Saturday, April 13, 2013

Base Hits

By: Mark vonAppen

In a recent officers meeting regarding the direction in which our department is headed, I sat impatiently waiting for the silver bullet on how we were to right the ship.  As 15 or so officers gathered in a conference room at a library across from city hall, some sitting quietly sipping coffee, some chatting it up with the new fire chief, I looked around the room at a number of pieces of easel paper that adorned the walls like bad modern art.  Each piece was covered in brightly colored ink, hastily written short hand, and scribbled bits of information.  A common theme - or word - appeared as I read each of the more than 2 dozen pieces of paper that hung haphazardly on the walls.  




What a waste of paper.

The meeting was called to order and our new chief began by saying, "You might be wondering why we have all of these pieces of paper hanging on the walls.  We wanted to show you that we have been working, we have been brainstorming.  Changes are coming."

I began to think, as I drifted to another place, that we have been working too, for a really long time in fact, at changing our culture.  I thought to myself, "We've been changing it for years and they don't even know it." Sometimes big changes appear in the most casual, innocent statements and provide solid evidence that the quick change that everyone so desperately wants has been underway for some time.  Seeds planted years before yield the fruit of positive change.
"Sometimes in an effort to hit a walk-off home run, we lose sight of the fact that the game can be won with a steady string of base hits." 
A conversation I had late one night a week before the officers conference with one of our just-off-probation firefighters enlightened me to the fact that we have been getting a steady string of base hits in the firehouse for years.  Our wins - singles - came in the form of small positive changes while the organization, mired in bureaucracy and lumbering through a vanishing budget had been seeking the swing-for-the-fences grand slam aimed at cultural change.  Change the patch, send out a few emails, put up a few posters, hand out a few meaningless trinkets, and somehow, magically, people will buy what you're selling.  That isn't how it works.  People don't buy what you are selling, they buy your beliefs.  If you don't live it or believe it, forget about creating buy in from anybody else.  
Invest in people.

We have been creating buy in at the micro level while the organization slogs it out at the macro level swinging and missing by not making good on promises made in any form, good or bad.  We have made good on our promise to each other, to do our job, to treat one another right and to lead from anywhere.  Those promises kept are what have created investment from our brothers and sisters in the firehouse.  We have created belief in one another.

My conversation with the new firefighter began with acknowledging his accomplishment in completing probation - our rookies go through a regimented 18 month probation that includes monthly proficiency testing - that it was a milestone he should be proud of.  I began to recount the misadventures I experienced as a probationary firefighter, the trials and tribulations, the lack of leadership, and the difficulty I had in finding an officer to point all of my unfocused, rogue energy in the right direction.  I droned for about 20 minutes telling self-depricating stories of my journey through probation.  When the mostly one-sided conversation came to a conclusion he casually said something that resonated with me.  He blinked and said, "Wow cap, I never experienced any of that while I was on probation."

I was struck by how he shrugged off such a bold statement.  His words and body language said, "I was never treated badly."  His testimonial was a jaw-dropping epiphany to me that all of the talk of do your job, treat people right, give all out effort, have an all in attitude, had finally taken root.  

I said to myself, "There it is!" 

We have turned the corner as a culture.  It was another hit in a series of hits that we have strung together along with the 1/4 of our department that has less than 3 years on the job, and it was a signal that we are advancing.  Sometimes, in an effort to hit a walk-off homer, we swing for the fences and lose sight of the fact that the game can be won with a steady string of base hits.  

The conversation I had that night with one of our newer firefighters was a line-drive base hit, and I'll take those small victories all day long.  


  1. Inspiring... Keep up the great work. Your articles and experience should be great inspiration for the next generation. Stay Fully Involved and Fully Engaged!!!!!!

    Respectfully Submitted,

    Glenn Sutphin

  2. Great read brother! You have a way with words!

  3. It always fascinated me how at the company level we could bond together and do some amazing work, we had great camaraderie and harmony within the fire house. Especially if the company officer understood that a pat on the back at the right time could make his team pull like an Iditarod sled dog team. All was well, then something would come down from admin and just yank the hoses right out of our hands. The people that stopped living in fire stations years ago would throw a wrench in the works. Many times without any input from the bugleless in the ranks. I worked under 6 different chiefs during my career and change was always paramount with each one and I watched as each one with or without malaise implemented changes that drove morale down further and further.

  4. Mark, Great insight into how we can cause a positive cultural change no matter what the situation above us is. I really like the idea of "lead from anywhere", and I bet others will follow that informal lead as well. Great stuff in this post, thanks for sharing and glad to see your back!