Wednesday, April 25, 2012

By Mark vonAppen

We are told:

You are a valued team member.  We want to hear what you have to say.  We're listening to you.  You are important to us. Your opinion matters.

What the machine forces us to swallow:

If you don't like it, fake it.  If we want your opinion, we'll give it to you.  It shouldn't come from you, it should come from someone else.  It's not the message, it's the messenger.  It's not what you said, it's how you said it.
"Your performance on the street is what matters most, that will be your legacy."  
We say:

We're not that naive.  We know when we're being stroked.  We feel like we're waiting for something that is never going to happen.  We will not slide quietly into decline.  We're moving ahead with or without you.  We're not waiting anymore.

Sometimes saying nothing screams louder than anything.  Speak up or shut up, the penance is the same.  Whether you suffer in silence or are boisterous in voicing opinions, keep training.  Remember that quick change happens slowly.  Your performance on the street is what matters most, that will be your legacy.  

Handle it on your own.  Start today.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Dream

By Mark vonAppen

A brother was having a bad day at work, so I asked him how he was doing and he replied,  "Living the dream brother, living the dream."
If ever you question your drive to work the job take a look in the mirror and ask yourself, "Am I all in?  Am I holding up my end of the bargain with my brothers, sisters, and the community that I serve?  Am I the same person that I said I'd be in my interview with the fire chief all those years ago?"

If you can face the person in the glass before you and answer "yes" then great, let it roll.  If your answer is "sometimes" or "maybe" then hear me out.

Let's get something straight.  None of us got into this profession against our will.   To one degree or another, we volunteered for it, and some of us fought for years to get it.  We worked odd jobs, went to school at night, and interviewed for every job opportunity that surfaced - anywhere.  As rough it can be at times it is better to us than the alternative, an anemic life passed in the numbness of the risk-free human zoo that is modern society.

We truly are living the dream, we must never lose sight of that.  We have to constantly test ourselves mentally, physically, and professionally in order to remain steeled come what might.  We have to maintain the beginners mind and the passion that drew us to this proud and storied calling.

The only thing more terrifying to us than having something happen in our lives is the possibility of nothing happening at all.   We live for the challenge of our profession, it becomes who we are.  We live for it.  We are most alive when we push the limits of our capabilities, when we help others, it is where we thrive, it is where we are at our best.

God help us, we do love it so. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Stay Hungry

It's hard to comprehend how those driven individuals who are hell-bent on moving the fire service forward are constantly excommunicated from their organizations and told to keep quiet. Those who are not silenced - rather, those celebrated few - are considered visionaries who serve to propel their departments forward as destination organizations to which we should all aspire to be a part of. It's all about the climate of acceptance within the agency. It's all about want for change.

Let's be very clear, vision is scary to some people. Vision requires the ability to look ahead, to listen, and most of all it requires a lot of hard work to see the vision actualized.

I have flirted with the subject of listening to voices of all ranks in the organization before in "Trouble Maker." Those who sit on their opinions and wait for others to answer the tough questions aren't the ones who lead.  They wait for someone else to be the villain and then latch on to the point - once made - after the ice is broken.  A fatal leadership flaw is a lack of openness to new ideas or suggestions.  Another fatal flaw in leadership is being a fake.

From "Trouble Maker":

It is interesting - to me, anyway - that in IFSTA Company Officer, Fourth Edition, Ch 2- Leadership, the curriculum identifies the traits that differentiate managers from leaders. In short, managers maintain while leaders push the envelope. 

Here are some examples:
  • Managers ask how and when; leaders ask what and why.
  • Managers accept the status quo; leaders challenge the status quo.
  • Managers are classic good soldiers; leaders are their own people.
Supplant the word manager for firefighter and take a moment to consider how firefighters (and company officers) are sometimes treated. We often tell our firefighters to accept the status quo, to be good soldiers, to be drones. “That’s how it is done here. We’ve always done it that way.”

Be a "yes" man and you'll go far my son. Question the conventional and you're in for a bumpy ride. Fasten your seat-belt.

In so many words, “Don’t challenge the establishment. Everything is fine the way it is.”
Now go back and look at what the traits of a leader are. If you have a firefighter, company officer, or chief who asks a lot of questions, who challenges accepted practice by bringing in fresh ideas, stands out from the crowd, and is their own person, what label are they given?

Remember, these are considered leadership traits.

Would you call them noisy complainers (a euphemism for big pain in the ass)?

I’ll bet in most organizations anywhere in the world the answer is yes, they are considered huge pains in the ass. Once again fire service literature and traditions are a study in contradiction. 

Call me old fashioned, I suppose I'm a victim of the person I was as a kid - back before I entered the work force - when I believed that hard work and perseverance always pays off.  It usually did in athletics, so why should the competitive realm of the fire service be any different?
Polarizing individuals are often catalysts for change, they inspire dialogue and invite fresh perspectives.
The bitter reality though is this; you're only as valuable as your last performance, or maybe that doesn't count either because being a leader means pissing people off.  You can only achieve as much as the organization is willing to allow you to achieve. Polarizing agents like those who challenge the status quo will always be viewed as separatists who rock the cozy little boat that some of us float along in throughout an insipid career.  Polarizing individuals are often the catalysts for change, they inspire dialogue and invite fresh perspectives.

As harsh as it sounds, as bold and as visionary as some of these voices are, the bourgeois does not want to take a step in a positive direction.  

The reason?  Vision is scary.

We have to move the ball forward on our own.  We have to build the circle from the inside out. Grow your circle of positivity by seeking out those who share the vision. That vision is one of hard work, dedication to the craft, mental, and physical fitness.
The keys to success in this venture are strong station leadership and core chemistry.  Strong core leadership ensures that the role players fall in step and comply with the program.  Without strong leadership in the station the new faces - recruits - can easily slide into bad and potentially lethal habits. You don't have to have a title to be a leader, you can lead up, down or sideways.  Show your fellow firefighters how to be a positive influence from anywhere in the department even if the positional leaders are unwilling or incapable of supporting your efforts.  

A house divided cannot stand - that's what they say anyway.  We're surrounded so we have to be able to count on the the person in the foxhole - or on the pipe - next to us. 
We should honor our past, carry on the proud traditions, but expect nothing from it.  
Giving it more thought I realized that when the attacks began on our proud profession that we owe it to ourselves to protect each other because it is readily apparent that nobody else is going to.  The positive strides that the fire service made in the past decade are relevant only in the eyes of history. The fire service moving forward will have it's own unique composition and chemistry.  We should honor our past, carry on the proud traditions, but expect nothing from it.  The future is ours to create. 

We must be hungry.  The new fire service cannot exist on reputation. Hunger and drive for perfection is what will define our fire service.  We must rally around each other. What will emerge will be a leaner, stronger, and smarter machine that carries us forward.  

It will be how the new generation of leaders (of all ranks) puts it's spin on the core values of the fire service that will define success or failure. The one constant in the past was the adherence to the way (strong work ethic and being of high character) and how the nucleus carried the torch, setting the example for the new faces that dotted the stations from year to year.  We must not lose sight of the way.

There are two things that unite people faster than anything: a common goal, and a common enemy.  The goal is to move the ball forward, the enemy is complacency.  Train more, think more, talk about the job more.  

How can these be considered bad things?
It starts here.

They shouldn't be.

The new fire service must be a group not of reputation but a team of character.  If we take anything from the past it should be this; be not who others think you are, existing on reputation, be a person of character, because that is who you really are. 

Hard work and dedication should count for something.  Even if you don't like (or can't stand) the messenger, listen to the message. If the message speaks to you use it for the positive, if not, delete it. Don't silence outspoken voices, you might learn something. 

Scary, I know.

R.I.P. Lt. Richard Nappi (FDNY). 

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Daddy's Girl

So, I’m at this backyard BBQ when this guy walks up…
Listing, he points his wine glass at me, “Fireman, right?”


It always goes the same way…
Idyllic, awkward conversation ensues…

“Checkers and coffee all day, right?” He chuckles and slaps me way too hard on the shoulder in a way that is way too chummy for a guy who’s not my friend.

Who is this guy?
I smile back, “Right…”

“You guys make a lot of money,” he persists.
I take a drink of my beer as my eyes dart around looking for my wife.

Get me out of here.

“I hear you guys are never at work.”

“Well, that’s not actually true…”

I can feel it - here it comes.

The obligatory ugly question.
“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen?”

“You don’t want to hear it.”

“C’mon man, tell me…” A misting of spit hits my face. He pokes me in the chest.

Others surround to witness the novelty - I can hear them now…
“He’s a fireman, how neat…”
I’m like a side-show carnie…
Tell us a story…

“No, you don’t want that in your head.”

“I can take it - c’mon give me a good one.”

If he had only raised his chin as he said it.
I snarl inside. Like hell you can…
Ok man, you want to take that ride?
Climb inside my messed up skull -

What do you think about when you drive to work?
I think about scars in the pavement - deep and angry.
Three cars…
Battery acid, gasoline, radiator fluid, crunching glass beneath my feet…
A dead girl, a screaming boy, a headless man, a dog…
120 days a year, cup of coffee in hand on my way to work- I pass the spot…
Trips with my family, there she is…
Its always there - if I try not to think about it - I’m thinking about it.
If I choose a different road so I won’t see the scars in the pavement it means I took a different road so I wouldn’t think about it, still thinking about it by trying not to think about it, an endless feedback loop.
Please pass the mind scrub, a wire brush to scour the slough from my mind.
So here it is.
Damn you for making polite conversation -
For making me think about it again.
I see a woman asleep drifting across the median into oncoming traffic -
A large truck with a lumber rack - you know the kind I mean?”

Fingering the neck of his glass he nods and shifts his weight.

“A boy and a girl in a tiny car - radio up, windows down - off together on an adventure…
A warm cloudless day…
A horrific impact -
Front ends buried in the freeway - pavement gouged.
A woman sits beside the road - as if dropped from the sky - knees tucked to chest - head down - her face vacant.
She doesn’t have a mark on her.
Where’d she come from?
The boy is crushed. The girl is dead.
She was pretty as I recall… underneath blood matted shoulder length auburn hair - ribbons of ruby blood lay against ashen skin - life drained - her heart crushed by the collision.
I watch her chest for the heaving of breath.
I brush a wisp of hair aside and touch her neck - still warm, slick with blood - feeling for the liquid slamming of her heart.
She wore a sleeveless blouse - on her shoulders she has tiny freckles…
Slivers of glass glisten like pixie dust over her body…
She spills from her seat onto her boyfriend - the driver.
He screams a scream from a place I’ve heard too many times - that place of anguish I never want to go again.
Her head lies on his shoulder - neck violently snapped on impact.
His torso pinned - he can’t turn to see her or free an arm to touch her…
I lie. I say we’re doing everything we can.
We can’t do anything for her- she’s dead.
I sort the dead and living as though reading a checklist.
No breathing, no pulse -
It’s nothing personal - it’s the job.
At times like these when you’re dead - you’re dead. If you’re close you’re probably dead too.
Close counts in horse- shoes, hand grenades, and triage.
That’s not it…”

He says, “Oh, God- it gets worse?”

I seethe.
“Yup -
Truck spins off into another lane…
A normal guy in a car…
Going about his antiseptic life when two vehicles explode in front of him -
The big work truck - the one with the lumber rack- careens backwards into his lane…
The bumper of the truck with a 50 lb. vice attached - shatters the wind shield - severing his head…
When somebody’s head is gone that’s an easy one to figure out - done.
Vice and head in the back seat.”

“No…” the guy says.

“Want some more?” I ask like a combat raged soldier, words are my ordinance.

He looks for a way out, “Oh my God…”

I lean in to him, temples throbbing.
“Wait, there’s more… You wanted a good one - right?
The car is really jacked up -
Now we have to get the boy out...
It takes about a half an hour or so.
He’s SO twisted up inside the car - every time we try to push, pull, or cut part of the car he screams from that place-
Long, drawn out, torturous screams until he loses his breath…
The veins in his neck bulge.
I try to soothe him - ‘Hang in there buddy - this is going to hurt - we’re doing the best we can.’
Pathetic right? That’s the best I can come up with under the circumstances.
I had a lot going on.
I can’t see his face anymore - only hers.
Hazel eyes open to stare at nothing -
A heart shaped pendant around her neck.
‘Daddy’s Girl’
Each time we rock the car, her head - held on her freckled shoulders only by the skin of her neck, no life to hold the muscles firm, bones turned to gravel - convulses side to side and front to back in a manner that I can’t describe.
Or maybe I just did - I don’t know…
Stop shaking the car!
We hold her head still so we feel better…
We pop the door off with the Jaws -
Dashboard finally pushed off the boy - we lift him out.
Bones broken - his arms and legs hanging and bending like he has extra joints in the center of all his long bones.
Kind of like the limp tentacles of an octopus - does that make sense?”

The guy looks through me.

I gulp down some beer -
I boil…
Poke me in the chest again…
“My job isn’t so cute anymore is it?
And it’s still not over -
Sharp white fragments of bone stick through his skin from these newly formed joints in the middle of his arms and legs.
The jagged ends grind together as we carry him…
He screams…
His limbs shattered in too many places to count.
A gurney carries him away.
Just when I think it’s over… this dog appears.
Where the hell did he come from?
He limps along on three good legs. One of his fore legs angled in a way that doesn’t make sense.
Enough already -
He whimpers. Dazed, he hobbles past me.
His snout is bent at weird angle too, webs of blood and drool hanging from it.
‘Aw, Christ! Somebody let me shoot him…’ A police officer says to no one in particular.
We cover the daddy’s girl with a yellow waterproof blanket.
I look down and think, ‘Look at how deep the pavement is scarred.’
Anything else you want to know before you move on to the next conversation?
Every time I drive past- there she is.”

-Mark S. vonAppen

“Daddy’s Girl”

The terrible (and real) accident occurred a number of years ago (2003) on northbound Highway 280 near El Monte Road in Los Altos Hills, California. I was inspired - a strange choice of words - to write the piece when my wife asked me over coffee on a Sunday morning (2011) what it looks like when a train hits someone.

She had been reading an article in the paper in which a couple visiting our area were hit by a commuter train and were killed. I have been on too many pedestrian versus train incidents in my career- my answer, “Not pretty. You don’t want to know.”

I began to think of every person I had ever been introduced to - whether well intentioned or completely obnoxious - that laughed and asked me to “tell them a good one.”

Most of the time I’m polite and I decline to tell stories. The ghosts that rattle around in my head need to stay there, free to haunt me and no one else. They’re mine and not yours. My reality - our reality - is not the same as theirs. Not even close. I am glad it’s not. Most people are simply making polite conversation, they often don't realize that they've picked at a scab.

My mind says to me, “Remember when that guy doused himself in gasoline and lit himself on fire? Remember what it smelled like in the medic van as you drove him as fast as you could to the trauma center?”

I go back to the place...Mockingbird Lane in Sunnyvale, 1997. I was a 24 year-old kid EMT on a paramedic unit.

Charles Bukowski wrote a beautiful and somber poem titled “The Layover”. I think it sums up a lot of what I have seen - and what I experienced in my career - though years ago by measure, it is only one sentence back in my mind.

The Layover-
That moment- to this. . .
may be years in the way they measure,
but it's only one sentence back in my mind
there are so many days
when living stops and pulls up and sits
and waits like a train on the rails…
I look up at the window and think,
I no longer know where you are,
and I walk on and wonder where
the living goes
when it stops

-Charles Bukowski

I look at places around town in terms of where my first fire occurred, or someone was stabbed there, we delivered a baby on that corner, and scars in the pavement…
Someday the freeway will be resurfaced and then maybe she’ll go away, or maybe she won’t.

Every time I drive to work along the 280 Freeway my eyes always track to the exact spot where the pavement is gouged, and I go back.

There’s a demon in my head that starts to play a nightmare loop of what went on that day. Like a child passing a graveyard, I hold my breath until it’s more than I can take.

It's not polite to breathe when others can't...

Battery acid, radiator fluid, twisted metal, crunching glass beneath my feet, the sweet coppery smell of blood…

And there she is.