Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Game Has Changed

By Mark vonAppen

The other night I was reminded that we are not always in charge of the way that things turn out.  I saw what it looks like when statistics take precedence of human lives. The other night I was reminded that the game has changed.  There are very specific parameters under which the game is played, and over the past year the rules have been irrevocably altered.  We are not as capable as we once were, and the house called our bluff.  We say it a lot, that someone will pay when the budget forces us to press our luck by making us play short handed, but rarely can we reach out and touch the consequences.  The other night we could touch them and they made us all feel cold and helpless.  

With the change in house rules there are real consequences for not playing along.  I saw it play out in blood, sweat, broken bones, and lives lost. In a nutshell, too many patients, too much twisted metal, and not enough tools to go around.  We were way behind the power curve before we even left the barn.

My mind swirled, "He's really, really bad, and she's really bad too.  You have to pick one because you don't have enough tools to go around.  Take your pick. Heads you lose, tails you lose."
We have to remember that success in our craft doesn't come from holding a good hand, you are judged on what you do when you're dealt a bad hand. 

I was dealt a bad hand and I had to make the better of two no-win decisions.  When the house makes the rules, it wins eventually and I was reminded of just how difficult it is to play against a stacked deck.  I realized again that no matter how good I think I am, I'm not that good.  I watched helplessly as good people tried valiantly to take apart a car with their bare hands as two lives slipped slowly further and further away.

I watched it happen and it was awful.

As the guy who writes and tries to buoy others, I reached out to my network of friends and shared my frustration.  Here is what came back:

You can only do what you can do. We are not superheroes; we are people, just people with a trade to help people. It's not always going to be "ok". Everyone isn't always going to go home. This is a war that will never end for our profession. We do the best we can with what we've got. People get dealt a bad hand and we are there to help, just help. Sometimes we save the day, sometimes we do not. It's how you now handle yourself after defeat that will continue to define you as a firefighter and a human being. Try not to get caught up too much in the what if game. Some of that is always ok as you can learn from shortfalls and better yourself.

Remember, this is a contact sport. You didn't fail with your leadership. Getting back on that rig will help prove that to yourself.

I wasn't alone at this event.  A lot of brothers were there who are hurting afterwards just like me.  What hurts most is that we all know that we used to be able to do a lot more.  The people who make financial decisions (cuts) that limit our ability to respond to emergencies don't have to deal with the fallout, we do.  We are left with the scars. Because we know the difference, it stings that much more.

Sometimes we all need a lift.  I definitely did and still do.  I needed another wake up call. I needed to be reminded that sometimes we all face no-win situations.  I needed to be reminded that we all face the same problems from coast to coast, even around the world, and we are all there for each other.

We have to remember that success in our craft doesn't come from holding a good hand, you are judged on what you do when you're dealt a bad hand.  

Thanks to each and every one of you for your support.

Thank you DH.

Friday, August 29, 2014


If you have the chance, check out FULLY INVOLVED on Firefighter Toolbox.  I had the opportunity to talk leadership on the show a few months ago.  Give it a listen...

If you've been leading, don’t change who you are because you changed riding positions on the rig. Respect is found in who you've always been, you earn it with your every interaction. If you have given due respect to every position you have held, that glimmer of respect will shine a little brighter.

You are, and must remain, a functional member of the team.  Remember that you are always a rider.   The team is more important than any individual. Don't get distracted by the shiny objects that festoon your collar and chest, they are worthless if you try to be something that you are not.  If you're not you, those shiny things are just decoration, and they won't mean much. 

Be more concerned with who you are and not who people think you should be.  Be yourself.  If you do, you never have to remember to be somebody else.  When things get tough, your character is what needs to shine more than your bugles and badge.

Stay hungry!

Listen to FULLY INVOLVED on Firefighter Toolbox

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Closing The Deal

By Mark vonAppen

When a leadership vacuum exists, bad things happen.  Good people can disappear into silos of self-pity and self-defense and sometimes, the wrong type of leader can gain influence.   People start to think more about themselves, less about the group, and in the process, they destroy the team.
When people feel unappreciated, they will begin to turn on each other, undermining one another's success, and their efforts are stepped up only in an attempt to make someone else look bad.  It's a vicious and destructive cycle.
When people lose trust in the organization everyone will slow down their efforts and do just enough to survive.  They're usually smart enough to do it in a way that won't get noticed at first, or get them in trouble, but it's there, and everyone knows it.  These unhappy individuals look to spread their disease until more people come on board and perhaps, their subtle mutiny will cause a system-wide failure.  It's a depressing thing to see.

Firefighters are uber-sensative to issues of trust.  We all worked hard to get the job,  we expected to reach a place where hard work is rewarded: play by the rules, eclipse the minimum standard, and it will all be okay.  Well, the world isn't fair, and fire department politics are often more complicated to navigate than the office politics governing the 9-5 crowd.  Sometimes exceeding the minimum makes you a target.  When you become a target, you seek cover so you don't get hit.

Trust is the key to keeping people from turning to the dark side.  Informal, destructive leaders, who seek to undo all that is right, are nonetheless leaders and they have to nudged, or shoved, in the right direction.  By issuing forth fair, reasonable expectations ambiguity and anxiety are alleviated.  Most of all though, expectations establish trust.  Trust is built slowly, one brick at a time.  It can all come tumbling down quickly though, if even one brick is removed. 

It is very easy to become selfish in a group setting.  People shrink from responsibility and ask, "What's in it for me?"  When things are at their most difficult, we have to drop our guard and say, "This is me, this is who I am. This is what I give to you, and here is what I expect in return."  It is the heart of the "10 for you, 10 for me" leadership pact that I use with my crew.
The team belongs to those who get the job done and no one else.  Trust is hard found, and easily lost.

Leadership is nothing more than the ability to create influence.  This blog is centered on the belief that anyone can lead from anywhere in any organization.  The most difficult thing to do when things get tough is to make yourself vulnerable and continue to sacrifice.  Trust is hard found, and easily lost.   

How do we overcome leadership voids and ensure that the wrong types of leaders don't rise to power?  The answer is simple, decide on a common belief system that works for the good of all. We do it because we care about our brothers and sisters.  Take the initiative and say, "If no one else is going to step up, I will.  I will lead unselfishly."

The deal that we strike, through a common value system (Excellence, The BIG4), creates investment.  We sign our names to the contract, wear the sticker on our helmet, and we put it out there for the world to see.  The deal that we make breaks down barriers, helps us shoulder our responsibilities, and creates a starting point from which all decisions are made.  Having common values eliminates resentment and gives us a clear path to follow.  Ultimately, being accountable gets rid of all scapegoats. Assessing blame becomes less important when we hold ourselves accountable.  Because we are invested, when things go wrong we have nowhere to point the finger but at ourselves.

At the heart of all of this is peer pressure. We monitor each other, look out for each other, and we do it for each other.  We know that talking about change does little to influence the future, actions do.  We create a safe work environment where people are heard and  doors are truly open. In doing so, we create our own success. The team belongs to those who get the job done and no one else.    The leader's job, no matter their rank, is to amplify the talents of those around them. 

It's time to lead up, push past hidden agendas, follow a path that is clear, unselfish, and in the best interest of everyone.  When we do, the chaos will drop away.

Either you're in or you're out.  If you are not invested, you have no right to complain because you are not an active participant in shaping the future.  Stop wishing and start doing.  Nobody is going to tap you on the shoulder and ask, "Hey, do you want to be great at this?"  It is a conscious decision.  Excellence is not someone else's responsibility, it is yours and mine.  Nobody, no matter how hard they try, can take that commitment away from us.  When we believe in the deal that we make with each other there is no telling how far we can go.

Friday, July 18, 2014


By Mark vonAppen

There is a difference you can find in those who stand apart from the crowd, those people of character who just get it.  The intangible quality that sets them apart is something completely tangible.  It's called a work ethic, and it is the oft forgotten element on the journey to building, or rebuilding a culture.  You can feel it when you touch a book, when you pick up a tool, or when you wipe your brow when it is slick from sweat. 

Too many times we give accolades for simply showing up, keeping a seat warm, or holding down a spot.  Commendations are handed out like participation ribbons.  We talk change, talk about improved performance, but we go no further.  Changes are made by those who take action.  Activity should never be confused with achievement, and just because you exist doesn't mean you deserve.  

The privilege of wearing the uniform and the gift of service is something that is earned, it's not a right.  Ask yourself, "Who's in there?" Do you remember what it took to get to where you are today?  Do you remember the promises that you made?  Do you remember who you said you'd always be?  Find that person again.  Remember how you used to measure yourself.

Do your job right, because you said you would.  You said you'd do it forever that way.  Actions speak louder than words.  Ask yourself, "Who's in there?" If you don't like the answer, take the first step toward change.

The uniform doesn't give you power or credibility, your actions do.  Wearing tights and a cape doesn't mean you've earned the right to be called a super hero.  You are what you repeatedly do.  If you believe that excellence is your responsibility, and strive for it day in and day out, then that is where you will go.  If you belly-ache and talk change, but are unable or unwilling to make the change in yourself, then you will stand still. 
I want to do what I'm meant to do. When my career is over I want to be remembered for the things that cannot be measured.
The right to be proud and confident is one that is earned over a career of hard work, dedication, of attempts and failures.  Excellence isn't easily achieved.  In the same way, neither is confidence. Confidence is hard-won and fleeting.  We are percieved to be larger than life creations that defy natural laws and are the very image of all that is right.  The fact is, we're human.  We are full of faults, shortcomings, and insecurities.   To overcome these we must be tireless in the pursuit of our ideals.  

The importance of holding one another accountable cannot be understated. Accountability is a discipline.  We do it for the person next to us.  We do it for each other.  We do it on our own together.

I want to do what I'm meant to do.  I want to do it with passion.  I want to do what makes people feel.  When my career is over I want to be remembered for the things that cannot be measured.

I want to look back and say, "I did my job."

When everything else has faded away nobody will remember the metrics, they'll remember the person inside the uniform. If you're not living up to who you said you'd always be, you will just be at a costume party for 30 years and you'll be quickly forgotten.  If that's what you choose, you can walk away from your career with only your certificate of attendance.  

I'm not going out like that.

Monday, June 30, 2014


By Mark vonAppen

I love what I do through the blogging and writing because I have a vehicle to help people express, or perhaps, rediscover their passion for the craft of firefighting.  It's truly a privilege.  Not only do I have a rewarding career as a firefighter, where I get to help people, but I also get to travel the country and meet people who share the same passion for service.

I do it to offer all of us a voice.  
It's about determination. Take control of it before it takes control of you.
All of this is just talk unless we put actions behind our words.  We have to determine our ending by taking control of that which we can control before it takes control of us.  Talk is cheap, inspiring conversation, and raising awareness are just wasted time if we don't take steps to ensure we hold one another accountable to a standard, our standard.  Ours is a standard where complacency is not tolerated, where we believe that excellence is our responsibility, and people truly come first.

Do your job.
Treat people right.
Give all out effort.
Have an all in attitude.

It's about starting small and implementing change one person at a time.  It's about determination. Promises make friends, but performance keeps them.  Start the movement in your firehouse.

Take control of it before it takes control of you.