Friday, August 23, 2013

Flow Path

By Mark vonAppen

All of my life I have been known as a bit of a trouble maker.  I have pushed limits and challenged authority.  In the process, I have trampled a path that few have chosen to follow.  Sometimes it's a lonely place.  I feel like I have no home, I find my place where I ramble. 

The limit pushing and challenging of authority continued after my appointment as a career firefighter.  Until recently, I struggled with this identity, pushing forward and standing in front with a huge bulls eye on my back only to have the organization punch me repeatedly in the face.  I began walking the fence as I tried to be a crowd pleaser, attempting to appeal to everyone.  In doing so, I have felt reined in, put in a box, metaphorically bound and gagged (my emails are still screened).  I felt average and frustrated.  I was out of the flow path.

No more.  So here it comes.

Respect is far more important than approval.  I start trouble over matters of principle, not in a sophomorish attempt at capturing the spotlight.  I have never stirred up trouble simply for trouble's sake.  I am outspoken on issues that I am passionate about, usually regarding education in the fire service, high standards of performance, and treating people right.  On these issues I will not waiver, my standards will not be compromised.  If that alienates some, so be it.  If you agree with what I say, but not how I said it, so be it.  If you don't like me, so be it.  I own it.
"I am outspoken on issues that I am passionate about, usually regarding high standards of performance and treating people right.  If you don't like me, so be it.  I own it.  Respect is far more important than approval." 
I have learned a couple of things over the years.  One: Educated and aggressive beats timid and uninformed any day of the week.  Two: We tell the same stories again and again, repeatedly proclaiming the same tired, flawed tactics should have worked, that they will work next time, and the text book is the be-all-end-all.  They won't, and it's not.  Three: Even if you are speaking the truth, most people don't want to hear it, it makes them uncomfortable.  They're usually mad at themselves for who they are, not for who you are.  Four:  Even if you work your ass off you don't always win.   Five: Quick change happens slowly.  Positive change shows itself when you least expect it and need a lift the most.  

Comfort zones are for people whose jobs are predictable, they are safe and cozy for having them.  Our job is neither safe nor predictable so personal comfort levels must be pushed and the boat must be rocked.   Occasionally, people have to be dumped out of the boat in order to learn if they will sink or swim when on their own.  Finding a way to get comfortable being uncomfortable is the only way we can successfully navigate the fireground, a place where consequences are immediate, unforgiving, and sometimes irreversible.  This isn't a game, and it's not cool to be stupid.  We can't have scared, stupid firefighters.  

What's cool?  Learning.
What's cool?  Coaching.
What's cool?  Leading.

If you lead you're automatically a target. Being in the flow path is a dangerous business.  Often you find yourself on your own.  I've learned a lot of things the hard way, making a lot of mistakes because I put myself out there.  Change is occurring, I can see it.  In order to continue, change requires those who push.  Sometimes it might seem like you have no shot at winning, but you'll never know unless you try.   

I am proud of what all of us have been creating through this movement of, "We'll do it on our own together."  I will continue to push and I will continue to grow.  This thing is fully involved and I'm standing directly in the flow path; who's with me?

Why do we start trouble?  Because somebody has to and there is a lot more work to be done. 


Monday, August 19, 2013

Is What We Are Teaching Our New Firefighters Contradictory?

What makes a good probationary firefighter? You might answer any of a number of things. Words like diligent, considerate, quiet, and obedient come to mind. Certainly, these are some desirable attributes for a new firefighter, but it begs the question. Are the traits that we romanticize in the ideal probationary firefighter stifling critical thinking and stunting the development of the individual and, in turn, the growth of the organization? Are these the traits of a survivor?
New firefighters must be provided with psychological safety to exercise their ability to think for themselves and solve problems. If they are allowed this individual sanctuary from sharpshooters, they will become stronger contributors to the company, the organization, and the fire service as a whole.


Cultural mores in the fire service often dictate that new firefighters follow orders and established traditions without question. The (flawed) theory is that the new firefighter lacks any experience base to draw from and is totally reliant on the officer and other crew members to achieve the goal-whatever it may be.
Do we sometimes teach our new firefighters to be irrationally acquiescent? The parochial nature of our profession sometimes passes on toxic traditions.
A distinct problem potentially arises in the fire service when firefighters experience a lack of psychological safety and a marked fear of authority. This fear of authority can manifest itself from the formal leader, the officer, or the informal leader-the station bully.
"Stand still and look pretty." Have you heard this before? How about this one: "You've got two ears and one mouth so you can listen twice as much as you talk." Almost anyone would describe a good new firefighter as one who is seen and not heard, who obediently follows orders, and who doesn't ask a lot of questions. Everybody loves the new firefighters who perform their duties without question. They're easy to deal with.
Are these firefighters always your strongest fireground performers? Are they innovators? Are there times when it is appropriate to question how and why things are done?
Everyone is a safety officer, right? Irreverent statements such as "Probies should be seen and not heard" are completely contrary to telling everyone to be a safety officer. If you see something important, speak up. Followed soon after by, "Don't speak your mind until you've been here at least 10 years." In other words, "If I want your opinion, I'll give it to you."
Hmmm. What to do? If new firefighters are constantly told that their opinion is not valued at any time, they will be less likely to speak up at a critical moment on the fireground.
Research in the airline industry has shown that new copilots have failed to take assertive action when the pilot became incapacitated in simulations or during in-flight emergencies. These copilots failed to act because on some level they feared that they would upset their boss by speaking up or attempting to take control of a situation.
Dysfunctional deference, as it is sometimes called, can have catastrophic results. In 1979, a commuter jet crashed in whole or in part because the copilot (still on probation) failed to take over for the captain (known for his abrasive style) who became incapacitated.
Who's calling the Mayday when the middle-aged (and grossly overweight) captain has a heart attack 100 feet in on the hoseline? It could be the nozzle firefighter, perhaps a probie at his first fire. He had better be up to the task and know when to speak up. We need to teach our new people to be part of a team and to be self-assured, inquisitive, and free-thinking problem solvers.


It is interesting that one fire service textbook identifies the traits that differentiate managers from leaders. In short, managers maintain while leaders push the envelope. Here are some examples:
  • Managers ask how and when; leaders ask what and why.
  • Managers accept the status quo; leaders challenge the status quo.
  • Managers are classic good soldiers; leaders are their own people.
Replace the word "manager" with "firefighter," and take a moment to consider how new firefighters are sometimes treated. We often tell our firefighters to accept the status quo, to be good soldiers, to be drones. "That's how it is done here. We've always done it that way." In so many words, "Don't challenge the establishment. Everything is fine the way it is."
Now go back and look at the traits of a leader. If you have firefighters who ask a lot of questions, challenge accepted practice by bringing in fresh ideas, stand out from the crowd, and are their own persons, what label are they given? Remember, these are considered leadership traits. Would you call them noisy complainers (a euphemism for a big pain in the neck)?
I'll bet in most organizations anywhere in the world the answer is yes; they are considered huge pains. Once again, fire service literature and traditions are a study in contradiction. As a whole, we encourage new people to maintain, not innovate.
Psychological safety for these individuals who exhibit critical thinking is crucial in cultivating self-reliance in new firefighters. Firefighters who are noisy complainers and are considered trouble makers are often those who inspire the greatest learning. They are those who talk about their mistakes and the mistakes of others in the interest of furthering knowledge. They constantly question what and why to seek better solutions than what is simply accepted practice. These types of questioners sometimes annoy managers and their peers, but they are welcomed by those who seek to lead the fire service forward.
We must not crush an individual's will to learn and innovate. The ability to trust in the leader to allow for mistakes, and even failure, in training situations is central to cultivating the spirit of learning and innovation.


Creating a safe work environment where people have the confidence to act without fear of reprimand or mockery is key to building trust, the central element in getting the most out of people. A safe work environment involves the following:
  • Suspending judgment.
  • Aiming high.
  • Avoiding cynicism.
  • Encouraging others.
Firefighters are especially vulnerable to making mistakes when things appear to be progressing according to routine. When we don't notice things are amiss, we mindlessly apply standard operating guidelines and go along with the program, possibly missing menacing warning signs from the environment.
To guard against complacency, we must constantly ask, "What's up?" We must be wary of success and suspicious of quiet periods. We must teach and encourage firefighters to act with anticipation, to guard against complacency. Teach firefighters to ask questions and plan for potential problems no matter how normal things might appear.
When a nuisance fire alarm is received in a building you have been to a number of times without incident, you must be doubly careful. (See "Tragedy in a Residential High-Rise, Memphis, Tennessee," Fire Engineering, March 1995.)
Remember, pride makes us all fake; being humble makes us real. We must maintain a beginner's mind to keep learning and maintain awareness. Beginners question everything. They should. In doing so, their minds remain open to new information. As soon as we think we have figured out the situation, it changes. Be humble enough to say you don't know exactly what is going on, pay attention to the cues the fireground is sending you, and formulate a plan of action based on a true reading of the environment.
If we have our minds made up that there is only one right way to do something, new information will not be able to dislodge that notion. We must allow new information to reshape our mental models. Hence, maintaining an open mind has us constantly curious about our circumstances, so we continually reassess our situation.
We must allow new firefighters to ask questions. Some of our best ideas and plans come from listening to others. Take advantage of all the training available to you, and ask a lot of questions of the veterans. They are an abundant source of knowledge. All you have to do is ask.


Cooperation is central to the function of a team. We must cooperate with our coworkers on all levels. If you want to be heard as a boss, you have to listen. We must be interested in finding the best way of delivering service. The best way might not always be the leader's way.
It is all too easy to crush a new person's spirit. Nothing takes away initiative like not being heard. To continually engage those you work with, listen to what they have to say. It takes courage for young people to stand up and speak. Likewise, it takes courage to listen to your subordinates.
Times have changed immeasurably in recent years. The fire service can no longer afford to have all ideas come from a central point at the top of the organization. We must regain the spirit of innovation that has propelled the fire service forward in days past and buoyed it in difficult times.
Don't be so quick to silence those who raise questions. Are they really trouble makers? Don't be so sure. Good listeners are not only popular everywhere, but eventually they learn something. The next great idea could come from your firehouse. It might be trapped inside of the timid new firefighter who has been told to keep his mouth shut and mop the floor. Think about it.


Alyn, Dr. Kimberly, Rising to Real Leadership, 2011,
IFSTA Company Officer, 5th Edition.
Sutton, Robert I., Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to be the Best … and Learn from the Worst. New York City: Business Plus, 2010.
● MARK vonAPPEN is a captain with the Palo Alto (CA) Fire Department. He is a committee member for California State Fire Training and has contributed to the development of the Firefighter Survival and Rapid Intervention curriculums. He is an instructor for the Santa Clara County (CA) Joint Fire Academy and the South Bay Regional Fire Academy, a recruit instructor for Palo Alto Fire, a Fire Engineering blogger, and a contributor to Fire Service Warrior.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Main Thing

By Mark vonAppen

The sun made a fleeting appearance during a mostly gloomy and frigid weekend of Fire Service Warrior Fundamentals, bringing the Winter air in Chicago to a balmy 33 degrees as Chuck Olson dragged me from CrossFit Beverley to start ladder school.   I squinted against the sun's refraction off the ground as I stood over the 24' extension ladder that was to be my dancing partner for the next hour or so.  As the sunlight drilled the bricks of the building and the asphalt of the parking lot, steam rose from the walls and water began to trickle down the side of the building, streaming beneath my bunker boots.

Chuck, who hails from Wisconsin, comes from a family of fishermen.  Tall and stoic (he doesn't say much), with sharp features of the Nordic people that settled in the bay regions of Wisconsin to continue their way of life as in the old country, a hard life made from fishing the enormous in-land seas.  Chuck guided me through ladder basics, pointing out various ladder components, different carries, and methods for placing the ladder in service.  I'm pretty confident in my abilities with ladders, having spent a lot of time with them since my days as a fire cadet in 1994, through probation when my captain made me throw ladders for two hours a day. 

A Californian, I was eager for the challenge of getting a ladder up on icy, wet ground.   The snow crunched and creaked beneath my feet as I slung the ladder against the building utilizing multiple throws - high shoulder, low shoulder, ladder clean and flip - you know the drill.  From each ladder stick discussions blossomed, and the conversation got deep when Gary Lane, a skateboarding Californian transplanted to Kent, Ohio, where he is now a firefighter, tromped into the mix.  Gary has a Henry Rollins intensity to him and he skulks in the shadows, listening in on conversations to see if they are going in the right direction.  When they aren't, he quickly intervenes.  To know Gary is to love him, and I was about understand him a little better.

As I slammed the 24' against the building for the last time and tied the halyard, Chuck and I began discussing the merits of placing the ladder for rescue when throwing to a window.  Gary circled like a shark.  With one uneasy eye on Gary and the other on Chuck I said, "I like to throw the ladder to the sill so it is set up for anything; VES (vent, enter, search), rescue, and escape.  If we need to escape, we just hook 2, slide 4, and we're out."
"How the hell do you expect anybody to remember all of that junk when they're on fire and all they can think about is jumping out the window?"
Gary abruptly stopped his arc and moved menacingly straight for us.  He snapped, "What did you say? HOOK 2, SLIDE 4?  WHAT IS THAT CRAP?"

Chuck shot me a knowing look and smirked.

This is awkward.

"Explain that to me.  Hook 2, slide...what?" Gary barked.

I calmly explained that when we teach the ladder escape drill (ladder bail), we tell the students to first, find the tips of the ladder at the sill.  Second, slide their hands down the beams of the ladder.  Third, hook the number 2 rung with their right (or dominant) arm.  Fourth, slide their left arm down to the fourth rung and grasp it in the center.  Fifth, they throw themselves head-first out the window pivoting on their left arm, and slide feet-first down the beams to the ground.

I shrugged, wondering what Gary's problem was, "We call it hook 2, slide 4." 

Gary looked incredulous.  "How the hell do you expect anybody to remember all of that junk when they're on fire and all they can think about is jumping out the window?  I'm sorry man, I'm all about keeping it simple." I put aside the verbal assault I was enduringit was simply Gary's passion for the job coming out as mine does sometimes, and I began to think about what Gary was gruffly articulating.  

Our minds cannot process very much information when we are subjected to extreme stress.  Working memory can only support 5 to 7 things, plus or minus 2 (remember span of control?), and when emotions get involved, the drive to survive is an emotion, that number drops, varying from individual to individual, to 1 or 2 things.  Complicated processes (hook 2, slide 4 is a 5-6 step process) are lost almost entirely when the catecholamine release has us reduced to clumsy, stupid, raging animals who will do completely irrational things in an attempt to survive. 

We have to learn complex skills to the point that we forget that we are even doing them.  Complex skills that must be executed when stress has stripped us of all but the bare bones of who we are must be simple and vetted, so that the most important components of a skill are etched in the firefighters mind and can be performed when an emergency occurs.   

Facilitating Quality Training

Tell them what to expect:  Let participants, 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 a result of a lack of purpose and a defined area of focus.  Time on the training ground is precious and cannot be wasted.

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. 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.  Our proof comes from putting our hands on our equipment and seeing how scenarios play out in real time.

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.  Reduce complex skills to the most vital components and place extreme emphasis on those parts of the skill critical to success and survival.

High repetition: 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 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.  I can still perform skills learned as a young athlete without thinking because I performed them until I wanted to throw up.  

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. 

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.  We cannot get there without a lot of sweat equity and simple, 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.  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 performance speed to get the best results. 

I was reminded of a quote by Bruce Lee regarding performing at the unconscious competence level, "Learn it until you forget it."

Gary said to me, "The main thing we tell our people is to hook any rung they can except the first one.  If they grab the first rung they'll break their arm against the building and get stuck.  We tell them to throw themselves out the window and bear-hug the ladder.  We're teaching the same thing you are, but we keep it really simple.  When this type of thing goes down, you can't over-think things because you've lost your mind."
We packed up the 24' and put it away.  Gary and I worked it out.  In reality, we were saying roughly the same thing about the same skill, I just took a longer path to get there.  Great teachers and coaches have a knack for separating out the nonsense and communicating what is most important.

My old man, a football coach by trade for almost 40 years, used to say, "The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing." 

Note to self: Keep it simple.