Sunday, August 26, 2012

We Are

By Mark vonAppen

We know who we are, do you?

We live for the fight, the sting of heat on our skin.

We are edgy.

We are confrontational.

We push the limits as we pull others along.

We are those for whom good enough isn't good enough.

We are never satisfied.

We do as we are told, but not only as we are told.

We are moody.

We are complicated.

We are committed.

We are dirty.

We are relentless.

We are those for whom good enough simply isn't good enough.  To some we are frightening.

We are individual.

We are team.

We are teachers.

We are students.

We are questions.

We are answers.

We are fighters.

We are survivors.

We are who we claim to be.

We are dauntless.

We are brothers.

We are sisters.

We are real.

Monday, August 20, 2012


A work in progress.
Some things I learned (confirmed) this week after being humbled by life, death, Mother Nature, and the greatness of my peers that I will file in memory so that I am better next time.

Some of the week's revelations:
  • Finding the  words to console a woman who returned home from work to find her husband of 30 years dead on the floor is difficult. Have something prepared.  Tell your spouse and kids that you love them every day.  Life is too short.
  • Patience is a virtue.  The bomb squad is on their own schedule; deal with it.  It's better than getting blown up.
  • Delivering a baby at 0300 in the backseat of a car has a degree of difficulty on par with Olympic gymnastics.  Practice for EMS calls in weird spots.  Paramedics on engines are nice to have.
  • The value of diplomacy, and that (go figure) ICS terminology does not include the word "asshole."  When passing command at a working fire using the language, "Hey asshole, I'm talking to you!" will snap heads around post haste, but it does not lead to a convivial or smooth transfer of command.  It can lead to fisticuffs and a really good firehouse story.  

Have character, don't be one.  After almost 15 years on the job I feel like a beginner at times.  I need some more polish.  I'm still working on myself, believe me.  

Monday, August 6, 2012

Picking Up The Pace

By Mark vonAppen

A key component to maximizing training time is engaging your people in the short amount of time we're afforded during the day. Nothing has the potential to kill a training session like a leisurely paced, loosely planned get together. 

Coach them up, keep them moving.
Come along with me for a moment and imagine if you will a conversation between a pair of officers at the training center.

Officer 1:  Wanna train?

Officer 2:  Meh...

Officer 1:  What do you wanna do?

Officer 2:  I dunno. What do you wanna do?

The two officers stare at each other in an awkward and seemingly interminable silence...

Tick-tock, tick-tock (an exaggerated check of the watch)...

Officer 1:  Humph, Forget it. Wanna go get lunch?

Officer 2:  Yes! Geez, I thought you were never going to ask!

The play-date mentality works for children but not for skilled rescue professionals. While I believe that the training ground should be fun and even loose at times, I have some rules I try to abide by. There are a few simple things that any company officer can do to make sure that their people derive the maximum benefit from any training session, no matter the subject.

Declare the strategy:  Let participants - and especially instructors - know exactly what the desired result is of each drill session. There is never enough time to accomplish all that we hope to accomplish in practice. Wasted time is most often resultant of a lack of purpose and a defined area of focus.

Make sure that all involved know their roles (tactical objectives, schemes, vital concepts), especially those who are to introduce new subject matter. Students can see directly through someone who is not prepared to teach. If you don't have clearly defined goals and objectives in training you're just playing grab-ass. 

Have a plan and communicate your vision. Make it count every time.

Keep it short:  Tempo is maintained when teaching and coaching intervals are kept short. This does not necessarily mean in total time of the practice (tower) session, but rather in the administration of individual and company level training. 

Training sessions in the fire service often mirror the nature of our business, short bursts of intense activity followed by protracted periods of discussion on how to change the world, or at least improve somebody else's performance. 

We have to switch that up.

Emphasis must be placed on large amounts of high repetition hands on training and less on hyperbole. In order to maintain the flow of training, keep the post evolution commentary to a minimum. 

Keep things moving:  The area of training sessions that tend to drag the most are multi-company (or "team" sessions) evolutions. Team sessions in the fire service are often a flurry of loosely monitored activity followed by a marathon dialogue period. They are more speculation than fact. 

As emphasized in point 2, keep the yammering to a minimum. Input is valued, but in the interest of getting quality as well as quantity (we need both) training, a lot of hose must hit the ground, it must be reloaded quickly, and then the drill must be repeated. Standing around talking does not make us better at throwing ladders or performing a search.

Remember, the key to improving performance is getting physical reps. Your people have to get their hands on their tools in order to improve. Keep drills moving. Move your people from skill to skill having each subsequent performance build upon the previous one. 

Firefighters are doers, coach your crew briefly after an evolution and then move on. Hold some coaching in reserve to be emphasized in the privacy of the firehouse.
Which is worse: training exceptionally hard or being exceptionally terrible at your job?  

When we speak of fireground tempo we often stress the importance of moving slowly as we work the job. Don't move too fast, you might hurt yourself.  This is desk chair risk management and it doesn't remotely apply to how we are expected to perform when the bell hits. Forget that. 

Which is worse: training exceptionally hard or being exceptionally terrible at your job? 

We all know the answer. Train hard, get dirty, repeat often.

One cannot dispute the importance of being situationally aware, identifying critical fireground factors, and reading the environment. These factors are vital in order to ensure we make it out alive, but we have to move at a pace that is germane to the scenarios we will encounter in the real world. We have to move with urgency and purpose especially in the controlled environment of the drill grounds. Awareness of external factors is increased as we perform our craft at the conscious competence level. When speed and skill are in concert it is magic. We cannot get there without sweat equity and calculated, high-energy training sessions.

In order to maintain interest in training we must keep people engaged. The occasional surprise drill has value but should include a situation that has been trained for previously to allow for some degree of success. 

Remember to ask these questions to keep team members plugged in:

  • What is the situation?
  • Under what circumstances do we perform the skill and why?
  • What is your responsibility in the scheme or evolution?
  • What are the consequences if the skill is misapplied?
  • What is the back up plan (audible) if this doesn't work?

Don't just throw your people at a skill, coach them up on the skill, teach them to walk before they run (and that running, at times, is okay too). Gradually increase the tempo of drills until performance speed is reached. Alternate between a slow pace in which no mistakes are made and training at the desired performance speed to get the best results. 

Keep the tempo and enthusiasm up. Get your crew to the training site, have a plan, keep them moving, have fun, and then get them back in service.

See El Camino save video from Sacramento Metro Fire: This video is an excellent example of well-trained personnel operating at a brisk pace with a positive outcome.