Thursday, May 16, 2013


By: Mark vonAppen

I don't care much for fictional accounts 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 people indulge in half-truths, out and out lies, and hyperbole.  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?
"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."

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 circle jerks 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.  Damn your ego and damn your pride.  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.  The truth is in the telling and as a culture sometimes we encourage lying.  If you don't believe that you're lying to yourself.


Wednesday, May 15, 2013


By: Mark vonAppen

During my travels in March 2013, first to Chicago for FSW Fundamentals, then to Jacksonville, NC, to deliver FULLY INVOLVED Leadership to some 200 fire service brothers and sisters, I learned a few things about finishing the job. 

When I arrived in Jacksonville, I had little idea of the types of firefighters I would be addressing in my fledgling class on leadership.  I was eager to have an impact on the group by sharing my somewhat unique perspective on the subject, but I had no idea of the fingerprint the group would leave on me.  I left North Carolina humbled once again by my interactions with those quality individuals who never stop teaching, those who work overtime to ensure people get it right. 

I quickly came to understand that Jacksonville is home to Camp Lejeune, an enormous Marine base, the biggest in the world I am told.  Jacksonville Public Safety's Headquarters is on Marine Boulevard, so it makes sense that a few Marines might find their way to the local fire department for employment after they leave active duty.  I have read a lot about the Marines, and military history in general, so the gears in my head began to squeak into motion.

Gulp...I'm going to be addressing a group of former Marines about leadership?

Holy crap...

My first day in the Carolinas was an adventure, figuring out where I was, figuring out what to eat (I discovered sweet tea, hush puppies, and that everything is better when fried), adjusting to the time change, rehearsing the timing of the presentation, and riding with the training chief to a working fire (pictured, top and right).  What struck me most during my trip was that though I had traveled 3,000 miles to croak in front of the group about leadership, I was once again humbled by the small act of an individual who knows about leadership and about finish. 

When Chief Susanna Williams picked me up at my hotel to begin Day 2, she beamed as she handed me a book while I piled my gear in the Suburban.  "I was at station 1 and Captain Whitmore asked me to give this to you.  He said you might like it."  The book was one I consider to be one of THE leadership books to read in order to be successful as a new leader, "Small Unit Leadership."
"Real leaders never stop teaching for they realize that passing life experiences and tools for success down the line is their greatest gift to the future."  
I met Captain Whitmore the day prior, first at the fire (he is pictured at top in the red helmet leading his crew in the firefight) as I switched out his SCBA cylinder, then as he sat dead center in the auditorium, with a tight lipped-skeptical expression etched on his face, his hair high and tight, and his arms folded across his chest.  His face and body language communicated in no uncertain terms he wasn't much interested in hearing what the "tree hugging" captain from California had to tell him about leadership.  

He asked some pointed questions of me and I could tell he was probing for a response.  He leaned forward as he posed question after question.  With each exchange I could see his posture at first stiffen, and then slowly relax.  I asked one of his department mates about him at a break. "What's that captain's deal?  I feel like he thinks I'm a candy-ass."  He chuckled, "No, no.  That's just Gunny." 

Captain Whitmore's nickname is "Gunny," carryover from his days as a Marine where he was a gunnery sergeant.  Gunny's are the link between the boots on the ground and the platoon commander, often a lieutenant with a lot of formal education but little combat experience.  As a new officer, you must have the support of your gunny or you are in for an uphill battle in your assignments.  I knew then that I was the new officer being broken in by the still sharped-edged gunny who's only job was to make sure the new guy didn't get everyone killed, or in my case, fill their heads with complete nonsense.  He was doing his job of running the soft one off before he could do any real harm.

I believe strongly in the message I preach and I have seen it work over 40 years, realizing only as an adult why I believe as I do.  What Gunny grilled me on was my belief system, not something I had merely read and was half-heartedly parroting for my own satisfaction.  I stood my ground, in doing so, I displayed some sliver of resolve and delivered a message that must have resonated with Gunny.

A sign hangs above the radio room at Jacksonville station 1 (Captain Whitmores firehouse), it reads, "Whatever you are, be a good one." As I stood beneath it before teaching the first session I couldn't help but feel the message was a metaphor for the trip and the maiden voyage of Fully Involved.  I gleaned what that bit of foreshadowing meant as I cradled the book that Gunny had given to me in my hands.  It reinforced that we are forever students and that those who genuinely take the time to listen will hear the message.  The message of Fully Involved is to lead from anywhere, and I find that I learn something new from someone every time I venture out.  There are many amazing leaders out there and often we are blind to thier abilities and the positive affect they have on the organization.  We must continually learn, coach, and lead in our way to make things go.  I was reminded that we are aggregate of everything and everyone we have ever known and experienced.  Pieces of our every contact in a lifetime of contacts have molded and shaped us into who we are today.  Today's interactions change who we will be tomorrow.

In exchange for passing my experiences forward, Gunny offered me an opportunity to grow.  Real leaders never stop teaching for they realize that passing life experiences and tools for success down the line is their greatest gift to the future.  I held the book in my hands, thumbing through the dog-eared pages as a wry smile spread across my face.  I noted the underlined sentences, and the notations scribbled in the margins.  I had read the book a few years before and had highlighted some of the same areas.  Something that stuck with me from the book is that a leader must show genuine interest in their people.  I recognized immediately that this was the act of a man who most likely doled out praise sparingly, was tough to win over, and this was his way of showing interest in me and finishing the job.  He was making me better by sharing something that had helped him on his journey as a leader.  Gunny was working overtime investing additional time and interest in me and I'm not even sure he realized he was doing it.  It is simply in his nature to lead.

As the crews filtered from the council chambers, Captain Whitmore approached the podium as I packed up my laptop and collected my things.  He shook my hand firmly, the way Marines do, as he did, he looked me in the eyes and said, "Good class.  I enjoyed it."  Two simple sentences, a hand shake, and a book from a leader like that are among the highest compliments I have ever received.

Thank you Gunny.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Leadership as a Punchline

By: Mark vonAppen

In this time of transition in the American Fire Service due to mass retirements and paradigm shift in how we do business; the unfortunate and sometimes dangerous side-effect is that there are individuals who are thrust into leadership roles out of necessity (somebody needs to get promoted, right?) that do not possess the tools necessary to lead effectively.  As a result, we have seen members of the service catapulted into high level positions that never learned the jobs five or six ranks below them.  It’s hard to make up for 15 – 20 years of rubber-stamping, pencil whipping, and showing up late for class.  Leadership becomes a punchline and we roll our eyes when the leader makes a decision.

Leading people is a privilege, not a right.  Some of us need to be reminded of that.

The role of the Chief is to be technically and tactically proficient, and to give the officers who report to them the tools to do their job well.  The role of the officer is the same; to support the efforts, and cultivate the talents of those beneath them. If they’re not doing that then they’re not doing 
their job, end of story.

Until we stop being the champions of mediocrity as a culture and work towards a true meritocracy we are doomed to hear hubristic and ignorant statements forever.  The safety and operational effectiveness of your people can never be trumped by a need to further someone's career or to appease a political agenda.  We have to take a stand on those issues that matter and be unflinching in our commitment to each other. Leadership cannot become a punchline.  When it does, those who are in the leadership role have lost the privilege of leading and will never be able to recover. 

Some of us have forgotten why the fire service exists.  We exist to answer the bell. Leading people is a privilege, not a right. Some of us need to be reminded of that. 

Monday, May 6, 2013


By: Mark vonAppen

An ode to the many mentors I have tried to emulate over the years.  You will be sorely missed.


The economic tumult  gripping the nation has the American fire service at a crossroads.  Much wisdom, talent, and drive has transitioned into life outside the firehouse.  Thousands of years of firefighting experience will be gone forever.

Suddenly, the future isn't what it used to be.

Those leaders, mentors, and friends will for eternity be a part of the collective consciousness that is the fire service going forward.  They live on as we perform our daily duties in the manner in which they taught us.  These icons will be immortalized in our firehouses in the oral history that is story time at the dinner table.   There are stories of comedy, drama, and heartbreak as we experienced personal and professional triumph or tragedy, always as family.  Personalities and exploits grow larger and more colorful with the passing of time, the fires bigger, the rescues more harrowing.

We stand to lose much in the coming years in many different ways, but  what we are losing out on most of all is time.  We are losing time with our brothers and sisters forced to leave before they were ready.  We are losing fire service life experience and we are losing our human infrastructure.  The kids that we were when we entered the fire service always had mentors, champions of brotherhood and upholders of principle, standing along side us to keep us straight when we were unsure of where to go or what to do.

The old guys aren’t going to be there anymore when we turn to them on scene or in the firehouse.   We can reach out to them by phone or by email, but when there isn’t discretionary time available, what are we to do?  The fire ground won’t wait for us to make a decision.  We must pick up the sabre and lead the charge.  One who wishes to blend into the surroundings cannot lead the assault on the future.  We are the ones that the next age group will look to when they are anxious and unsure.  We are the old guys now.  It’s time to move on to the next chapter.  We must be out front and lead.  It is our duty to develop the next generation leaders.  As new leaders ourselves, we should not take the job lightly.  It is an awesome responsibility that we have on our shoulders, but we will find our way we listen to the voices of our mentors as we bear the weight of the new badge.
"We are the old guys now.  It’s time to move on to the next chapter.  We must be out front and lead."
When you are in doubt, look to those in your life and career who have inspired you to do the right thing.  It’s a tough choice sometimes between what’s right and what’s easy.  We must do right so that the new generation has a clear view of the correct path.  It is our turn to invest in the importance of our profession and plot a course for the future.  This investment will not yield wealth in the monetary sense, but rather it will pay dividends in the form of a rich legacy.

We are the current guardians of the fire service.  We owe it to the citizens of the communities in which we serve, the next generation of firefighters, those who came before us, and to one another to get it right.  Now it is our turn, we are the champions of a proud service that is rich in history and steeped in tradition.  The credit for future success goes to those who came before us and showed us the right way.  We will eternally hold them in the highest esteem and seek to carry on the expectations, traditions, and standards they established for us to maintain and perhaps someday surpass.

We have a lot of hard work and institutional soul searching ahead.
There are only two options when it comes commitment, either you’re in or you’re out.  We have been shown that there is no such thing as a life in between.  To exist stuck between is merely to be.  If we seek to truly live we must commit passionately to that which we hold true.  Anything less is time wasted. 

Big changes aren’t on the horizon, they are here today, and more changes are promised.  As the fire service goes through its book of changes, our resilient spirit will see us through this period of uncertainty.  With the lessons of our mentors in our collective soul, we will find our way as we always have.
We will see it through.  We will do right.

You know who you are.  Alpha Michael Foxtrot.