Monday, March 31, 2014


By: Mark vonAppen

The automatic fire alarm is the bane of most firefighters existence, oh how we lament "smells and bells" calls.  These hum-drum events often occur in the middle of the night when we are at our cross-eyed, complacent, bed-headed-worst.  As common as the  drone of the oft-ignored car alarm, we sleep-walk through these mundane calls missing cues to things that are out of the routine, until we get caught with our pants down.  

My first and last encounter with playing catch-up at an auto-alarm-that-wasn't was a seminal moment in my career.  A single incident forever changed my perspective on the fire service, the immediacy of the fire scene, its ability to punish inattention, and its lack of forgiveness.  I chose to pay attention from that day onward and pledged to never again let my brothers down as the next man up.  

The clout aside my naive head occurred as a probationary firefighter nearing the end of what seemed to be a long start to a career that had only just begun.  Like most males in their mid-twenties, I was invincible and knew everything.  

Dinner time was approaching as my engine company was kicked out on an auto-alarm in a commercial building.  I half-heartedly dressed out and with my suspenders down at my knees, hood stuffed in my pocket, and with my coat open, to the alarm we went.  

In standard auto-alarm fashion, we arrived to a building that presented us with no outward signs of peril, no smoke, flames, or screaming civilians hanging from windows in desperate need of rescue.  We - the heroes dressed in black - dismounted the pumper and shuffled unenthusiastically to the Knox Box, retrieved the keys and set about restoring the squawking alarm system with baseball caps protecting our heads, coats still unclasped, our warden was limp complacency.

(Sigh) What a bunch of malarkey.

I followed my captain's lead as we performed the perfunctory bottom to top building check after the pesky alarm would not restore at the first attempt.  We began our search of the basement and were met by smoke pushing from the seams of the tightly sealed entry door.  We scrambled to the engine, fumbling for our gear as the chauffeur hastily hooked the connections.  Three alarms and six hours later, we packed up our last stick of hose and went back to quarters, humbled by our new perspective on urgency, tempo, and automatic fire alarms.
Have a plan, script your plays.

The Boy Scout motto is, "Be prepared," it became my motto after this fire.  I vowed to wear all of my gear on every fire response, even if my captain didn't, and consistently ask myself, "What if?"  I became a jackhammer who constantly mulled over every conceivable contingency, every outcome, good or bad.  I vowed to never show up ill-prepared and get caught with my pants down again.
In this case, nobody got hurt and the building wasn't totally destroyed, but the incident was a disaster from the start.  I was reminded of Regis Towers in Memphis, TN, where firefighters and civilians died in a tragic case of complacency.  Learning from the past matters, every error chain set in motion from this day forward has already befallen someone, somewhere, at some time.  It is our ability to recognize the error sequence and change our plan, how we imagine the future, that separates the success from failure.  We must know that there is no ultimate plan for, or guarantee of success.  
Planning for, and overcoming failure creates the type of critical thinking skills that allow us to stay ahead of the ever-changing fireground. 
It was my "aw-shucks, at-least-nobody-got-hurt" inability to grasp the scope and breadth of incidents that was most concerning to me, my resistance to the knowing the truth that accidents on the fire ground do not discriminate.  It was something I knew I had to change in myself.  Near misses and deaths can occur in every borough and township in any corner of the world.  Laziness is the secret ingredient in failure, it is usually kept secret by the one who fails and lives to keep the truth shrouded.  

The notion that we are somehow at our best when under the gun, able to fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants, is a fantasy that can lead to poor preparation and a false sense of security.  We all admire those who say, "I'll figure it out when I get there.  I thrive under pressure." But it usually isn't true, we are not at our best when we are subjected to strain, anxiety, and fear.  It is the work we do prior to an event that prepares us for success and allows us to function when subjected to external stressors.  It is exhausting to constantly prepare, but it is the only route to choose if we wish to excel at our craft.

We have to prepare mentally and physically, so that when the pressure of a situation knocks everything out of us, and all we are left with are the raw bones of the fundamentals, we are prepared to fight and win.  The "to succeed you must fail" principle was handed down to me from my father.  I watched it all my life growing up on the sidelines and the classrooms that my football-coach-father prowled from one side of this country to the other.  It is a simple concept that I have adopted in training the people that I work with.  It has its roots in capturing people's attention and ensuring they grasp the magnitude of their responsibilities to the team, the family, and community.  It is all about turning failure into learning opportunities.

How do you deal with set-backs?

  1. Expect mistakes - Plan for success, but know with certainty that you will fail, spectacularly at times, and have a plan to move on.  Ask yourself, "What do I do if this works?  What do I do if it doesn't?" And so on.
  2. Don't dwell in the past - You can't change it; why worry over it?  Moving on with a solid action plan for improvement shows strength of character.  It is the fool who pines for his yesterdays, a fool who gets left behind.
  3. Own your mistakes - Stand up and say, "I did this (insert blunder here), learn from my mistake."  If you did something and it didn't work out as planned, share your misadventures to save others the misstep.
  4. Allow time to lick your wounds - Feeling miserable after a poor performance is normal.  You just got your ass kicked, allow yourself some time to recover (not too much though). 
  5. Get back in the game fast - You can't lose your nerve (think Maverick in Top Gun).  Get back up and get in the fight.  Things always appear to be the worst right when you're closest to success.
  6. Focus on the future - Plan on ways to improve and implement the plan of what you learned as soon as possible. 

Consistent effort is a constant challenge. When you get back up after a significant failure, you find an inner confidence that stems from owning up to your mistake and taking steps to ensure that you don't commit the same error again.  Planning for, and overcoming missteps creates the type of critical thinking skills that allow us to stay ahead of the ever-changing fireground.  Our job is no different than any high-stakes endeavor where the competition is vicious and unyielding.  Our character is defined by the ability to learn when we stumble and from adjustments made after less than spectacular performance.  

It's all about how we rebound.

Take This Pill...

By Mark vonAppen

"It's an easy fix," they say. "Just take this pill and it will fix everything."

I sit dumbfounded at the lunacy of such statements.  An anger swells inside of me.  I boil at the notion that all ills, and all behaviors can be corrected by taking the easy way out.  Opting for the easy way out is what is killing us as families, as an industry, and as a society.  Take a pill, a magic elixir, and you'll see improved behavior, increased performance, you'll lose weight, and somehow become more attractive to others.


There are some nasty side-effects of seeking temporary expedients to solve your problems.  I get nervous when things seem too easy, knowing that temporary remedies only make for harder going in future. 

What do we do when the quick-fix stops working?  Do we try another stop-gap measure?  What are the repercussions of choosing the easy road?  Some of the side-effects include a decreased work ethic, loss of passion, and an overall loss of the will to fight.  All of these side-effects take us farther away from who we are.

I would sooner quit than roll over in an act of total submission, caving in to a society and an industry that professes the importance of original thought, but seeks only to destroy individualism, and looks to promote those who succumb to the pressure to conform.  Choosing the easy road changes behavior, though not for the better.  Nothing good ever comes from taking the easy road.  It is where the weak, the lazy, and the suspect of character can be found.

The only way to fix anything is through a grinding dedication to whatever it is that you love.  Hard work is the only way to hold on to anything worth holding on to.  A true test of anyone's character is to watch what they do when adversity arises.  Do they look for the easy way out; or do they stand their ground and fight for what they believe in?  Character is revealed through adversity.
When we lose our will to fight, we lose our passion, and then we lose everything.  Passion drives great things. When it goes away, so does progress.
There is a difference between being a character and an individual.  A character has an unreasonable need for attention, and is a force for disruption.  They need to be controlled.  An individual stands out because they are different, but they have the best interest of the group at heart.  Rogues are individuals.  They need to be celebrated. 

Be an individual.  The world needs those who push, kick, and fight.  When we lose our will to fight, we lose our passion, and then we lose everything.  Passion drives great things.  When it goes away, so does progress.

There is no pill that you can take to make things better; no silver bullet.  When you reach your desired goal the old-fashioned way, you'll be that much more satisfied with the result, knowing that it came from your hard work, not from taking a shortcut.  The only panacea for what ails anyone is hard work.

Quick change happens slowly.  

Don't heed the warning to shut up, to take the easy way out.  If your message is the right and true, eventually they'll listen.  Never cave in to the pressure to conform.  Just because you can't beat them doesn't necessarily mean you should join them.  

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Cost

By: Mark vonAppen

Expect the unexpected.  History repeats itself.  These confounding statements are constant tormentors in our lives and careers.  So, if history repeats itself and the unexpected forever surprises us, it seems as though we are powerless to learn from experience.


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?

What is the cost of knowing the truth about our past?

Damaged egos and wounded pride? 

We must subscribe to the school of thought that in our world of the fire service, there are no mistakes made in the moment; there are only decisions.  Those who hesitate out of fear or out of a sense of inferiority are the ones who lose because they have forever lost an opportunity to learn, see, and grow.  We must also subscribe to the sticks-and-stones school of thought that names cannot hurt us.  We must 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.

In order to grow as students of the craft we must be humble enough to admit that we don't know everything.  Remember the beginner’s mind thing?  Beginners are open to any and all ideas because they are aware of their incompetence. 

Cast off pride and stop asking, "How many fires have you been to?"  Look at our practices and ask, "Is what we're doing really the safest and most effective way to do business?  What can we learn from this?"

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.

A distinct problem exists in the fire service because of its insular nature.  We teach what should be rather than what is, which serves to impede learning.  We raise members in the service to live up to a what should be that has never existed—existing only in the imagination of certain members of the profession, with no facts to validate how it should be.  It's why when accidents happen there is a rush to blame, to cast the first stone, to rationalize, and gain distance from it. 

Honest dialogue, surrounding topics on which we disagree, can help us guard against arrogance and duplicity.  Pride and vainglorious traditions continue to kill and injure American firefighters at a higher rate than in any other first-world nation.  In the absence of practical experience we must supplement our lack of real-world repetition with a vigorous pursuit of knowledge.  Knowledge is fostered when we are honest about our experiences and share them with one another.

We must take our knowledge beyond the surface-scratching, anecdotal world that many of us operate in.  Experience is something personally encountered, undergone, or lived through.  Experienced often refers to someone who has gotten away with doing the wrong thing more often than you have.  Are we experienced or are we educated?  We should strive to be both.

Sometimes in order to progress we must unlearn what we have learned.  Progress is impossible without change. Those who are too prideful to change their minds are incapable of forward movement.  It is painful to admit when we are wrong, but the sooner we face reality, and the more we seek to reshape our reality, the farther we will go.

What is the cost of not knowing the truth about our past?  We know the answer; we can read about it over and over again in Line of Duty Death Reports, dust off our dress blues, listen to a forlorn refrain of bagpipes carried by the wind at the cemetery, and raise a glass to the dead, wondering if we can cheat Death by hook or by crook, or by chance.   We can try to fool ourselves into believing that we are really better, smarter, and faster than the souls who paid the ultimate price.

We aren’t.

As we progress through our lives and careers our feeling of invincibility recedes into a feeling of marked vulnerability that can only be assuaged through a relentless pursuit of knowledge and training.  We go from, “It can’t happen to me,” to, “It can happen to me,” and ultimately, “It is going to happen to me and I have got to find a way to control my destiny.”

We never stop trying to control it.

Our professional learning curve is steep and the environment unforgiving.  We are guardians of the community who solve problems by taking action, not through diplomacy and indecision.  Not many among us in society possess the courage and moxie to make the push down a hot, dark hallway to protect their neighbors.

We do. 

In order to successfully navigate the perils of a career in the fire service we must be at once bold and informed.  Until we stop being the champions of mediocrity as a culture and work towards a true meritocracy, where the truth has value, we are doomed forever to repeat history and be ambushed by the unexpected.

How many brothers and sisters would be with us this day if we all shared our 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.

I would much rather choke on a hunk of humble pie, admitting my errors and the lessons learned for the world to see, painful as they are, than hear story upon story of tragedy repeated time and again.

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.  Mistakes are windows into learning and discovery.  Everyone makes mistakes; the smart ones among us learn from them and share the knowledge gleaned from experience with others.  It is how we develop and evolve as a collective. 

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 are not advancing knowledge, we are fostering ignorance.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Never Sit Still

By Mark vonAppen

As we work to correct all that is wrong with the fire service, we have to keep in mind all that is right with our people, and this great and noble profession of which we are a part.  We are at our best when we are outside. When we train, sweat, and improve together it makes us feel alive.   

Don't spend your career being bored.  If you are, maybe you should think about doing something else.  Nobody will do it for you.  If you aren't moving, you aren't progressing.
Nobody will do it for you.  If you aren't moving, you aren't progressing.
Never sit still.  Focus on what you can control.  Too often, we focus on things that we can't control, and it keeps us from focusing on the things that we can positively influence.  Your reach is far greater than you realize.  Give your best effort every day.  Do your job, treat people right, give all out effort, and have an all in attitude.  

That's all anyone can ask of you.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

We Are

By Mark vonAppen

We know who we are, do you?

We are a spark.

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

We are edgy.

We are confrontational.

We are aggressive.

We are smart.

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.  We are frightening to some.

We are frightening to some.

We are individual.

We are team.

We are different.

We are the same.

We are teachers.

We are students.

We are questions.

We are answers.

We are fighters.

We are survivors.

We are dauntless.

We are brothers.

We are sisters.

We are who we claim to be.

We are real.