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. 

  

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24 Comments

  1. "We'll do it on our own together."

    Exactly. Water boils from the bottom and we are the driving change against mediocrity.

  2. Couldn't agree with you more…thanks for another inspiring post. This last go around was the third time in the last year I've had the target on me. I guess now I can only do "specialized" training with the duty officers approval and have to have a sign posted w/ PIO to explain what we are doing. The other two…needed velvet gloves for some volunteers… oh well. They don't like taking direction or listening to line sup's…they already know it all. Funny

  3. As always my brother, phenomenal blog. Throughout my career I too have always worn a bullseye wanting change for the very same reasons you mention. I have been a chief officer for quite some time now and my progressive thoughts still make me a loner. Keep up the good work. Change will come. Do all you can to rise in your organization through the ranks and you will be able to affect more positive change.

    A cranky old man.

  4. Thank you for your perspective. Leadership, can happen at any level and can certainly be a thankless chore. Leadership tactics can be taught in a classroom but leading must be learned on the job. The courage to lead, in the fight, is another level all together. Coping with the hard decisions as you attack chaos, possibly alienating your brothers and sisters, and even putting yourself in harms way, are all traits of a leader. Many of us have questioned our leaders, the good and bad. they all taught us something no matter what decisions were made. Again, thank you for your boldness.

    I'm Andrew Young, a Volunteer who need not be handled with velvet gloves, warm hugs, or the sarcasm of somebody that thinks they are better than me because they get a paycheck. Don't lump us all together. "I'll own that."

  5. I showed this article to my wife. After reading it she thought that I had wrote it! Thats how similar a path I'm on too. It is such a relief to know that there are so many others that have the same understanding and passion to make our job better but we still seem to be a rare breed.
    Thanks for doing the blog. It has kept me motivated to keep pushing. Its great to know we aren't in it alone.

    Mark
    Lethbridge, Alberta

  6. Thank you! I cannot agree more. I too fight for for what I am passionate about and I also have the same bulls eye. I will stay hungry and remain on the level. We will stand together.

  7. Mark:

    Your signature says your are from Lethbridge. If you work for that department you should consider yourself lucky. I spent 14 years on that department before I moved to the States and continued my career. I now have over 16 years on the job down here and believe me, that little department on the prairies is light years ahead of most of the departments here. Don't quit pushing but remember that LFD is ahead of the curve in ways you could only see by working for other less progressive departments.

    Ken

  8. Great blog! I'm the guy that gets labeled as wanting to fight every fire from the outside. Google Attack from the burned side and look up the Fire engineering article online. Read the comments at the bottom. People think I'm an idiot and I've been defending my position for years. Glad to see there are dummies like you and I that are willing to get punched in the face in order to drive us forward. We can enjoy the flow path together brother, hopefully it won't flashover on us…..Sean Gray Cobb county, Ga.

  9. I cannot begin to tell you what a sense of relief it is, to know that I am not the only person in the fire service that "swims against the current" of what is precieved as the norm. I was recently demoted, and eventually left to join another department for standing up for what I believe in as right, and safe. I was battling the "It's been done this way for years, so why change?" and add to that a huge dose of nepotism, mixed with an injection of steal-my-thunder-itis. It took one time of standing up for what I believe in, and standing up for the firefighters under me, before I too had a target on my back. This article has helped me reaffirm that I will continue to do what I think is right, and if they don't like it, too damn bad.

  10. I've been thinking about this post literally for days. I love it!, but there's one part that has my gears grinding…

    There is a paradox I see about compromise and I'm not sure there's a definitive answer. As an individual agent of change I say, hell ya! fuck'em. If change has gotta happen it might as well begin with me. The process might be painful, but for I for all I know I'll be dead tomorrow and my only lasting impression will be how I impacted those around me. For these reasons, I choose action.

    However, as a leader, if the goal is to get people from A to B, than isn't getting the greatest amount of the herd to B the truest measure of success? And if that is the case, if compromise is required to do it, how much are you willing? If you hold fast to your position and find yourself proud of who you are when you reach B, but alone, as a leader have you succeeded? Alternatively, if you get there with whole herd intact, but can't stomach who you've become, is that success? It probably won't feel like it.

    I've witnessed leaders I thought had so much to teach and share, that had real potential to inspire greatness from those around them, but fell short because the very standards that made them so great, when not compromised created an intolerable separation between them and those they needed to inspire. I've found it hard not to see this as wasted talent or in extreme cases a virtual dead-end to the flow path of information sharing.

    So what's the answer? I don't know, i wish I did. I've polled my crew about this and for the most part, if the compromise only sacrifices ego than most would be willing, but morals are a no go. I think the only answer is going to be one of personal tolerance levels.

  11. Man, I really needed to hear this today (kind of put a little wind back into the sail). Well said.

    The motorcycle club has their thing. The FOOLS has theirs as well. Man, there needs to be a nationwide 'group" for like-minded, forward thinking firefighters (that your mantra describes above). Keep up the good work.

    We are out here listening/reading what you say. Many of us the underdogs, the mental-minorities, the black sheep of our departments. Thank you for serving as a beacon of direction and encouragement, and a reminder of our mission.

  12. Murdock: [reading Kazoo's file] Kazoo, John J. Born 7-6-47 in Bowie, Arizona. Of Indian-German descent – that's a hell of a combination. Joined the army 8-6-64. CFD in 2007. Accepted special forces, specialization: light weapon, medic, SAFE program, helicopter and language qualified. 59 confirmed kills. Two Silver Stars, 2 Stork pins, four Bronze, 3 Heart saver awards, four Purple Hearts. Distinguished Service Cross and Medal of Honor. You got around, didn't you? Incredible.

  13. Lt. Kendrick: I have two books at my bedside, Lieutenant, the CFD Corps Code of Conduct and the King James Bible. The only proper authorities I submit to are my commanding officer, Colonel Nathan R. Jessep, and the Lord our God!

  14. CFD Private: I run my unit how I run my unit. You want to investigate me, roll the dice and take your chances. I eat breakfast 300 yards from 4000 Gold Diggers who are trained to steal me money, so don't think for one second that you can come down here, flash a badge, and make me nervous.

  15. I have to say, a complelling argument… but you've over thought the whole thing. The simple answer of how we get from A to B is TRAINING.
    Training is the ultimate level playing field. Accomplish a task that will make you better at protecting people and their things. The fire service is convoluting with all this extra mumbo jumbo. WE help people, that's it, that is our job. Set yourself up for success in the event your graced with the oppurtunity to help fix someones bad day. It can only be done by being a master of your trade.
    Dont believe me as your surgeon right before he kicks in your preverbial front door "Hey doc did you practice this for real or did you just sit in the lazy boy half paying attention to the importance of your job?"
    The expectation you have on your crew should be that same expectation you would have on a crew that shows up to take care of your family, on your bad day. NO EXCEPTIONS!!!
    Check the Ego, hold your morals. Only as long as it doesn't get in the way of holding your tools!