Photo
During the storied incursion, one helicopter crashed, and a myriad of other unforeseen events transpired, but through preparation and a deep commitment to the team, and the warrior way, the super-secret operation was a success. The target was neutralized, and the SEALs suffered no casualties.  The team rehearsed time and again because their lives and - more importantly, if you ask them - the lives of American citizens hinged on their ability to perform when the green light was given by the commander-in-chief.  Their job - like ours - is about vigilance, preparation, and little else.  There are no secrets to success.  Success is the result of training, sweat equity, and the ability to learn from mistakes. 100% of what we to do physically and mentally, must prepare us for the 1% of what we are expected to do.

Those who understand preparation know how much sweat and study goes into achieving an elite level of performance.

Elite performers in any endeavor, a warrior, a gladiator, or a firefighter relish the notion that they must be prepared for anything, welcoming challenges, constantly preparing for the next test.  They all flourish on the drill ground and in competition, it is where they find their peace, it is where they come to know themselves.

They know the challenge lies in staying sharp, in keeping the competitive edge, and it’s about winning all the time.  Top performers are always ready, they know that being prepared is all that matters. 

These driven few often toil alone or in small, tight-knit, misunderstood groups; lost in preparation, fussing over details, and slick from sweat. The proof - the truth - is offered by performance, not by idle speculation. They are doers, and they don't talk much about it.  They know that there is no substitute for hard work and dedication to the way. The way is theirs to possess, yet they will gladly share their knowledge with whoever chooses to walk beside them.
In order to get there, training situations must replicate what they are going to face. Training must be for specific situations to make sure all participants know their role in any given situation. Stressful situations must be trained for; everyone has to have the opportunity take reps - and remain engaged by taking mental reps while others perform the skill - so that they have confidence to step into any role and they're not afraid to step up when called to do so.  They must understand their responsibility and how it relates to other evolutions - so that chemistry and fireground flow is maintained.

Every success at the operational level is resultant of hours of trials and tribulations in the classroom and on the drill grounds.

The mechanism for successful training delivery is maintaining focus and high concentration levels at all times. The player, firefighter, or warrior must trust that all skills are important and keys to their ability to achieve their desired goal. They must believe that the drill instructor has the ability to take them to Plus Ultra, beyond where they thought they could go or what they ever thought possible.

The destination might be scoring every time the team is in the red zone, making the all-important kill shot, or achieving knock down and completing a primary search in a safe and timely manner. The point is, it’s the journey of training that gets us there.

Great performances are the result of working your ass off and never giving up. Top performers know that there is no better test of their resolve than adversity. Each defeat, each loss, each practice, is its own vessel to improving performance in the future. 

Top performers know that there is no shortcut to being the best, their religion is the craft. In their church they don't pray for easy lives.  They are pilgrims who pray to become better performers and surpass even their own lofty standards.

There are those who believe that fighting fire and time spent on emergencies is extremely limited, therefore our time spent in preparation for emergency response and monies allocated for continued training is rightfully reduced when budgets are slashed. Those who believe this to be true couldn't be more wrong.  The work that we put in before the incident determines the outcome.  We must be trained - proactively - so that we can anticipate what will happen next. 

If we are not putting forth the majority of our time, energies, and resources towards tactical readiness - for those situations where we don't have time to think and must react at the unconscious competence level - we are not living up to the promise that we made when we took our oath to protect and serve, and we're not upholding the commitment we made to each other.

The 1% of what we do, when we really hang ourselves out there, is 100% of what the public relies upon us to be able to do.  They expect perfection from us and we should demand it of ourselves in order to be true to our word.  Peace of mind is achieved through the self-gratification of knowing that you trained as hard as you could to be the best you could possibly be. 

I asked a family friend over beers at Christmas, a member of the SEALs who was getting ready to deploy to Afghanistan for the fourth time two weeks later, "How often do you train to do your job?" 

I already knew the answer.  I've read the books, and I've seen the documentaries, but I wanted to hear it from him.

His reply, "All we do is prepare."
As should we.
As firefighters, if we lose our cool and can't keep our heads we are no better than an untrained civilian.  Success is not about luck, but rather about preparing to win.

Consistent performance is directly linked to consistent preparation.  The top performers in any realm are the masters of skill and emotion, they are not enslaved by them. Fear doesn't keep you safe, your training does.  

99% of the job is preparation, 1% is application. Get your percentages right. 

Monday, September 22, 2014


By Mark vonAppen

Everyone loves to reach into a cabinet and find a sharp axe or a well tuned halligan bar, but what about our most important tools, our people?  Who bears the responsibility to keep them sharp; to knock the rust off of them from time to time?  

We all do. 

Make no mistake, there will be times when everyone on the fire ground will need to go to work.  I call it the "next man up" principle.  We never know when our time will come, only that it will so we must be ready at all times.    

Accountability comes from looking out for one another and through a belief that we must stay sharp in order to live up to our responsibility to each other and to the community that we serve. We need people who can walk and chew gum at the same time.  It is a constant process of grinding and polishing to maintain a sense of urgency and purpose.
The most important tools to keep sharp don't come in a box or ride in a cabinet, they wear seat belts.
Without functionally intelligent, capable, flesh and blood tools on the fire ground, our tools of steel are rendered all but useless.  We must invest in the best tools that we have, our people. When you look back at all of the successful and edgy flesh and blood tools that you helped create, you can breathe a little easier knowing that you did your part to pay it forward.  

Push limits.  The war on complacency will be won by people, not by machines.  The most important tools to keep sharp don't come in a box or ride in a cabinet, they wear seat belts.