Sick Days

By Mark vonAppen

In days overflowing with uncertainty, soaring numbers of line of duty deaths, budget corrections, jump staffing, friends and mentors moving on, it would be easy enough to curl up in a ball, turn it all off, count your sick days or add up the days until retirement.  Many of us work for bosses who mimic characters from The Land of Oz, seeming to have no brain, courage, or heart.  As our fire engines and fire houses fall apart, we follow the golden road seeking answers only to find lies waiting for us from those pulling the strings from behind a curtain in a gleaming castle.  None of it is real and not much happens to make our difficult job any easier.  We struggle to make a broken system work and the ever growing chip on our shoulder gets heavier and heavier.  Most of our fears never materialize, yet a sickness can fester if left untreated.  

“Our type of group leadership is a powerful thing when it is unleashed.  We are doing the right thing and making now count.”

We could sit around the table with hang dog expressions and pine for the days of old.  A vicious cycle of belly-aching, toward the organization or each other, can ensue that causes us to turn on one another and threatens the very family that we swear is so dear to all of us.  Passion becomes work and days become a swirling mess of hate speak and back biting.  The health of the family declines and as a result, people take more and more sick days.  Let’s get something straight, the old days are gone.  If we wish for the past, worry for a future that might not happen, the present goes by and we don’t live the days that are right in front of us.


In our firehouse, we grew tired of the same old story and decided to write our own script.  We remixed what it means to have a sick day.  We make now count.  We define sick as another word for awesome, “Dude, that’s sick!”  Our days are filled with group activity, workouts, training, meals, all of which allow us to roll with changes as a group.  With the help of family we have gotten through some of our darkest hours.  Our days are sick by design and some of our best times have come in spite of the adversity that we face on a day to day, sometimes minute to minute, basis.  Our all in, all out, treat each other right, lead from everywhere mentality is firmly rooted and has grown into a foxhole culture where we refuse to let one another down.

Making Our Days Sick:

  • We give everyone respect – We don’t treat people like members of a herd.  The good of the group and the good of the individual should be the same if we adhere to the performance standard.
  • Our leadership involves everyone – We let people do what they do best, we steer clear of weaknesses.
  • We allow for independent thinking – Some of our most creative people bring a lot of passion into seeing their ideas come to fruition quickly.  We don’t crush enthusiasm.
  • We do it together –  We lead each other.  Our first priority is to do our job, our second is to help our brothers and sisters do theirs. 

We have tapped into the teacher that exists in everyone in our firehouse.  We welcome new ideas and encourage everyone to stand up and lead in their way and carry on positive traditions in order for us to accomplish our goal of making each day the best it can be.  Drills happen spontaneously, text messages circulate amongst team members on days off about drills we can conduct upon returning to work, veterans help the new members learn their jobs better, and the young people flood the station with wonder and enthusiasm.  We make work look like play time, in doing so, learning is perpetuated and the knowledge of the veterans is assimilated through all members of the station.  We teach that being part of our house means sharing knowledge.  We strengthen ourselves when we strengthen one another.


Ask yourself; was the past really better?  Or is it just a safe place because we know how the story ends?  Life is a three act play in which Act 1 is our past, Act 2 is the rising action, and Act 3 is the continued development of the present situation.  There is no climax, no denouement, no conclusion, it is all about now.  The present is where the struggle occurs as we chart the future.  The present is where we live.  Make now count.

Our type of group leadership is a powerful thing when it is unleashed.  We are doing the right thing and making now count.  We adhere to our standard of performance, “Do your job like a professional.  Treat people right.  Give all out effort.  Have an all in attitude.”  We keep the peace in our house. We make our days what they are, and we do not allow for external, uncontrollable, forces to negatively impact our culture.   These are some of the best times of our lives.  Ours is the best job in the world if we make every day a sick day.  

Don’t take sick days, make sick days.

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3 Comments

  1. I love your positive outlook Mark and always giving a new direction and opportunity at work. Good leaders especially at the company level can keep things positive within their span of control. Another attribute of a good company officer in my opinion is allowing their crew a small amount of time to vent their frustration about the job and then refocusing the crew with an attitude of it might not be ideal overall, but within the walls of this station we are okay.

    A company officer has a great deal of influence over the crew and for me knowing my officer would keep us safe on the scene and in the house made me work like a dog for them. I never wanted to let a leader like that down and felt embarrassed if I did.

    We can also borrow some fun activities from the world of the cubical workers. I used books like Personality and the Fate of Organizations by Robert Hogan or Color Your Future: Using the Character Code to Enhance Your Life by Taylor Hartman (note I don't have any financial incentive for listing these books) these books were just fun to share with the crew, gave some good laughs and some good insight into how we tic. Thanks Mark for keeping positive.