Sunday, February 14, 2016


By Mark vonAppen

This is a correspondence I had with a friend of the page from some time ago. 

He asked, "Are you really all-in-all-the-time?"

This is what I wrote back.



Unfortunately, this is something I wrestle with mightily.  I try to wrap my head around the who-the-hell-are-you-and-just-what-is-it-you-think-you're-doing-thing every day.  I grapple with the question of what I'm willing to give up to answer the calling.  A health scare a few years ago and the loss of some friends brought the reality that this can be taken away at any second into laser focus.

Sometimes something has to give.

Reality is this.  Our drive and passion for the craft are extremely important when we are at work. Sure, it's cool to be edgy and pissed off for the craft, but it's not cool to bring it home.  Family is more important than anything we do at the firehouse.

We all know it, but we hate to admit that it's easier to slink off to work and be the superheroes that we pretend to be when we cross the threshold of the firehouse.  Shit, people tell us that we are so often we even start to believe it.   It's easier to be that somebody else and claim that the magnitude of what we do supersedes who we really are and somehow gives us permission to give less than our best to those who we say we love most. 
You have to be accountable first to the person that you swore to stand beside and the children you chose to bring into the world.
Truth be told, even on the job we show up and are just a temporary fix.  A lot of times we show up and leave things just as messy as before we are summoned.  It's easy to show up, be the short-term fix and leave than it is to be accountable to the level that we are supposed to be at home. Sometimes we leave our personal lives looking worse than a head-on collision at freeway speed. 

The job is an amazing gift, but what I've come to discover, contrary to what we all are lead to believe, is that this career will take from you continuously in terms of your time, your health, your relationships, and many other things that it will never give back.  

Never ever.

There will be periods of time in your career where you have to throttle back in order to find your equilibrium at home.  You only get one shot to be with your family.  You don't want to reflect on your life and say, "I wasn't there for the ones I said I love most."

That regret must be worse than any I can imagine.

You can't be everything all the time; it's impossible.  Anyone who claims that they are is a liar.  All you can do is your best.  You have to be accountable first to the person that you swore to stand beside and the children you chose to bring into the world.  They deserve your best all the time. 

Time has a way of making us a little less bold and it makes our hearts grow a little bit colder. When we see warm, bold hearts in our midst we must celebrate them and find that fearlessness and warmth in ourselves once again, if only for a short time.  

Work at being a solid human being first.  If you do that, everything else will follow suit.

It's something I struggle with every day.


Dedicated to my brothers and sisters in Evesham, New Jersey.  God bless.

Monday, August 10, 2015

A Long History of Short Memories

By: Mark vonAppen

I don't care much for fictional accounts of fires, so whenever I sit through an after action review it is interesting to me to hear what happened according to the stories that are told.  Most don't sound anything like any fire I have ever gone to, yet all of them sound exactly the same.  I get angry at the thought about having my time wasted as the players indulge in half-truths, and out-right lies.  These outstanding learning opportunities are often lost to fear and ignorance.  I usually withdraw mentally and emotionally as lie piles on top of lie.  I retreat into my own reality I think, "Being honest makes you the biggest jerk in the room."  

If it is true that history repeats and we are helpless to learn from experience, what is the value of sharing our experiences?  Is our experience, our recollection, really the truth?  Or is it more to the point that we are we incapable of telling the truth?  Are our stories so divergent because our minds can only process a limited amount of information due to strain, or is it easier to explain than that? Do we lie about our experiences?
"The fire service has institutional memory.  We learn by telling and retelling stories.  We learn something new and as a group we change."

What is the cost of knowing the truth about our past?  Damaged egos and wounded pride?  A tarnished department image?  We have to speak the truth and share our debacles, close calls, and every lesson we have ever learned with anyone who will listen.  Call me anything you want, but I believe that keeping lessons learned, even painful ones, inside is the ultimate act of selfishness and cowardice.  It takes a considerable amount of arrogance to think you can do something a couple of times a year for a few minutes at a time and consider yourself an expert.  Likewise, it takes an equal amount of pride to think you wrote the book on something that has existed in one form or another for thousands of years.

Do we dare to tell the truth?  Do pride and tradition impede progress?  Do we operate in a profession where the anecdotal passes for truth?  If we’re honest we might not like the answer.  We engage in back-patting sessions that create a false-positive feedback loop in which poor performance and decision making is reinforced by a hearty slap on the back and a firm hand shake.  

Lies have an echo chamber effect in our culture, we are parochial by nature and we have our own belief system that is confirmed by our personal biases and ideology.  The fire service has institutional memory.  We learn by telling and retelling stories.  We learn something new and as a group we change.  We have to tell the truth, otherwise lies become our truth.  Honest dialogue, surrounding topics on which we disagree,  and telling the true accounts of what really happened can help us guard against nightmare feedback loops.  

How many brothers and sisters would be with us this day if we all shared the real stories, every one of them, no matter how painful?  Somewhere in the world right now someone is making the same decision you made last week, last month, last year.  We will continue to die in the same ways over, and over, and over until we learn to set ego aside and tell each other the truth.

Lies are easier for everyone to hear, but they don't stop anyone from knowing that the truth is out there.  The truth of all of this is that it is difficult for us to be honest.  When we are honest, nobody will listen because they don't want to believe the truth—that even the best among us are fallible—and that our number could come up at any time despite taking every precaution.  Let go of your fear of knowing the truth.  Maybe history wouldn't repeat as often and we wouldn't be so easily surprised if we were accepting of telling and hearing the truth.  

What is the cost of not knowing the truth about our past?  That cost is ignorance, and in our business ignorance is the most dangerous foe we will ever face.  We must see things through the same eyes.  If we don’t start telling each other the truth, the next time could be our last time.  If we cannot be honest in revealing the facts surrounding accidents and line of duty deaths then we might as well not talk about them at all.

I'm not particularly religious, but I hear that lying is a sin.  So is killing.  The more we lie, the more we contribute to future accidents, injuries, and death.  The lies that we pimp as truth today, either in print or through oral history, are the seeds of tomorrow's disaster. The more we cultivate them by perpetuating falsehoods the deeper the roots go.  It is very difficult to uncoil the roots of what we are led to believe.  They can grow into tumors knitted into the fabric of who we are.  

We have a long history of short memories.  The dead keep their secrets, and the living agree upon the story that is easiest to tell.  If you don't believe that, then you're lying to yourself.


Thursday, August 6, 2015


By Mark vonAppen

If I could sit down with myself as a new officer and talk  about what's important to remember, here is what I'd say.  

This is an excerpt from a speech I wrote for a recent promotional ceremony:

As you prepare to move into a riding position that the organization recognizes as a leadership spot, try to keep a few things in mind.  There are shiny things that accompany this new riding position; namely, a badge, a bugle or two, and possibly a glimmer of respect.  Remember that you got to where you are in life because of who you are.  If you've been leading, they'll follow, if you haven't, then you have a lot of work to do.

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.
"Be yourself.  If you do, you never have to remember to be somebody else."
The craft is about people.  Retain a sense of humility.  Take the craft more seriously than you take yourself.  This job is more real than any book you will ever read.  If you're honest, you will be humbled every day by the greatness of your peers, by how much there is yet to learn, and by how much responsibility you own.  Hubris is one of life’s poisons; don’t drink from that cup.  Remember to maintain the beginners mind, and never lose the sense of wonder. 

Listen more than you talk.  There is a big difference between time served, and time in the service of others.  This is but another step in the life-long journey to mastery.  It’s not about your time in your riding position, it’s about what you do with your time in that position.  

Say to yourself, "May I forever strive to master the craft."  Do your job, treat people right, give all out effort, and have an all in attitude.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Patches, Apparel, and Stickers

If you'd like to show you're FULLY INVOLVED, we just received some 2" x 2" all black rubber patches that are perfect for sewing onto a gear bag, tactical gear, or whatever you choose!

Quantities are extremely limited!  

Patches are just $10.00 each ($11.00 if ordering outside the USA)! 

1.5" x 1.5" vinyl (all weather - currently one size only) stickers are $3.50 a piece ($4.00 for stickers sent internationally).

To order patches and stickers by check:

Please send check and a self-addressed, stamped envelope with the number of stickers or patches requested to:

Mark vonAppen
1802 Cleveland Ave.
San Jose, CA 95126

To order stickers or patches by PayPal:

Send PayPal payment to
Be sure to include the number of stickers or patches along with your shipping address in the notes!

I will ship as orders are received.

***If ordering from outside the USA PayPal is the preferred method of payment please. 


Thank you!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Long Road

By Mark vonAppen

Most all of us enter into our career in the fire service blind with ideology; thinking that we can master the learning curve and become difference makers.  We seek to augment growth, foster development, and provide support to our brothers and sisters.

We set about changing the world in our own way, one knot, one hose evolution, or one emergency reponse at a time.  For a while, we are buoyed almost exclusively by the novelty of the road, and the pride of displaying the badge of a time-honored profession.

Needing more, we pack our bags and strike out on our own to see for ourselves that the world, widely rumored to be flat, is indeed round, and does not drop off at the corners of our respective jurisdictions.  We journey through Non Plus Ultra to Ad Adventurum.  Live the adventure; whatever will be, will be.  We discover the world to be a big, beautiful, humbling, mind-expanding place.  We want to share what we learn out there, and show our love of the craft to anyone who will listen.  The problem is, we feel like nobody's listening.

We seek to expand our circle of knowledge, attempting to bring back what we learn on the path to the entire organization - our world - in a single person human wave assault.  We sponsor training, and try our hand at policy reform as we take on the every perceived illness that afflicts the organization.  We want to fix it all, and we want to fix it now.

In doing so, we become rogues, outcasts in our own land.  Warnings are issued about people like us as we travel between firehouses.  We are not-so-subtly reminded that firefighters don't make policy, chiefs do.

Look out for these guys.  They're rogues...


Then it's on to the next skirmish.  In our wake, plumes of smoke issue forth from bridges ablaze from the negative energy of hubris and ego.  Driven by naive, youthful exuberance, and an indomitable spirit, heads down, we push on.  Time passes, and we recognize that there are a disproportionately high number of hurdles and roadblocks that we must negotiate in order to move forward. 

At first, it appears simply to be the inherent friction in the system that slows innovation and stunts growth.  As time goes on, we reach a dark and foul-tasting epiphany.  The organization does not value innovation, and it does not want forward momentum.  Worse yet, we discover that as much as we love the organization, our love is unrequited.  There are few things harder to deal with than having a passion for something that burns inside you like a bonfire and not being able to express it.

As rogues, we far too often encounter a resistance to change or proposed growth, combined with hostility, which act as major distractions to the intended mission of the fire service.  The mission is to serve the needs and protect the safety of the community.  An on-going preoccupation with what cannot be done, rather than what can be done, renders a degree of dysfunction to operations and negatively impacts team building.  Our passion is relegated to an angry smolder.  It becomes personal.  We retreat deeper into training and feel isolated and scorned.
There are few things harder to deal with than having a passion for something that burns inside you like a bonfire and not being able to express it.
It may take a few years for us to recognize that the political topography of municipalities and in turn, individual fire departments, often make it virtually impossible to actualize many of our objectives.  A blend of parochialism and the cumbersome inbred bureaucracy that litters landscape of city government makes the situation untenable for some.  Daily distractions become the norm.  Friction within the organization can steal passion; it can take away love for the game, and it can break our spirit.  If we let it, the fire will go out and we grow cold and bitter inside.  We struggle with the universal conundrum, do we lead, do we follow, or do we simply stop trying? 

Some of us retreat into shells and shrink our sphere of influence - self, crew, station - in an attempt at self-preservation.  Others wage a misunderstood war, redefining insanity by continually launching headlong into a cement wall, in a vain effort to resuscitate a moribund fight. 

We try to bring others on board in the struggle, all the while the friction of the establishment has us in its undertow.  What we desire most of all to preserve our way of hard work and dedication to the craft.  Our career can stall into a period marked by a lack of progress and little or no advancement because it is easier to roll over on our back and expose our belly in an act of total submission. 

But that's not who we are.  Quit is not in our vocabulary, fight and adaptation are.  History shows us that wars are won by those who are students of battle stories and learn from the past.  Full frontal assaults are suicidal.  There is a better way. It might take much longer, but it will be less costly in terms of broken spirits, and career casualties.  

The road is more circuitous than we'd like, but we cannot concede tomorrow's battles for a lack of immediate and overwhelming victory today.  We will not allow what we cannot control interfere with what we can accomplish.  Those who don't lose their way are able to cup the ember in their hands and carry what remains of the fire and lay in wait until the time is right to move.  They move through anger to acceptance, and when it is safe to do so, they open their hands and issue the ember a breath of air.  

The flame of passion flickers back to life.  

We take the fight from the open fields where we are easy targets to the streets and engage in a house to house, street to street fight aimed at cultural renaissance.  We take the fight underground.  We will not allow personal limits to be placed on us.  

Eventually we find our way.  Like a coach or a teacher who bridges the learning gap between themselves and their pupil until it disappears, we try to bring equality to our crew, station, and battalion, thus enabling greater relationships to blossom. 

How do you bring the rogues home and promote positive change?
  • Solicit input
  • Take accountability for your shortfalls and pass credit for success to your people
  • Be disciplined in your approach to the craft
  • Create structure - people want to know what to expect
  • Don't keep knowledge to yourself, share what you know
  • Be a positive role model and encourage others who share a passion for the craft to become mentors too
  • Communicate your passion
  • Show humility
  • Have fun

Rogues can no more explain passion to a person who has never experienced it than we can explain light to the blind.  Passion is energy, it is palpable.  We must never lose it.

A large part of what it means to lead is having the courage to disobey; not in a sophomorish revolt against the establishment simply for the sake of conflict, but because we feel that there is a better way to be found through independent thought, communication, innovation, and teamwork.

The passage is narrow and the walls are sheer.  The rogue's road is strewn with the burned-out, still smoking hulks of what were the dreams and aspirations of those who preceded us.  Real leadership is bringing those disenfranchised individuals back into the fold, helping them reclaim their dreams from those who took them away.  We must augment people's dreams, not disparage them.  Too often, the opposite happens. 

Courage and character are developed by celebrating initiative and independence.  Our time in service, and in this world are limited, we cannot afford live our lives in a rigid adherence to dogma, living exclusively by someone else's rules.  

Sometimes you have to wage the war of positive change on a small scale; one person, one drill, one company at a time.  It requires perseverance - total buy-in - and long term commitment.  Stay in the fight, it's a war of attrition, not a shock and awe campaign.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

We Don't Need To Whisper

By Mark vonAppen

Let's be real.  After all, that's what this whole Fully Involved idea is predicated on - honesty and trust. Without it, we have nothing. 

Put it out there where we can't take it back. Stop whispering in the shadows about our way of doing things and get things out in the open.  Shine the light on the shit that works and slam the door - once and for all - on what doesn't. 

What we have fought hard to create has taken root and is reviving moribund cultures all over the country (and the world) by forging an atmosphere of accountability through belief in each other. We've accomplished this with a dogged adherence to our standard.
We must focus on what we can control.  Our standard of performance (The BIG4) is reflected in our homes, in the firehouse, the drill grounds, and on the emergency scene.  How we perform day in, day out, and minute to minute is a reflection of this attitude.
At some point, we have to stop worrying about what people are going to think, do, or say.  When we're doing something significant, detractors don't matter.
We live our lives urgently.  We show up early, listen and learn aggressively, stay late, and we sweat the details.

We display toughness and resilience.  We are always progressing, knowing that there will be stumbles along the way and that we will fall.  The climb up has been slow, and the fall can occur meteorically if we let it.  If we fall, we must always fall forward.  

At some point, we have to stop worrying about what people are going to think, do, or say.  When we're doing something significant, detractors don't matter.  We keep going.

Expect success.  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.  

Invest in yourself and in your future.  We can't learn unless we make a lot of mistakes.  The key is to minimize mistakes in order to maximize performance.  It's okay to make mistakes, but it's not okay to dwell on them and allow them to define us.  Glean the knowledge, lick your wounds, and move on.  Improve every time.

We don't talk shit.  We speak our truth. Honest self-evaluation and pride in performance are emblematic of our way. We are more than willing to pay the price it takes to maintain our self-respect. 

We have the chance to do what many people think is impossible and have a great time doing it.  We must do our jobs, treat people right, give all out effort, and have an all in attitude.  We have tapped into something that works and we have to stop whispering about it. 

Why should we raise our voices when we speak of our passions?  Because we who invest have the most on the line.  

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Coaching Them Right

By Mark vonAppen

Running threads throughout many of the posts I have had in this blog involve trust. Faith in the leader, the team, the person next to you, and ultimately in yourself are what I feel are keystones of successful operations.  The words we choose and the style of teaching we employ can make or break learning sessions.

Getting people to trust themselves involves building them up, and teaching in a positive manner in order to get the most out of them.  Most learners, no matter their age, do not respond to negative reinforcement.

In my opinion, a bullying style never works for very long.   Short-term results may be realized but the long-term yield will be a disenfranchised student base.  The way that we treat people in training can build unity in the team or it can drive the group away - far away.  Once they are driven away, good luck capturing their attention again.  Even when all other means have failed I'm not a fan of belittling firefighters - ever.
Standing over a trainee with your arms folded, shaking your head disapprovingly as they struggle to grasp a concept or skill, only proves that you hunger for others to fail so you can assert your knowledge and authority.  This in no uncertain terms is bullying, which leads to resentment and flies in the face of creating a positive learning environment.  If you want to lose your audience immediately, act like a pretentious-know-it-all on the drill ground.
"Getting people to trust themselves involves building them up."
Students must be allowed to make mistakes in training. Doers make mistakes.  If a trainee fails to perform an evolution correctly at the first attempt, train them on the desired behavior.  Allow for the opportunity to perform the skill correctly as many times as is necessary.  In doing so, you open their eyes to a flaw in their game and by giving them the opportunity to correct it, they will be stronger performers.

The classroom and the drill grounds serve essentially the same purpose - they are for explanation, demonstration, correction, and repetition.  The training ground is the place for failure, and it is the place where we must conquer the fear of failure in order to succeed.
We cannot coach at people in the same way we do not talk at people.  To reach them we must coach to them, just as our efforts in teaching should speak to the pupil.  A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment.  Cultivating trust in the training environment is a must have if we seek an elite level of performance.  Leadership is about owning your responsibility to the future. Coach your people up and give them the tools to survive even after you have moved on.
Trust in the instructor and faith in the training mission allows for trainees to stretch themselves- to go to places outside their established comfort zones.  The results are trainees who seek greater depths of knowledge because they feel comfortable trying new things.
Build trust by caring for the person as an individual - shower them with genuine interest.  Place people in positions where they have the best chance of success.  The student must feel that the mentor will not quit on them - even when they fail.  The deal breaker is when the trainee does not put forth effort, they have to want it too.  The obligation of the student is to make every effort to absorb the coaching and try to improve.  Each person must feel that the leader is speaking to them personally even as the leader is addressing the group. 

How do you develop trust?
  • Communication
  • Establish plans together - students must be honest self-evaluators
  • Execute the plan
  • Mutual exchange - have expectations for the student and allow for the students to have expectations of you (See: What to expect from one another - One Team, One Fight)
  • Be patient
  • Work overtime: Hold some coaching in reserve - speak to people individually about specific areas of improvement after training sessions - this shows interest by spending time outside of the classroom or drill ground
  • Don't single out individuals in the group setting - people know how they performed
  • Don't set people up for failure
  • Allow for failure - use setbacks as a learning tool
  • Celebrate success
  • Have a sense of humor

The instructors who made the biggest impression on my life are the ones who displayed the greatest amount of patience and empathy for me as I struggled to comprehend what they were trying to drive home.
I have never gotten good at anything by not doing it - a lot.  I’m the type of person who has to practice a skill over and over again to get it right.  Once I do get it, I still have to practice tirelessly to make sure I stay sharp.  It’s exhausting, I am extremely envious (and rather skeptical) of anyone that can observe a skill once and believe they have mastered it.  I want to know their secret.  It might just be that they were coached the right way from the very beginning.