One Team, One Fight

by Mark vonAppen

Have you ever watched a really efficient fire company in action and wondered how a crew can move almost effortlessly through an evolution with little apparent communication and few breaks in the routine? A group of 2 to 5 people acting as one, accomplishing all assigned tasks at maximum efficiency. 

Well-scripted and choreographed fire ground operations do not happen on their own. Strong fire ground performance is the combination of communication, dedication, mentoring, and training all of which culminate in a shared understanding of what each of the crew members responsibilities are, how they interrelate, and anticipate future actions.

In the fire service, leadership is essential. Strong leadership inspires confidence in the individual, the team, the organization, and most importantly in the officer who is to lead. If the mission of the fire department is to be carried out successfully, faith in the organization and mission must be instilled. If confidence in the leader or organization is lost, it may never be regained.

In these times of uncertain budgets, fluctuation in staffing levels on a daily basis and a large turnover of personnel, communicating expectations for conduct inside the fire house and on the tactical level is critical. Expectations play a vital role in establishing a firm foundation, faith in the organization, and in company level operations.

Raised on the ball field

There is the Army brat- the kid who has to pack up and move to a different state or country every time a military dad or mom is promoted or reassigned- and there is the football brat. They are the same thing really- all you have to do is supplant the word Army for football- I was a football brat. I grew up the son of a football coach. We moved to various locations around the country at least 5 times before I was 12 years old as my dad climbed the coaching ladder from college to the professional ranks.

Coaching dominated the household in which I grew up. My father was a career coach; a cranky defensive line (D-line) coach for a Super Bowl Champion football team. The football life is a grind; during the season he was up and off to work before I woke up, and I got up around 6am. He was usually home around 9pm. He spent 35 years developing his craft.

From grade school through high school I would spend six weeks every summer at training camp working as a ball boy with my father and the team. Bear with me, I’m not painting some Norman Rockwell image here, I promise this is going somewhere.

I was witness to some of the greatest coaches of all time. Bill Walsh, George Siefert, Mike Holmgren, Ray Rhodes, Bobb McKitrick, and my father, Fred vonAppen. These men were at the top of their profession and each in their own way was a great motivator, teacher, and most of all, leader.

My dad was the drill sergeant type, he marched around the football field with his baseball cap turned backwards, his whistle in one corner of his mouth and a big wad of long-cut tobacco in the other. A big man with a personality that matches his size, he good-naturedly barked at his players with a gravelly voice that boomed across the football field. He worked his guys hard, they respected him for his forthrightness and his commitment to them.

The men who worked for Walsh, my dad included, didn’t motivate by intimidation, but through a mutual respect that created an atmosphere in which the players would run collectively head-first through a brick wall for their position coach, their belief in the leadership so strong.

Coach Walsh had an uncanny ability to spot coaching talent, vision, and temperament. He had an aptitude for selecting assistant coaches who augmented his coaching style; men with quick minds, big hearts and strong personalities.

Michael Zagaris / Getty Images
Just like stretching a line, or swinging an axe, countless hours were spent perfecting game plans. Everything seemed to come down to basics; the first step toward your opponent, hand placement, reacting appropriately to the situation before you. It always came down to your preparation – how well you finished the play, how much you believed in the leadership.

Everything with Walsh was calculated; laid out in advance. He would script the first 20 plays for each game – the depth of his preparation so great that the team rarely was held without a score on their opening possession. The players knew exactly what to expect.

Coach Walsh would even forecast his rants – informing his coaches, “I’m going to get you today.” Meaning he would lash out at position coaches during practice to try to inspire better performance from the players- they would play harder for their wounded coach. Coaches often knew a tongue-lashing was forthcoming so they weren’t surprised by it.

The staff believed in routine and as a result the players did too. Every aspect of the campaign was broken down to routine and expectations. Meetings, drills, practices, even going to bed at night was outlined- each activity ritual. Practices started and ended the same way, as did meetings. Everything was done to inspire automatic reactions in the players. Thus, you were prepared to function when anxious, confused, or fatigued.

During practices it was impressed upon the players that there was only a finite amount of time together on the field. Players were expected to have a sense of urgency and work as professionals in that time. To achieve the maximum benefit, coaches made sure that every drill was meaningful, and that everyone participated- no time wasted.

“I need your eyes and ears right now,” my father would say. The expectation was to focus and work as hard as you could when it was time to work and then have fun when the task was completed.

The result of years of hard work and discipline was that my father and the rest of the staff were a part of 2 world championships (some would go on to win 2 more for a total of 5 Super Bowls, including the 1981 championship, but my dad went back to his first love – college football – in 1989).

Success at any level – in any occupation – does not come if you champion mediocrity. Even outstanding performance was evaluated in order to achieve a higher standard. Everyone in the organization was on the same page- if someone wasn’t pulling their weight their teammates and coaches let them know about it. Never satisfied – everyone worked tirelessly toward the ultimate goal – one team, one fight.

Championships started with expectations.

From the field house to the fire house

So, that was my childhood and adolescence, fast forward to my mid-twenties and my career in the fire service, as I breathlessly showed up for my first day of work. I was ready to have my socks knocked off by the prime example of leadership I was about to witness. Who could blame me? It was all I had ever known.

I sat in my car in the parking lot, my mind a whirlwind of thought.

Do I go in now?

Should I bring in my turnouts first? Or should I bring in the donuts?

Donuts first.

What if we get a call?

Turnouts first it is.

What if they think I didn’t bring a box of donuts on my first day?

Both the donuts and my turnouts at the same time- that’s how I’ll do it.

I horsed my turnout gear along in one arm and carried the pink donut box in the other.

How do I open the door?

I was about to meet my first captain; I was sure the guy could turn water into wine or part the sea or something divine like that.

Tell me something great. Lay it on me.

Probationary firefighter: “Excuse me, captain? What do you need me to do if we catch a fire?”

Officer: “Settle down kid. We’ll figure it out when we get there. Don’t worry about it. Get started on the house- work. Quit asking so many questions.”

He then pushed back in his recliner to embark on his morning nap. I stood in the doorway dumbfounded.

“Yes sir,” I say.

Huh?

Gee, that was inspiring.

This is a joke right?

Deflated and puzzled, I grabbed my toilet brush and set about the death- defying task of cleaning the heads.

That conversation is similar to a few I had with officers while I was a relief firefighter early in my career. Once, on the way to a fire and I got the “We’ll figure it out when we get there. Don’t worry about it,” treatment.

I was detailed out to a different house every time I came to work for my first few years. Nothing gave me more anxiety than this conversation. More than the conversation it was the apathetic answer I sometimes received that was most concerning.

Believe me, I worried about it. I expected more. I wanted more, I needed more. I was continually underwhelmed by what I viewed as a schism in the fire service; a split between real leadership and the ordinary company officer.

Even as a rookie I recognized that on the way to a fire- with the siren wailing and the rookie (me) hyperventilating, was no time to sort out who was doing what. It was a bad idea then and it is to this day, I will argue the point with anybody.

Better to sort it out prior to getting the bell – in a controlled setting – much like what we would call a “chalk talk” in sports. The coach (officer) goes over basic tactics and strategy and other expectations before a situation arises. We are in the fix-it-now-fix-it-right business. We should know better than to make it up when we get there. We owe it to our new firefighters to show them the way.

Nothing is more disappointing in the fire service than an officer who fails to lead their crew, battalion, or department.

You might say, “Common sense; right?”

If it were so common I wouldn’t be writing this – and you wouldn’t be reading it.

Mediocrity makes an appearance

When I was in the fire academy my first close encounter with public service mediocrity went something like this, “I wasn’t prepared to teach this subject today. The guy who was supposed to teach it called in sick. So I apologize in advance.”

This ought to be good.

Way to lead brother. You just told me to prepare to have the next 8 hours of my life wasted as you drone on and on about a subject that you care very little about and in turn, I will learn even less about.

The officer at the front of the class who delivered that riveting opening statement was wearing a wrinkled class ‘B’ uniform, his day boots were unzipped, and he had the disheveled appearance of someone who had spent the previous night sleeping in their car.

Our recruit class sat tombstone still in thunderstruck silence; backs and neck ties arrow straight, feet flat on the floor, hands folded on the tables, unsure of how to react to this guy.

What?

Hold me back- I can hardly contain my enthusiasm.

I had worked to get this job for five years. Five years. I took every test I possibly could between California and Texas; working at night and going to school during the day. I had a naive expectation that everyone involved in this profession was a superstar.

What a letdown.

The fire academy I was privileged to attend was – and still is – home to many great instructors, I learned a lot there. I have had the honor of returning as an instructor- I hope those words never come out of my mouth. There were a few instructors who did not take their job as a leader seriously during my formative years in the fire service – I’m not even sure they realized they were failing to stand up and lead – they were few and very far between, but they stood apart.

Why spell it out?

The fire service has become an all-risk entity in which we are the ones people call for help when there is no one left to call. In an effort to meet the all-risk model, recruit academies are forced to pack a lot of information into a short time period. Recruit firefighters are subjected to weeks of specialized training to meet the changing face of threats in the world today. Thirty years of mission creep has left the fire service with a distinct identity crisis that is being passed along from generation to generation of new firefighters.

Firefighters of yesterday were not required to perform the wide variety of skills that firefighters of today are expected to be experts in. Fires in the 21st Century develop much more rapidly and are far more dangerous than fires of just 20 years ago. The fire ground has evolved, and we must adapt to the changes.

A United States Fire Administration study contained the following conclusion. “Approximately half of all line of duty deaths (LODDs) from 2000- 2005 are attributable to factors that are under the direct control of the individual firefighter or Chief Officers.” Knowing that a great number of fire ground tragedies are under the direct control of firefighting personnel at the scene means that we need to communicate effectively ahead of the emergency in order to meet our number one incident priority, life safety.

Show your people the way.
Lloyd Mitchell photo
The broad- spectrum approach to fire ground preparation is turning out firefighters that are not particularly skilled in the areas that are critical to basic personal fire ground safety and overall incident mitigation. Recruits often receive exotic, specialized training at the expense of foundation skills. The end result is a recruit who has received a lot of training that looks good on paper but has little practical application. They require a lot of direction initially.

The shotgun approach to training illustrates the need for a narrowed focus once the recruit firefighter arrives at a station. The officer must give the new firefighter clear direction on mission critical tasks.

It takes the recruit some time to figure out where they fit into the equation. When the new recruit or the veteran who hasn’t worked with your crew arrives the officer has an obligation to address operational issues- to administer base expectations. Everyone potentially pays if expectations are not set forth.

So, I made the rounds for a few months and I figured it out after a while. The company officer that sat me down and told me what their expectations were on the fire ground had a plan, and it involved all of us working together safely and efficiently,they were leaders. Not everybody liked them, but they were leaders, and they were respected for it.

As I progressed through my first few years a trend emerged. Those few who avoided the talk had no plan for what was to come – they were something else – coward may be too strong a word, or maybe its not. They did lack the courage to be out front and they certainly missed an opportunity to lead.

The lack of leadership usually infected the other station personnel, training was often non-existent, and I rattled around these stations trying to find ways to train myself – quietly – so I didn’t wake anybody up.

“This should be interesting if we get something,” I would ponder to myself as I deftly wielded my trusty toilet brush – the tool of choice – and made blue water in the toilet bowl. “I guess I’ll make something up, throw something against the wall and see what sticks.”

Sounded good to me. I had a plan.

I was informally granted the opportunity to light my own rocket once the maxi brake popped to announce our arrival at the fire scene. If my officer wasn’t going to tell me what to do I was going to find my way into some trouble with or without them. It was a jail break – every man for himself – and it was a mess.

I later learned from a leader that the correct term for lighting your own rocket is “freelancing.” The leader would not allow for me to take liberties at their emergency scene. I was amazed by how much trouble I could get into even with the best intentions when I lit my own rocket.

Rockets are exciting but sometimes they blow up in your face.

Chief Allan Brunacini said it, “Firefighters can freelance themselves into almost any situation. The problem is that they rarely possess the skills necessary to get themselves out of the trouble they get themselves into.”

I didn’t have the skills to get out of trouble yet, only into it. I could clean porcelain until it glistened like snow but I had a lot to learn about fighting fire. And who is this Brunacini guy? He sounds smart. He should write a book or something.

“Hey kid, don’t get any delusions of grandeur. NO FREELANCING, understood?”

“Yes sir,” I say.

I always looked up to the officer who told me what their expectations were. It gave me a point of reference and a leader to follow.

A sample of what a tactical expectations list for engine company operations might look like (Courtesy of Captain Bob Leonard- San Jose Fire Department).

ENG26INE

EMS:
Wear gloves and eye protection- N95 with you. Have your EMS coat available.

RESCUE RESPONSE:
Full turnouts, including helmet, vest and radio.
Engine should spot 50’ behind the accident blocking traffic.
Engineer- stays at the pump panel: for a non-rescue assist with patient care.
Paramedic Firefighter- investigates with Captain and is responsible for patient triage.
Firefighter- will be in full turnouts with SCBA and responsible for the foam line

STRUCTURE FIRES: If the words “smoke” or “fire” are in the dispatch- turnout

FIRST DUE
Engineer- spot either past or hold short of the fire-building, attempt to give the officer three sides.
Nozzle- is responsible for the attack hose line.
Back up- will stage the hand tools (pike pole and irons) near the entrance being used for fire attack, and assist with the line. Also carry the TIC.
SECOND DUE
Back up- will assist with moving the first attack hose line at the door as “two out”.
FORWARD LAY:
Engineer- will spot out of the way, don SCBA and assist first the in (pumping) Engineer.
Nozzle- will catch the hydrant, supply the pumping engine and then meet up with E26’s Captain and complete the “2 out”
REVERSE LAY:
Nozzle- is the primary “2 out”.
Enginee-r secures a water supply, don your SCBA, and assist first in (pumping) Engineer.

ALLEY DROP:
Back up- drops the 5” hose at the entrance to a driveway, alley, or cul de sac for the water supply company. As you come up to the engine move the hose to the left side of the road so other apparatus may pass.

SET BACK OPERATION:
Captain brings the hand tools.
Nozzle- shoulder load the pre-connected 1 ¾” hose and proceed with the Captain.
Back up- shoulder load a 100’ of 2 ½” hose from the rear and then pulls an additional 100’ of 2 ½”/3” hose towards the fire.
Engineer- brake the 1 ¾” at the lead line and then move to the rear and disconnect the 3” hose and connect it to a discharge.

ALARMS: Full PPE
Back up- will investigate with the Captain.

One officer – a leader – said to me, “Don’t talk to me for the first 30 seconds when we get there. I’m going to be very busy. Remember what I told you to do when we went over our crew expectations. If we’re going to do something different, I’ll tell you.”

Another leader told me, “Take 5 seconds while you are putting on your air pack and (size up the incident) for yourself. Think about what you are seeing and anticipate what I’m going to need you to do.” These profundities have stayed with me. It said that they trusted my ability to follow directions and complete tasks.

If I had been given no direction on scene because my supervisor was busy, I could feel comfortable getting to work based on what my officer told me when I reported for duty. I knew based upon expectations that my actions in most circumstances would reflect the orders that my officer would give if they were standing right next to me. I also knew with certainty that if I lit my own rocket – for any reason – another conversation would take place. It was a conversation that I wanted no part of.

Knowing my officers expectations afforded me a certain amount of autonomy, but there were always limits. I knew exactly how long the leash was. I was reminded that my officer does not have time to deal with a person assigned to them who does not understand their job responsibilities or couldn’t follow orders, babysitting wasn’t part of their incident size-up. Bigger things need to be dealt with and there is no time for an incompetent team member. We had a pact, I was now a functional member of the team.

The leader told me to trade in my tool of choice – the toilet brush – for a set of married irons. It was time to go to work.

I had achieved fire department nirvana.

The leader would discuss with me what their responsibilities were at the scene, as well as the engineer, and what they both expected of me. This mentoring was invaluable, I learned how my actions or lack of action would influence their ability to accomplish their goals.

The engineer would also lead in their role and tutor me- telling me what their thoughts and concerns were, how they saw things at an emergency scene. Many times the engineer provided leadership and direction, affording a much needed buffer between the captain and rookie. The engineer would offer guidance and advice to the kid on tricks of the trade and how to avoid trouble.

I tried to absorb as much of this information as I could. My hand ached as I tried to keep pace with a pen and paper.

Little time would have to be wasted on communicating routine tasks because everyone shared the same values in terms of accomplishing the goal. Sharing every detail of each person’s job would only create a great deal of “noise” to sort through to get needed information. The lead officer doesn’t have time for that.

Radio time is always at a premium at an emergency scene. The ability to communicate non verbally – by establishing expectations – frees up valuable radio time for priority transmissions such as, “Persons trapped, all clear, MAYDAY, vacate,” or other pertinent information.

Sometimes at shift change, the kitchen table would fill up with a number of like-minded team members all concerned with maximizing performance, passing job knowledge forward, and making sure we were all safe. Various emergency responses were addressed.

Some of these leaders came off as a little crazy but I’d follow them anywhere.

It’s not blind faith in the mission. Open dialogue means that you must have the courage in yourself to respectfully decline an assignment that isn’t safe. When the IC’s courage is writing checks your crew can’t cash we were told to have the guts to speak up.

“I’d do anything for you,” is a two way street. It means listening to each other, it means you have a pact to keep everyone safe.

My father – the cranky old D-line coach – also had a pact with his players. He would sit down with players on an individual basis to discuss what he expected of them and what they could expect from him. A channel of communication opened.

If my dad wasn’t holding up his end the players were invited to tell him about it. He and the players each had an investment, they each had to hold up their end of the bargain or the whole thing wouldn’t work.

He has lectured on his leadership philosophy to football coaches at clinics across the country as well as business professionals.

It is only now that he is reflecting on his career and discussing the fire service with me that the light bulb went on, the old man might have been on to something all along. If his list of expectations could carry him through a 35-year career which saw him reach what many deem to be pinnacle of the profession – a Super Bowl championship – then it must certainly be able to cross over into the fire service. His list of expectations – the pact – when adapted to the fire service looks like this:

What to expect from one another

Officers (You can expect this from me as an officer):
  1. Consistency
  2. Sense of urgency
  3. Seek continuous improvement
  4. Leadership and direction
  5. Forthrightness
  6. Open dialogue
  7. Accountability
  8. Technical command
  9. Respect
  10. Sense of humor
Firefighters and engineers (What I expect from you)
  1. Sense of urgency
  2. Concentration
  3. Full compliance
  4. Will to prepare
  5. Accountability
  6. Commitment
  7. Willingness to play a role
  8. Officers lead- you follow
  9. Finish
  10. Standard of performance
You can’t lead from the rear

Leadership is the process of influencing others to accomplish a goal by providing purpose, direction, and motivation.

Purpose gives people a reason why they should do difficult things under dangerous, stressful conditions. You must establish priorities- explain the importance of the mission and focus firefighters on the task for them to be effective, efficient, and disciplined.

Direction gives firefighters an orientation of tasks to be accomplished based on established priorities. The standards you establish and enforce will give your crew order; training will give them confidence in themselves, their leaders and each other.

Motivation gives firefighters the will to do everything they are capable of doing. It causes us to use initiative when we see the need for action. Motivate your crew by caring for them, challenging them with training, developing a cohesive team and giving them all the responsibility they can handle.

Simply talking about responsibilities is not sufficient. Crews must train together rigorously and often so that they get a ‘feel’ for how they work with each other. Each member has a sub-goal that interrelates with the other team members to support the achievement of the overall goal. The definition of a team spells it out. A team is not just any group of individuals; rather a team has defining characteristics.

‘A distinguishable set of two or more people who interact dynamically, interdependently and adaptively toward a common and valued goal/objective/mission, who have each been assigned specific roles or functions to perform.’

If any team member is unable to complete or carry out tasks relating to their sub-goal, the overall team goal may suffer or may not get accomplished at all. A smoothly operating crew knows through training what one another’s strengths and weaknesses are. They are able to tailor their evolutions and play to the others strengths. In order to work at maximum efficiency, crews must not only discuss emergency operations but plan for them, believe in the leader, and abide by the pact.

Execution as a team is critical to efficient operations. To execute the plan, crews must rehearse the timing of fire ground operations through frequent training. Through manipulative training each team member will see how their role contributes to success or lack of success, in actual or simulated emergencies. This extends beyond the company level. The company is effectively a single team member in an alarm assignment. A group of individual companies comprises the team. Each company’s actions build upon and support the actions of the others. All companies must share the same understanding of what the big picture is in order to mitigate an emergency.

When setting up company level training remember to communicate a few things. Communicate that drills are not conducted to waste anyone’s time. A lot of time is spent preparing for training, arriving crews must respect this and show up for drill prepared to learn. Make the drills fun, interesting, and have a crisp tempo to drills to involve everyone present. Have a distinct start and finish to every drill.

Standard Operating Procedures are leadership intensive. Leadership is the most essential element of the system. Leading effectively is not a mystery and can be learned through self-study, education, training, and experience. Good leaders prepare by training and leading as they intend to fight.

The ten commandments of team building
  • Help each other to be right, not wrong
  • Look for ways to make new ideas work, not for reasons they won’t
  • If in doubt, check it out. Don’t make assumptions about each other
  • Speak positively about each other and the department at every opportunity
  • Maintain a positive mental attitude no matter what
  • Act with initiative and courage, as if it all depends on you
  • Do everything with enthusiasm
  • Don’t lose faith, never give up
  • Involve everyone in the organization
  • Have fun
I’ve been pursuing competency in my craft since 1998 and I’m nowhere near satisfaction- I certainly don’t know it all but I have learned a few things about leadership throughout my life. I have taken more classes than I can remember and learned much from a lot of very talented people from both inside and outside of my organization. I have turned to writing about the fire service in an effort to spread some of what I have learned through publications such as this. Ours is truly a never-ending path to mastery.

Once, an officer I worked for said to me, “You know, writing about fire fighting doesn’t make you a better firefighter.”

Way to lead brother.

My reply, “I hope it does something for somebody.”

He’s sort of right I guess.

I hope writing about it makes others more interested in the craft, maybe adding an extra rabbit to their bag of tricks, and hopefully make them better firefighters and leaders. We don’t do it for ourselves, we do it in an effort to perpetuate leadership, safety, competence, and maybe we can all reach greatness someday.

I learned a lot growing up watching the best that my father’s profession had to offer. Likewise, I have been witness to many exceptional leaders in this great profession. We often witness outstanding things on a daily basis without even knowing it. I learned a lot from my father, his peers, and my mentors in the fire service.

Dwight Eisenhower had this to say in regards to leadership, “Pull the string and it will follow wherever you wish. Push it, and it will go nowhere at all.”

What are the two most important words a leader can say?

“Follow me.”

MARK vonAPPEN, a member of the Palo Alto (CA) Fire Department since 1998, is assigned to the Suppression Division where he holds the rank of captain. He is a committee member for California State Fire Training and has contributed to the development of Firefighter Survival and Rapid Intervention curriculums. He is an instructor for the Santa Clara County Joint Fire Academy, a recruit Instructor for Palo Alto Fire, and a member of the “Nobody Gets Left Behind” training group.

Mark can be contacted at: [email protected]

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1 Comment

  1. You inspire me even after 25 years of service, 12 as a officer. I too subscribe to the simple fact when one thinks he has this all figured out its time to hang it up. Keep writing my friend we are reading.