Thursday, February 28, 2013

Gold Stars

What "meets department standard" really means.
By: Mark vonAppen

As I prepare to board a plane for Chicago to test my ability to learn, grow, and thrive - another vision quest of sorts - I did some digging around and found an old post that had been gathering dust in the queue, patiently waiting its turn to be unleashed. 


Come with me to the land of make-believe.  Once upon a time, I thought I was a pretty good firefighter.  I could pull pre-connected hose line, tie a few knots, and strap my SCBA to my body in well under one minute. I felt confident in my ability to perform any one of the myriad of tricks I had learned in the academy and during my 16-month probationary period.  Success was all but assured, or so it seemed.  

Throw my pack?  Gold star.

Stretch a line to the tower?  
Gold star.

Tie a bowline?  
Gold star. 

All of the boxes were checked.  Employee meets the minimum standard.  Check.  You really tried, and you're a super-nice guy; you get another gold star.  And on, and on.  If I was a child, mommy and daddy's refrigerator would be festooned with all of the gold starred-smiley faced-rubber stamped reports of august progress I had received.  The 10-page performance evaluation that my company officer spent 5 minutes preparing cemented my mediocrity.  Meets, meets, meets, meets, meets.

My boots shined, my uniform pressed, I knew exactly how little was expected of me and nothing more.  I was glad handed into thinking I was great, and I excelled (if that is possible) at the minimum standard, all I had ever been expected to achieve.  I had become the one-trick-pony poster child.  I knew one way to do things, and one way only.  I had unknowingly accepted the notion that meeting the minimum standard was acceptable.  I was wooed into the divine trance that the department would teach me everything I needed to know in order to succeed, a fallacy that we wrap ourselves in prior to being born-again-hard into the fire service.
"Employee meets the minimum standard" means you suck.
My excuse for not knowing how to do something was the popular, "Well, nobody showed me how to do it so it must not be that important."  Like many in society, I shrugged off the magnitude of my responsibility and placed the blame squarely on the world for not preparing me to be great.  It is an ideal that I truly detest these days, the notion that success can be achieved by simply showing up.  I'm a firefighter, therefore I deserve greatness.   It should come to me whether I earn it or not.

Was I ready?  I thought so.  Was I really ready?  I would find out sooner or later.

Set your bar high.
My second coming in the fire service occurred as I began to venture outside the cozy confines of the city in which I work.  I learned that there was a fire argot that I did not understand,  how difficult (sometimes impossible) it can be to rescue our own, that air consumption rates are not what they teach in the academy, and most humbling of all, that I was ill-prepared to function in a real-deal-no-gold-star-for-showing-up-unforgiving-real-life-you-die-if-you-lose-scenario.

As I started the journey - when my eyes, mind, and heart opened - I felt that I had a lot to learn and that the job is more difficult physically and mentally than anything I had ever experienced.  I learned that what we are expected to do never fits in a box that can be checked, and that we do not always succeed.  It was a slap to the face of my complacency, all of it scared the hell out of me. 

We are doing our brothers and sisters, and ourselves, a disservice if we do not plan for contingency upon contingency.  Our job is a constant game of speed chess where we must continually ask, "What is the next move?"  In order to grow, you must push yourself and others beyond their established safety zones.  Commitment is rare these days.  It cannot be forced upon people, it can only be suggested.  They have to truly want, and commit to change for it to happen.  Don't wait for change to come to you, be change.  Start with you.


  1. Dear Mark
    Once again you've knocked it out of the park. America's fire service is trapped in quicksand of minimum standards. From the beginning of our careers we are surrounded by NFPA standards that meet the minimum standards. From the job performance requirements of NFPA 1001 to Life Safety Code 101 just pick one. NFPA does a great service to America's firemen but we often loose sight these are minimum standards and we need to be All In and go beyond the minimum standard. We also need to remember as the officer of the company or the whip (senior guy in the house) we must challenge ourselves and new firemen that simply showing up is not an acceptable standard.

    Glenn Sutphin
    Engine 1 Bluefield Fire Department
    Blue field WV

    1. Glenn,

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. We all must strive to be better than we we the day before every time we come to work. It is exhausting, and difficult to be "on" all of the time, but everyone must be on the same page to remind each other of the Standard of Performance (whatever that is for your company or agency).

      If you start everything with this statement you cannot go wrong: "Do your job to the best of your abilities and treat people right. Give all out effort, and have all in attitude."

      You are right, we use minimums as an excuse for mediocrity - and we are getting stuck in the mire.

      Stay hungry,


  2. Great article mark! I call it the "aha" moment when your eyes are opened to the magnitude of what is the fire service! Like you said, we feel confident and prepared after that firefighter II is achieved. Then some of us have that "aha" moment and become lifelong students. Great read as always and your dept is lucky to have you!!!!!


    1. Thanks Ryan,

      I seem to have a lot of awakenings - not sure if that is good or bad...I think we all subscribe the the notion that the further we go, the less we know. We have to remain students for life - you are right on.

      Thanks for reading. All out, all in...

  3. Mark,

    Once again you provide inspiration and encouragement to everyone in the fire service who seeks to go beyond the minimum standards, both according to what is taught at the academy and what is expected of us inside the walls of our respective firehouses. Your latest entry gives me, and others, new focus on what it means to set the bar high and then go higher every day. Your wisdom and knowledge are definitely well-received...we have to constantly remain students of the craft. The day we think we know it all is the day it's time for us to hang it up, but equally harmful is not wanting to share our experiences and help others to learn from what we've done and seen. Thanks for being a Brother!

  4. Awesome, as usual. And, of course what about those already/still on the job, or coming in to it, who don't/can't even meet the requisite "gold-star" minimum standards?

  5. Awesome post. I love my department but we give out way too many "gold stars."

  6. The fire service is imbedded with traditions of service that involve aggressive interior attacks putting the fire fighter at risk. After we save a savable life what are we doing? We are working for the insurance companies trying to extinguish a fire in structures that in most cases are demolished. I have trained with European fire fighters that take a very different approach to fire fighting with very little injury and loss of life to their personnel.