Friday, July 19, 2013


By Mark vonAppen

As I climbed aboard the engine, one of our rookies asked me a question.  This particular rookie asks a lot of questions, most of them thought provoking, forcing me to think harder than I'd like, and exposing my glaring lack of knowledge in certain areas.  It's hard as a captain to say, "I don't know," or, "I've never thought about it that way."  He causes me to bury my head in manuals or extend questions to my fire service buddies via text messages to find the right answer.  He usually finds out on his own, before I do, rapping on the office door he says, "I looked around and here's what I came up with cap..."

And so I learn.  Again. 

As he sat behind the wheel and pondered, the question of the moment was, "How do you stay motivated at work?"  Without hesitation I blurted out, "You guys keep me motivated."  It was the unabashed truth, it was reflex.  Like anyone, my energy ebbs and flows, my enthusiasm rises and plummets, but the one thing that remains constant is the awe that I feel as I see the expertise and compassion of the amazing people that inhabit our profession. 
"People are more important than any equipment, innovation, or technology we bring to bear." 
How do I stay motivated?  I stay motivated by watching people learn and grow.  I am buoyed by the energy of those who are experts in our field, and they are everywhere.  I am pulled along by the inquisition of a rookie, a crew of 6 huddled in the office around a flickering computer screen watching training videos, or the grit of a 62 year old man slamming a 24' extension ladder against a building with authority just as he did 30 years ago.  Passion is energy, when it is unleashed it is on par with a religious experience.  I am in a unique position as an officer.  Most times, I stand back and watch as my crew works in concert to solve a problem.  I watch as they learn, coach, and lead each other.   I step in only when necessary.

I said to the rookie, "You know what?  You're kind of a weird dude, but you're my kind of weird. Keep asking questions, it's what keeps us young."  

What is my motivation?  Our people.  They are more important than any equipment, innovation, or technology we bring to bear.  We aren't much if not for our people.  People are who we serve and people are what make our great and noble profession everything that it is.  

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Around Here

By Mark vonAppen

We had a great auto extrication drill the other night and we did it all by ourselves.  Nobody asked permission, we simply called a tow company and had a few cars delivered.  As we passed the hat around the table to help defer some of the $200 out-of-pocket cost to the firefighter who set up the drill I thought; who determines our safety levels; a statistician who sits in a cubicle in cool disconnect and crunches numbers, weighing the cost of anonymous human life versus the cost of training or a safety measure?  Who determines what is an acceptable level of risk?

The number of times that I have donned my mourning badge and lowered the colors at the firehouse has me thinking, and it has me angry.

Do we need to ask permission to be experts in our field?  Not around here.

Everyone has a plan until they get hit in the mouth. Our professional plan - when the dollars flowed freely and operations mattered - used to include slack in the system to absorb the unforeseen and unthinkable.  As we forge ahead with creative staffing models, measurables, resume building, and ladder climbing, the slack has been removed and the entire system is stretched tight.  Do we have a plan for a fight gone bad?  At the company level we have to because often the organization does not.  We have to create our own plan because no one else will.  Is operating without a plan and hoping things will work out for the best any way to do business?  Not around here.  We won't accept average and we will not ask for permission to do as we see fit to carve time from our day to make ourselves better and safer.
"Around here we do it on our own together."
Aggressive, educated, proactive firefighting that starts with the mindset that every structure is occupied and that we will extend risk (our lives) to effect the rescue of our neighbors is the foundation of a movement to put the fight back in firefighter and bring strong leadership back to the fireground and firehouse.  We must seek out our own education and create our own motivation because help is not on the way.  Our best insurance policy is a strong base of education and the ability to practically apply knowledge to the appropriate situation.  We have to be functionally intelligent and possess the ability to think on our feet.  Cuts to training budgets can no longer be an excuse.  We have to invest in ourselves.  In order to win the fight, we have to be in the fight.  Being in the fight means doing it on your own and leading from everywhere.

Do we want to go home at the end of our shift?  Yes.

Are we afraid to do our job?  Not around here.  We train hard in order to fight smart.  Will we let office dwellers pushing statistics determine how we fight?  Not around here.  We won't sit around and wait for greatness to arrive, around here we go get it.  Around here we believe in each other.  Around here we set the bar high and we hold each other accountable to that standard.  

Around here we do it on our own together.