Saturday, May 26, 2012


By Mark vonAppen

Shooters understand how much sweat and study goes into achieving an elite level of performance.  A shooter relishes the notion that they are prepared come what might, inviting each challenge, constantly preparing for the next contest.  Theirs is a game within the game.  For the shooter, the game is vigilance and preparation.  They want the ball when the game is on the line.  Shooters are always ready.

Who among you are the shooters?

A lot of firefighters consider themselves to be shooters and want to prove it at every opportunity.  They are the ones that the leader has to watch out for, big talkers who can free-lance themselves into a lot of trouble.  A shooter knows intuitively when it is time to step up and lead and when it is time to pass the ball to somebody else. 

Shooters often toil in anonymity; lost in thought, buried in study, and slick with sweat.  Their proof - truth - is provided by performance, not in vaulting speculation.  Top performers know that there is no substitute for hard work and dedication to the craft.  They know that no one can simply show up on game day and hope to succeed without first laying a solid foundation through hours of study and muscle burning travails.  Shooters never stop working the craft because they need to be the one who takes the shot with everything on the line.  At their core, shooters are team players.

Shooters often toil in anonymity; lost in thought, buried in study, and slick with sweat. For every success in the field of play - or on the fireground - there are hours worth of failures in practice.

Its not always easy to figure out who your shooters will be based upon limited action.  On the fireground the leader hopes that the shooters will bring the level the role players up so that when the time comes they will be ready to take their shot.  Everyone must be ready to take the shot - or the tool - because the play could come to anyone at anytime. 

How do you develop your role players to step up and take the shot when they need to? 

The leader must demonstrate that they have confidence in everyone, not just the top performers.  If a crew member makes a mistake in training they must be given the opportunity to redeem themselves quickly in order to build their confidence.

Training situations must replicate what the crew is going to face.  Train to specific situations 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 take the shot when called to do so.  Each person must know their part in the scheme and their spot in the order.  They must understand their responsibility and how it relates to other evolutions - so that chemistry and fireground flow is maintained.  Chemistry is a funny thing that is hard to find and is even harder to create.  When the right chemistry exists magic happens. 

Leadership involves getting every member to believe in you and more importantly, in one another.  A source of ballast comes from pulling together with others to accomplish a goal.  In training and on the fireground you can sense who the shooters are.  A good leader knows who they are, the brothers and sisters who innately understand and thrive in the complexity of the fireground.  The job of the leader is to put everyone in a position to be their most successful, and to get the most production out of them.  

Some shooters are born, most others are made. Born shooters are few and far between.  A shooter, whether born or made, makes the shot in the game because they missed thousands in practice, painstakingly analyzing their every movement, eliminating wasted motion, and maximizing performance.  Shooters are made of hard, lonely work.  For every success in the field of play - or on the fireground - there are hours worth of failures in practice.  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.  

Shooters 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.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Pride and Anecdotes

Some thoughts I had after being humbled yet again by education in the classroom and on the drill ground this week:

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.

Are there different ways to accomplish our goals? 


In order to grow as true students of the craft we must first be humble enough to admit that we don't know everything. Remember the beginners mind thing?  Beginners are open to any and all ideas because they are aware of their incompetence. 

Do we need to be accepting of science that contradicts or challenges many well-entrenched and widely accepted practices? 

If we're smart, absolutely. 

It's all about evolution. We have to understand that fire is not an enemy that wants to kill us, it is a chemical reaction that can be manipulated and neutralized if we understand the science behind what we do. If we don't understand the why and how of fire behavior then fire can kill us dead absolutely because we allow it to do so.

Its not mysticism, rather it is academia.

"Pride and vainglorious traditions continue to kill and injure American firefighters at a higher rate than in any other first-world nation."

Cast off pride and stop asking, "How many fires have you been to?" Look at our practices and ask, "Is what we're doing really the safest and most effective way to do business?"

Is there a better way? The answer again is yes. Look to science, and look to the rest of the industrialized world. 

Are we brave? 


Do pride and tradition impede progress? 


Do we operate in a profession where the anecdotal passes for truth?


"Because I said so," is not a statement of validation. It is the root of circular logic. 

Unconscious incompetence is the lowest level of learning. We aren’t good at something, we don’t know it, and we won’t admit to it. The first step in getting better at a task is to admit that we need experience and practice.

Honest dialogue - even surrounding topics on which we disagree - can help us guard against arrogance and duplicity. Pride and vainglorious traditions continue to kill and injure American firefighters at a higher rate than in any other first-world nation. 

Are we okay with that?

I don't think we should be.

In the absence of practical experience we must supplement our lack of real-world repetition with a vigorous pursuit of knowledge. 

We must take our knowledge beyond the surface-scratching, anecdotal world that many of us operate in. Experience is something personally encountered , undergone, or lived through. Experienced often refers to someone who has gotten away with doing the wrong thing more often than you have. 

Are we experienced or are we educated? We should strive to be both.

Sometimes in order to progress we must unlearn what we have learned.

Open your mind. Progress is impossible without change. Those who are too prideful to change their minds are incapable of forward movement. We must be ever the apprentice, surrendering to the notion that we aren't transcendental, all-knowing individuals. It is painful to admit, but the sooner we face reality - and the more we seek to reshape our reality - the farther we will go. 

If we are doing things right we will forever remain scholars of the craft.

It's time for a change. Start here.

*See video and related article from The Average Jake.

Saturday, May 12, 2012


By: Mark vonAppen

One of the more satisfying sidelights of this blog has been hearing (reading) the talk being generated surrounding this modest body of work.  Some recent posts (No, Cadence, and Stay Hungry) have struck an unexpected chord in some brothers and sisters that have read, and subsequently commented or blogged about them.
"No more...the anger, (the) negativity has to go away." 
In reference to "No," this appeared on "The Average Jake."

...I am going to as the post says, “start moving ahead with or without you.” I am done waiting, done talking about, and done trying to placate to those who do not want to see excellence in our Fire Service.  I love this job, flat-out love it.  There are very few places I would rather be than riding on a fire engine heading to a call.

In order to fully get to the next level that I want to get to, the anger, negativity has to go away.  It will be a long battle with my emotions but it has to happen.  It will not happen over night, or even over a year but today is the day to change it. 

"The anger and negativity has to go away" is as much a rallying cry for this blog as is "Stay Hungry."  Anger gets the machine in motion, but over the course of time anger is counter-productive.  Anger will eventually consume us, leaving us frustrated, exhausted, alienated, and in the end, defeated.  No more factions, no more "us vs. them."  Work together, sweat together, you've heard it before.

In order to move the fire service along we have to think big, but start small. Positive strides are made possible as the circle that works grows.  Everyone has to get with the 
program for it to happen.  Progress requires total buy-in.

To expand the circle of function, start with your company.
Too often passion is confused for anger.  It is true that we are fervent in expressing our convictions, in speaking our truth.   We look in the mirror every day and inventory our skills and determine our level of commitment.  Looking in the mirror and admitting our shortcomings is painful.  These stings are the pains of growth, they are a natural part of growing and stretching our abilities.  The more we stretch and push through the pain of honest self-evaluation, the further we - everyone - eventually will go. Stretching our abilities keeps us humble.

The movement to stamp out mediocrity is bolstered by hard work and is ultimately won through acceptance. We must recognize that every member of this great profession brings their own unique talents to the organization.  We have to engage everyone in order to move forward.  We must accept that not everyone shares our - admittedly weird - 24/7 dawn to dusk love for the job.  Some can turn it on and off like a light.  We can't, our light never goes out.

"It will be a long battle with my emotions, but it has to happen. It will not happen over night, or even over a year, but today is the day to change it."
                       -The Average Jake
The key to moving ahead is as simple as getting started.  The key to getting started is breaking big, overpowering tasks into smaller, manageable ones and then getting started on the first one.  The first step in all of this is breaking down barriers.

Our passion is our thing. We must own it, be proud of it, but we can't force it on others.  In one way or another your words will come around to everyone.  When people see you out there working, training, and sweating maybe they'll come out and sweat with you.  That's how it all starts, with sweat and hard work.  When we sweat together most of the time we end up laughing together.  Laughter leads to understanding.  The circle grows as we understand one another.

Your reach is far greater than you realize.
Whether you're out on the ramp dancing with a 24' ladder like a lunatic in the midday heat, doing power cleans until you vomit, a Jake, riding backwards and stupid, a hose jockey, a warrior, a critic, working the job, or whoever you are, in your unique way you are reaching people.  Your reach is far greater than you realize.  The word of your positive teachings continues to spread and those who take the time to really listen will hear you. 

Passion does not equal anger.  The truth has no anger.  Today is the day to change it.  By communicating your passion for the job you are putting your fingerprints on others and giving them the tools to succeed and survive.

Stay hungry.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Broken Hearted

By Mark vonAppen

I sit across from Gary "Blackjack" Ells as we wait for lunch at a bustling taqueria in Milpitas, California. The old man (a term of endearment used by firefighters who know and love him) has a surplus of nervous energy, some part of his body is in constant motion; he wrings his hands, his legs vibrate, and his eyes dart back and forth about the room as we sit awaiting our food.

We are in Milpitas for Blackjack's three-day tactics and strategy class. I am his liaison (driver) for the three days that he is to lecture. Chief Ells is a known industry expert who teaches, writes, speaks, eats, sleeps, breathes, and lives firefighting. He has seen more fire in his career than most of us can imagine. If you're like me, you can imagine quite a bit.

He says to me, "You know Marty," my name is Mark, but out of deference I don't dare to correct him. "You never get over it."

"What's that Chief?" I ask, distracted by the smell of warm tortillas and the smoky scent of seasoned meat roasting on the indoor grill, not entirely certain of what he's insinuating. I absent-mindedly rearrange the tortilla chips in the paper-lined bowl with my fingers.

"Call me Gary, Marty," he pauses. "You just never get over it," he pauses again and stares out the plate glass window, squinting into the midday sun, hands writhing, feet bouncing off the floor. "I'll tell you Marty, you never get over it when you lose somebody."

Still uncertain of where he's going with this, and perplexed by the fact that he keeps screwing up my name, I sit quietly and listen. Keeping my mouth shut does not come easily and as much as Blackjack's body is in motion my mouth moves at an equal rate, sometimes without much - or any - forethought. Blackjack pushes from the table and leans back in his chair.  He draws in a deep breath as his still darting eyes begin to swell with tears. "I lost a man once, 30 years ago.  I'll never get over it."

His mind retrieves the memory, long ago categorized and filed away, one of millions in a lifetime of memories. As it is gleaned from its box the wound is as fresh as it was on January 15, 1980, the pain and worry of years smashed on top of years cut into his face, the demon leaps from the shadow region of the old man's mind once again. Blackjack travels back in time to the night when the roof collapsed on 10 Tempe firefighters - his men - during a 4-alarm fire.
"We were on our own.  I knew that firefighters were going to die that night."
"I remember seeing the entire ceiling and roof assembly crashing down towards me.  We had no time.  I was crushed and pinned to the floor from the chest down.  The amount of weight that I felt on top of me was indescribable. 

I heard a voice screaming, 'Help me! Help me!' Then there was silence.  I'm still haunted by those shouts for help. My feeling of helplessness was overpowering. In the distance I could hear emergency traffic being announced over the radio, but I knew there was no one outside to help us.

We were on our own. I knew that firefighters were going to die that night.

I struggled to push up, out, roll over, anything, but nothing worked.  My mind flashed to my family, my crew, and my own certain death if I couldn't wriggle free.

Very quickly I could see the fire directly above me.  I said a short prayer as I continued to struggle. As I battled, the weight of the roof shifted and I was able to free one leg and then another from the debris, the weight was off of me and I could breathe.

I looked to my right and saw only darkness.  I looked to the left and saw light and an area free from debris against the wall.  I tunneled under the debris for about 45 feet, anywhere tables and chairs gave me room to move.  Finally, I reached a clear spot and I used the wall to stand up.  I looked to the south, towards the front doors and I was met by a curtain of flame only feet from me that reached 30 to 40 feet into the air. Directly above me was the tip of the aerial from Ladder 1 (L1).  I wished furtively that someone from L1 was on the aerial and would see me to pull me out, but there was no one there.  I looked to the north and saw the remains of the deli, its contents upside down and broken, nothing was in it's place.

I looked up again and saw the night stars, I was transfixed by how brightly they shown. The paradox was enormous.

My position was being consumed by fire as my mind raced from everything I had been taught about firefighter survival  to the fact that I couldn't find anyone else. I was alone, injured, and I was quickly coming to the realization that no one was going to find me. I believed I was the only one alive and that nobody on the outside knew it.  As I tried to find my way out each obstacle I encountered brought devastation and with each obstacle that I cleared, elation.  

I was taught early in my career that the only time death is certain is when you give up.  I couldn't quit

I recalled an update from Rescue 1 (R1), the voice was that of Ed Gaicki, 'We went down the west hallway to a room and we are removing an occupant from the back of the building.' I knew escape was possible. 

The deli counters were tall and slanted back.  I had to get over them to escape the fire and make it to the hallway, the only possible way out. On my third attempt I made it over the counter.  I landed upside down on the other side and started for the hallway 50 feet away.  I heard the sound of metal striking a hard object, I realized quickly that it was the sound of an SCBA bottle hitting the wall. I crawled towards the sound and ran into a cinder block wall, I could feel the grout lines and realized I was at the west wall.  A partition had collapsed against the wall leaving a lean-to passage.  

I continued along the wall - in black out conditions and high heat - following the sound, when I heard heavy breathing.  I sensed there was a firefighter in front of me.  As soon as I felt I was close enough, I reached out to touch him.  He screamed as I grabbed him, I had scared him terribly.

It was a firefighter from my company.  I told him, 'It's me, Captain Ells.  We're going home tonight. I know the way out. Follow me.' It was something I had to hear myself say.  I was thankful to God for helping me find someone alive and then I heard more voices. The voices were from two more firefighters who had dug themselves out of a lean-to that the large counters had provided.

I had most of my crew. I told them that I knew the way out and that we were going home.  I had them hold on to each other and we proceeded north down the hallway.  The heat continued to climb and I could not see the beam of my flashlight even as I held it to my mask.

The hallway seemed to go on forever and we finally reached a partition wall and turned east.  I felt a door on my left and I thought I had reached the restrooms.  I told the crew to hold fast and I searched the restroom looking for a window.  I scoured the walls with my hands but I found no window. I searched the exterior wall again and found nothing. I abandoned the room and rejoined the crew in the hallway.  

We continued east along the wall and came across another restroom.  I pushed through the door and searched the room, same story, no window. We proceeded east under heavy heat conditions as some of the crew members were on their last breaths of air. 

We found yet another door, I read the hinges and determined that it opened towards us, but debris kept it from opening.  I knew the back door was only feet away, all we had to do was get past the door and we could go home.  All of our tools were lost in the collapse so I decided I'd breach it the hard way. 

I backed up a few feet and slammed my body into the door, convinced it would cave in from the force. It barely shuddered. I tried again and achieved the same result. Nothing."

He escapes the specter of memory momentarily and glances at me, then his gaze again turns back to the window as he drifts once more into thought. His mask of worry is replaced by one of fervent resolve.

"Marty, you have to understand that we were hurt, and we had traveled an impossible distance - 180 feet - under extreme conditions, the fire was almost upon us and we were out of options.  I gave my mask to my crew and sat back on my heels, I told them I was sorry, but we couldn't go any farther.  The men were silent and I could feel the heat coming in waves burning the back of my head and it reflected off the door, burning my face at the same time.
"I couldn't believe it. We were going to die just feet from the back door."
I didn't know what to do next.  I hadn't delivered my men to safety as I had promised and we were going to die only feet from the back door.  I couldn't believe it.  I tried to think of something meaningful to say but I couldn't summon the words.  The only sound we could hear was the fire, it was very close.

Without warning the blocked door caved in over our heads and I could see a streetlight as it shown from outside the back door.  Standing outside the door was a firefighter; his first words are etched in my mind. 'Hey, do you guys know that they want you out of the building?'

I looked up at him and said, 'No shit!'

The firefighter extended a hand and plucked the three firefighters out the door one at a time. When he returned for me,  I was still on my heals so he helped me to my feet. Smiling, he asked, 'Are you ready to leave now?' I nodded my head, and together we walked through the door.

We survived.  I could see the brilliant stars again and feel the cool night air. The radio barked out a roll call and my name was missing and so was a firefighter from R1.  A chief came around the corner, gave me a hug and told me who was missing. 

My heart sank.

We were missing firefighter Ed Gaicki, one of my guys.  A crew was making a push into the building with a 2 1/2 through the back door in an attempt to rescue Ed. I stopped them; the fire had the entire building, no one could survive the assault.

Later, with the assistance of the Phoenix Fire Department the fire was suppressed and we discovered the body of our friend and brother near the point of initial attack.  They treated his body with great respect, taped off the area, and denied entry to all, except me. No one tried to stop me so I went back in the building.  

I had to see him, to touch him, to say goodbye, I still don't know...

I walked in and I saw his body lying on the floor, I touched his arm, said goodbye and leaned against the wall.  I saw my friend there, but it wasn't him.  It was just the evidence of a life lived.  I thanked God for saving so many but I asked, 'Why couldn't He have saved Ed?' I knew in my heart that Ed was in heaven." 

Ed Gaicki, 27, a six-year member of the Tempe Fire Department, was killed when a roof collapsed on him and other firefighters during a massive 4 alarm blaze inside the Jumbo Bakery and Deli.  Gaicki, a trained paramedic, had been nominated for the Tempe Jaycee's annual Outstanding Firefighter award just five days before his death. Gaicki was survived in death by his wife Debbie, his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Gaicki, his sister Vicky and brother Daniel.

"Ed's passing left a void that can never be filled."

A plaque in Gaicki Park honors the sacrifice offered by Ed Gaicki.
I have been pondering Gary Ells' story of survival and the loss of Ed Gaicki for some time. The conversation that Gary and I had at the taqueria took place in 2010. I was affected deeply by the story and I felt that it had to be told.  These stories have to be told because they explain who these survivors are, and more importantly, who they have become as a result of tragedy.  These stories answer the burning question, "What is that guys deal?" Stories such as these explain their fire. 

A good many people are repulsed by the dedication that some of us display.  Our passion for the job often times comes from tragedy; it comes from nightmares.  I find that a lot of these men and women - these sages - that I am fortunate enough to come across and hear their stories all have some type of watershed moment in their careers that forever changes them. 

What was that moment?  How do I avoid that moment in my career?

Our passion comes from their stories.  It starts by listening with our hearts. 

All of us who share the same ambition in the fire service - to lead the profession forward - feel that we have a fire that burns inside of us that keeps us going, always reaching for a higher standard. We want the same fire that these people - the survivors - possess.  What we learn quickly though if we listen, is we only want the vicarious experience of what sparked the fire. The fuel that feeds their fire is the stuff of nightmares, and that terror is something that they deal with everyday.

Their minds are home to an endless box parade that haunts their existence. The books of memories contained in these boxes are cast aside until something disturbs them.  Their minds rifle through a well worn paper-back, its pages yellowed and curled, some are missing, the print smudged, but one page is intact and the words are clear and bold.  

Screams torment them, as does the memory of the ride back to the fire house with one empty seat. Putting away their friend and brother's bedroll.  Closing their friend's locker for the last time. Saying, "I'm sorry," to the family. Replaying the event over and over again in their mind thinking, "If I had only done this then things would be different."

Maybe I can cheat Death if I learn enough.
Photo by author.
Some mask the pain by shutting down, others find refuge at the bottom of a bottle, and some find the only answer is to eat a bullet. Still others find that they must purge the hurt into a life devoted to preventing tragedy from ever happening again. It is a game they know they will never win, yet they try. They can't retrieve the lost but they try like hell to prevent anyone else from the experiencing their hurt. Redemption is found in speaking their truth.

Can I ever be the type of man - the type of leader - that Gary Ells is? Do I possess that type of strength? Can I capture that fire? 

I don't know. 

I don't know if I could live with the pain. Eventually the echo becomes distant, but it never fades entirely. I don't know for sure which way I would go. None of us can say for certain which way we would fall until we are at the crossroads. I hope I never have to make that choice. 

What do I know?

We need to hear the stories of the survivors.

I know that hearing stories from survivors and learning about the fallen, like Ed Gaicki, establishes emotional bookmarks in me. I know that I am better and safer for those bookmarks and I just might survive the unfortunate happenstance I tumble into given the trajectory of my life and that maybe, just maybe, I can cheat Death if I learn enough.

"I thought I knew what a broken heart felt like.  Now I know for certain."

The seekers in the fire service want the fire; we crave the passion. What we don't want is the catalyst, for that spark is the kind of thing that wakes you in the night and you feel as though you're in free-fall, spiraling toward that terrible moment when your world forever changed, those nights when you burst from sleep in a sweat, breathing like you're running though you lay still. You reach for your loved one, and when you're satisfied that you are safe in your bed you attempt to calm yourself. You are safe only in the physical sense; you can't run from the demons in your head, they'll be there lurking when you come back.  Sleep won't come readily so you get up and stare into the night - awake with the vampires - remembering.

We feel that the harder we push, the farther away the demons will stay.

Broken hearts fuel these great men and women. Their goal is to give every firefighter they meet the tools necessary to survive.  To a very real extent, their stories fuel us too.  We take each line of duty death personally as we strive to protect those around us by spreading the gospel of what we have learned and experienced.

Their stories become our stories. Our fire is fed by a love for our brothers and sisters. They are why we listen, they are why we learn, they are why we teach, and they are why we work the craft so hard. We feel that the harder we push, the farther away the demons will stay.

Blackjack said to me, "Ed's passing left a void that can never be filled. I thought I knew what a broken heart felt like. Now I know for certain."

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


Photo by Gabriel Angemi
Why do survival stories fascinate us?

If they don't, they should.

Hearing stories from survivors establishes emotional bookmarks in all of us. We know that we are better and safer for these bookmarks and we just might survive the unfortunate happenstance we tumble into given the trajectory of our lives and maybe, just maybe, we can cheat Death if we learn enough.

Survivor stories should echo in our heads and never fade out. Listen to their voices with your heart.

Think about it.