By Mark vonAppen

An open letter to those who believe that the job is about anything other than hard work to maintain your edge.  Hope and luck don’t keep you safe, your training does. 

A little back story on this one; it started out as 100 sentences that I wrote to my boss.  The self imposed punishment essay read, “I will never try to ensure the quality of fire department training again.”

We had a closed door meeting a little while later.

To whom it may concern,

We will offer no remorse for having a high standard of performance for ourselves, our crew, for others in the department, and for being uncompromising in these convictions.  Sometimes we’re enthusiastic in sharing our vision.  We will not apologize for the zeal that drives our mission, not to you or anybody else.

Apologies sound like excuses to us.  We are tired of excuses.

Let it be known that we do not wish to participate in any endeavors that are without vision, clear direction, and forethought.  To this end, until the organization pulls itself together we will engage in an informal resistance against the status quo.

This is a stand against MEDIOCRITY.

We will not apologize for the zeal that drives our mission, not to you or anybody else.

We hope that this hollow apology makes you feel better for it is the last one we will tender.  No longer will we be silent and acquiescent when it comes to expressing our convictions.  We will continue on our way of ensuring that greater standards are achieved.  These norms will continue to be those that far exceed the minimum standard of the department.  Our crew has discussed this at great length and we embrace the notion of performing at a higher level.    

Together we stand in this endeavor.  Fools spent from defiance, we will not submit.
We are taking signups for the renaissance of the fire service, some other guys out there are doing it too, all over the nation and the world.  You should think about joining us.  We are putting the service back in the fire service and the fight back in firefighter.  We’re not afraid of who we are, or who outsiders think we are.  We know our mission, to us the path is perfectly clear.  Do your job.  Treat People right. Give all out effort.  Have an all in attitude.

Our crew is growing, slowly we are shifting the paradigm. In our fire service we don’t have time for distractions. Ours will be a circle of function, not dysfunction.  While others are busy reaching conclusions, we will be reaching for something else.

We will be easy to spot.  We’re the ones who stride across the drill grounds or through the emergency scene with a moxie derived from a relentless drive for perfection in the craft.  It is a never-ending course.  If that makes others angry or intimidated, so be it.  A grinding dedication to improvement is our madness.  We will not let our teammates down, nor they us.

What is important to us?  

Staying hungry. 

Our standard is the extraordinary.
If you want to find us you can reach us by radio or find us on the GPS, we’re not going to be in quarters very much.  We will be the ones with the tools in our hands and hose in the street.

The Defiant

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The Dream

By Mark vonAppen

A brother was having a bad day at work, so I asked him how he was doing and he replied,  “Living the dream brother, living the dream.”

If ever you question your drive to work the job take a look in the mirror and ask yourself, “Am I all in?  Am I holding up my end of the bargain with my brothers, sisters, and the community that I serve?  Am I the same person that I said I’d be in my interview with the fire chief all those years ago?”

If you can face the person in the glass before you and answer “yes” then great, let it roll.  If your answer is “sometimes” or “maybe” then hear me out.

Let’s get something straight.  None of us got into this profession against our will.   To one degree or another, we volunteered for it, and some of us fought for years to get it.  We worked odd jobs, went to school at night, and interviewed for every job opportunity that surfaced – anywhere.  As rough it can be at times it is better to us than the alternative, an anemic life passed in the numbness of the risk-free human zoo that is modern society.

We truly are living the dream, we must never lose sight of that.  We have to constantly test ourselves mentally, physically, and professionally in order to remain steeled come what might.  We have to maintain the beginners mind and the passion that drew us to this proud and storied calling.

The only thing more terrifying to us than having something happen in our lives is the possibility of nothing happening at all.   We live for the challenge of our profession, it becomes who we are.  We live for it.  We are most alive when we push the limits of our capabilities, when we help others, it is where we thrive, it is where we are at our best.

God help us, we do love it so. 

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Stay Hungry

It’s hard to comprehend how those driven individuals who are hell-bent on moving the fire service forward are constantly excommunicated from their organizations and told to keep quiet. Those who are not silenced – rather, those celebrated few – are considered visionaries who serve to propel their departments forward as destination organizations to which we should all aspire to be a part of. It’s all about the climate of acceptance within the agency. It’s all about want for change.

Let’s be very clear, vision is scary to some people. Vision requires the ability to look ahead, to listen, and most of all it requires a lot of hard work to see the vision actualized.

I have flirted with the subject of listening to voices of all ranks in the organization before in “Trouble Maker.” Those who sit on their opinions and wait for others to answer the tough questions aren’t the ones who lead.  They wait for someone else to be the villain and then latch on to the point – once made – after the ice is broken.  A fatal leadership flaw is a lack of openness to new ideas or suggestions.  Another fatal flaw in leadership is being a fake.

From “Trouble Maker”:

It is interesting – to me, anyway – that in IFSTA Company Officer, Fourth Edition, Ch 2- Leadership, the curriculum 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.
Supplant the word manager for firefighter and take a moment to consider how firefighters (and company officers) 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.”

Be a “yes” man and you’ll go far my son. Question the conventional and you’re in for a bumpy ride. Fasten your seat-belt.

In so many words, “Don’t challenge the establishment. Everything is fine the way it is.”
Now go back and look at what the traits of a leader are. If you have a firefighter, company officer, or chief who asks a lot of questions, who challenges accepted practice by bringing in fresh ideas, stands out from the crowd, and is their own person, what label are they given?

Remember, these are considered leadership traits.

Would you call them noisy complainers (a euphemism for big pain in the ass)?

I’ll bet in most organizations anywhere in the world the answer is yes, they are considered huge pains in the ass. Once again fire service literature and traditions are a study in contradiction. 

Call me old fashioned, I suppose I’m a victim of the person I was as a kid – back before I entered the work force – when I believed that hard work and perseverance always pays off.  It usually did in athletics, so why should the competitive realm of the fire service be any different?

Polarizing individuals are often catalysts for change, they inspire dialogue and invite fresh perspectives.

The bitter reality though is this; you’re only as valuable as your last performance, or maybe that doesn’t count either because being a leader means pissing people off.  You can only achieve as much as the organization is willing to allow you to achieve. Polarizing agents like those who challenge the status quo will always be viewed as separatists who rock the cozy little boat that some of us float along in throughout an insipid career.  Polarizing individuals are often the catalysts for change, they inspire dialogue and invite fresh perspectives.

As harsh as it sounds, as bold and as visionary as some of these voices are, the bourgeois does not want to take a step in a positive direction.  

The reason?  Vision is scary.

We have to move the ball forward on our own.  We have to build the circle from the inside out. Grow your circle of positivity by seeking out those who share the vision. That vision is one of hard work, dedication to the craft, mental, and physical fitness.
The keys to success in this venture are strong station leadership and core chemistry.  Strong core leadership ensures that the role players fall in step and comply with the program.  Without strong leadership in the station the new faces – recruits – can easily slide into bad and potentially lethal habits. You don’t have to have a title to be a leader, you can lead up, down or sideways.  Show your fellow firefighters how to be a positive influence from anywhere in the department even if the positional leaders are unwilling or incapable of supporting your efforts.  

A house divided cannot stand – that’s what they say anyway.  We’re surrounded so we have to be able to count on the the person in the foxhole – or on the pipe – next to us. 

We should honor our past, carry on the proud traditions, but expect nothing from it.  

Giving it more thought I realized that when the attacks began on our proud profession that we owe it to ourselves to protect each other because it is readily apparent that nobody else is going to.  The positive strides that the fire service made in the past decade are relevant only in the eyes of history. The fire service moving forward will have it’s own unique composition and chemistry.  We should honor our past, carry on the proud traditions, but expect nothing from it.  The future is ours to create. 

We must be hungry.  The new fire service cannot exist on reputation. Hunger and drive for perfection is what will define our fire service.  We must rally around each other. What will emerge will be a leaner, stronger, and smarter machine that carries us forward.  

It will be how the new generation of leaders (of all ranks) puts it’s spin on the core values of the fire service that will define success or failure. The one constant in the past was the adherence to the way (strong work ethic and being of high character) and how the nucleus carried the torch, setting the example for the new faces that dotted the stations from year to year.  We must not lose sight of the way.

There are two things that unite people faster than anything: a common goal, and a common enemy.  The goal is to move the ball forward, the enemy is complacency.  Train more, think more, talk about the job more.  

How can these be considered bad things?

It starts here.

They shouldn’t be.

The new fire service must be a group not of reputation but a team of character.  If we take anything from the past it should be this; be not who others think you are, existing on reputation, be a person of character, because that is who you really are. 

Hard work and dedication should count for something.  Even if you don’t like (or can’t stand) the messenger, listen to the message. If the message speaks to you use it for the positive, if not, delete it. Don’t silence outspoken voices, you might learn something. 

Scary, I know.

R.I.P. Lt. Richard Nappi (FDNY). 

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The Jackhammer

Harbaugh is an inspirer of men.
With the Superbowl fast approaching and the San Francisco 49ers in the big game for the first time since the 1994 season, one cannot bear witness to the turn around in the Bay Area and not ponder how it came to be.

The power of belief in a cause, in a person, and in each other cannot be overstated when you look at what coach Jim Harbaugh has brought to every coaching post he has held since becoming a head coach at the University of San Diego (USD) in 2004.

An enthusiasm unknown to mankind

Harbaugh has brought a winning angle with him wherever he has traveled.  From a small school with no scholarships – USD, to a PAC 12 school with lofty academic standards – Stanford – that makes winning difficult year in and year out, to a moribund franchise in the NFL that had lost its way almost entirely – the 49ers – foundering in search of an identity in the shadow of what once was.
Jim Harbaugh (center) at Stanford

“What Jim Harbaugh has done with the 49ers is really remarkable, because people didn’t think this was a good team.  He’s a very smart coach, and a very good inspirer of men.”

Harbaugh has a personality that some would call difficult. Acerbic by some standards he says of himself, “I know, I’m moody and complicated.”  Stubborn and persistent, he is not one to mince words or indulge in undue pleasantries.  Jim Harbaugh is not going to change who he is for anybody – cowards do that.

“We ask no quarter.  We give no quarter.”

“I’m not going to apologize for being fired up.  If that offends you or anybody else then so be it.”

Harbaugh isn’t afraid to lead.  Sometimes being a leader means making other people angry.
Harbaugh goes further,  “I don’t take vacations, I don’t get sick.  I don’t observe major holidays.  I’m a jackhammer.”  All you have to do is look back at the footage of Harbaugh and coach Jim Schwartz (Detroit Lions) at the mid-field stripe after the 49ers last minute win at Detroit on October 16, 2011 and you’ll see it, the exuberance of a wild man, and a passion for his craft that inspires an almost religious devotion from those in his charge.

Who has it better than us?  Nobody.

By all accounts there isn’t some complicated formula that Harbaugh and his staff have come up with to almost instantly turn around their work place wherever they go – its not Theory X, Y, or Z of leadership.  It’s simple really – be a stand up guy, say what you mean, and mean what you say.  All decisions are based on what is in the best interest of the collective, not the individual.  If you want to be an individual you need to find someplace else to work.

People only ask a few things of a leader – and it’s not too much to ask:
  • Be forthright
  • Have vision
  • Give clear direction
  • Have a game plan that works

Harbaugh’s commitment to his team and his way – the concept of one team working together toward the ultimate goal are uncompromising.  That’s what his guys love about him – that’s why they would follow him anywhere and through anything.  This belief – this collective soul – that Harbaugh inspires in his men wherever he goes is what drives his success.  The belief in the team concept is so strong and in turn the players belief in the leader so fervent, that success – while not assured – is made much more possible.  Harbaugh’s players go hard for him because he believes in them.

Harbaugh makes people believe.
Harbaugh’s leadership is effective because it is relentless.  He works his craft and his guys hard.  If people don’t like him he doesn’t seem to care.

Harbaugh is real.  “I’m not going to apologize for being fired up.  Apologies always sound like excuses to me.  If it offends you or anybody else then so be it.”

Harbaugh doesn’t need to be a media darling.  He is not about saying the right thing or being liked – his leadership will be defined by his results and how much his players revere him – not by how he is judged by outsiders.  Jim Harbaugh has that something – that God given talent that transcendent leaders have – he makes people believe.

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Trouble Maker

By: Mark vonAppen

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 to possess 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 leader?

New firefighters must be provided with psychological safety in order to exercise their ability to think for themselves and solve problems.  If they are allowed this individual sanctuary from sharp-shooters they will become stronger contributors to the company, the organization, and perhaps the fire service as a whole.

Be seen and not heard

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.

Respect for the officer, senior members of the department and for the scalar organization within the fire service is important so that the machine runs efficiently.  This piece is not meant to confront the fire service org chart but rather to challenge the way that new employees are sometimes treated.

Do we 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 either from the formal leader,the officer, or the informal leader, the station bully.

Stand still and look pretty.

Heard it before?

How about this one?

You’ve got two ears and one mouth so you can listen twice as much as you talk. Right, now stand there and look stupid.

Almost anyone would describe a good new firefighter as one that is seen and not heard, who obediently follows orders, and doesn’t ask a lot of questions.  Everybody loves the new firefighter who performs his / her duties without question.  They’re easy to deal with.

Are these firefighters always your strongest fire ground performers?  Are they innovators?  Are there times where 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 ten years.”

In other words, “If I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.”

Hmmm.  What to do?

If a new firefighter is 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 fire ground.  Research in the airline industry has shown that new co-pilots have failed to take assertive action when the pilot has become incapacitated either in simulations or during in-flight emergencies.  These co-pilots 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.

Deference shown at the wrong time can have catastrophic results.  In 1979, a commuter jet crashed, in whole or in part, because the co-pilot (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 hose line?  It could be the nozzle firefighter, perhaps a probie at their first fire, they 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 while at the same time teaching them to be self-assured, inquisitive, problem solvers.

Questions affect learning

It is interesting, to me anyway,that in IFSTA Company Officer, Fourth Edition, Ch 2- Leadership, the curriculum 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.
Supplant the word manager for 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.”

Be a “yes” man and you’ll go far my son.  Challenge the conventional and you’re in for a bumpy ride.  Fasten your seat-belt.  In so many words, “Don’t challenge the establishment. Everything is fine the way it is.”

Now go back and look at what the traits of a leader are.  If you have a firefighter, company officer, or chief who asks a lot of questions, who challenges accepted practice by bringing in fresh ideas, stands out from the crowd, and is their own person, what label are they given?  Remember, these are considered leadership traits.  Would you call them noisy complainers (a euphemism for big pain in the ass)?

I’ll bet in most organizations anywhere (let’s be real) in the world the answer is yes, they are considered huge pains in the ass.  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 developing self-reliance in new firefighters.  Firefighters who are noisy complainers and considered troublemakers are often the ones who inspire the greatest learning.  They are the ones who talk about their mistakes and the mistakes of others in the interest of furthering knowledge.  They are the ones who constantly question what and why to seek better solutions than what is simply accepted practice. These types of questioners sometimes annoy officers and their peers but are welcomed by those who seek to lead the fire service forward.  These questions can cause others to be introspective, sometimes reflecting on past practices is painful.

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.

Question your answers

Creation of a safe work environment where people have the confidence to act without fear of reprimand or mockery is key to building trust, the most important part of getting the most out of people.

A safe work environment involves the following:
  • Suspending judgement
  • 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 SOG’s and go along with the program and may miss menacing warning signs from the environment.  All firefighters must be able to think beyond the linear and think with anticipation.

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 appear. 

When a nuisance fire alarm is received, in a building that you have been to a number of times without incident, you must be doubly cautious (see “Tragedy in a Residential High Rise, Memphis, Tennessee,” Fire Engineering March 1995).

Remember, pride makes us fake, being humble keeps us real.  We must maintain a beginner’s attitude in order 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.

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 the 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 a plentiful source of knowledge- all you have to do is ask.

Listen a little more

Cooperation is central to the function of a team.  We must cooperate on all levels with our coworkers.  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 old way.

It is all too easy to crush a new persons spirit.  Nothing takes away initiative like not being heard.  To continually engage those we work with we must listen to what people have to say.  It takes courage for young people to stand up and speak. Likewise, it takes courage to listen to your subordinates.

There is a firefighter in my department who started an Internet sales company in his dorm room in college. He and some of his classmates, a euphemism for drinking buddies, at The University of California, Berkeley thought it would be cool to start an on-line shoe company; it’s called Zappos (you may have heard of it).  He grew tired of the dotcom life and put himself through paramedic school so he could become a firefighter, his life-long dream.  I’m sure the fire service could benefit from listening to a guy like that.  He’s smart, innovative, and he brings a wealth of customer service and business savvy to the department.

When he was the new guy do you think anyone listened to him about his areas of expertise?  Developing business models that work and the selection of quality employees might be something the fire service should explore.

It is a travesty that for years his ideas and enthusiasm were largely ignored.  We run the risk of having much of our young talent die on the vine if their efforts a consistently disregarded.  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 their mouth shut and mop the floor.

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, the South Bay Regional Fire Academy, a recruit Instructor for Palo Alto Fire, and a member of the “Nobody Gets Left Behind” training group.

Sutton, Robert I., “Good Boss, Bad Boss” 2010 Business Plus
Allyn, Dr. Kimberly, “Rising to Real Leadership” 2011 Fire Presentations
IFSTA Company Officer 4th Edition
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So I Am Ready

This is how it starts.

I wake up at 5am, rub the sleep from my eyes and drive to the local coffee shop to get a cup of coffee.  I drive 25 miles to the firehouse.  I get to work at 5:45, put on my running shoes and run the streets of the district I protect for an hour, to learn the streets and hydrants better as I exercise.

So I am ready.

I get back to the station at and work my body hard in the weight room for another 30 minutes – then I stretch.  I shower and put on my uniform.

So I am ready.

I call my family and make sure that my kids hear my voice before they are off to school.  I tell them I love them.

So I am ready.

My shift officially starts and I meet with my exhausted, off-going counterpart.  We talk about the busy shift the day before.  I place my gear on the engine and set it up so I can don it quickly if the bells strike.  I put my radio in its case and set it to the proper channel.

So I am ready.

I put my breathing apparatus on.  I meditate on being lost, trapped, or injured in a fire.  I recite my emergency radio transmission. I practice breathing techniques to slow my heart rate and keep myself calm.  I check every piece of equipment on the engine with an attention to detail as though I am packing my own parachute.  In a way I am.  I do it the same way every time.

So I am ready.

I sit at the kitchen table and meet with the crew.  We review a Line of Duty Death Report from somewhere far away.  A firefighter dies in the line of duty on average every three days.  We commit the manner in which death stalked them to memory.

So we are ready.

We plan – creating memories of a future we hope will never come to pass.  So we are ready.

We leave the station on the engine and go to a secluded parking lot to practice our craft.  We pull hose from the engine, training on rote skills in anticipation of the next fire.  We do it time and again – each time we fold the hose precisely in the bed.  We sweat and ache as we train.

So we are ready.

We prepare for the unimaginable.  We plot and scheme about ways to confront things most people couldn’t dream up in their worst night terror.  We work on our every weakness in anticipation of the moment of truth.  We plan – creating memories of a future we hope will never come to pass.

So we are ready.

We accept that everything we were taught growing up is a boldfaced lie. It is not always going to be okay.  We are dealers in hope.  We are the ones who stand in front and say, “Stand behind us, we are here to help.”

So we are ready.

We study our enemy with a lust for knowledge that only one who probes a lethal adversary can fathom.  We know what fuels fire – a thing alive that moves with the swiftness and absolute fury of a maelstrom.  We devise ways to defeat it with overwhelming force or with subtlety and finesse.

So we are ready.

We go to an elementary school and teach smiling, bright-eyed children about fire safety, meeting places, and smoke alarms.  We show them how to stop, drop, and roll, and tell them not to play with matches.

So they are ready.

We are in the classroom.  We practice for hours.

So we are ready.

We perform life safety inspections of local businesses.  We walk every inch of the buildings – from the roof to the basement.  We learn the buildings – their contents, traps, and hazards. 

So we are ready.

We battle fire.  We dodge cars on the freeway.  We attempt to save someone who’s heart has stopped beating, we cut someone out of a mangled car, or help someone back to bed who is too old and weak to pick themselves up from the floor when they fall.  We deliver a baby or comfort someone in death.  These experiences we file in memory, to be retrieved in the future so we perform at a higher level on the next run.

We care. We are always ready.

I write a letter to my family.  I tell them how much I love them and that if for some reason I never come home – that the last thought that blossomed across my mind was of them.  I put it in an envelope and tape it to the inside of my locker.

I love you always.

So they are ready.

I call my family and tuck them to bed by phone.  I pray a fleeting prayer to God – a god I’ve never seen and I’m not sure exists based upon what I know – to give me strength.  I hope He is with me.

So I am ready.

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Floor Collapse: A Survivor’s Story (Fire Engineering)

by Mark vonAppen

On July 25, 2010, Captain Michael Long, a member of the Camp Taylor (KY) Fire Protection District, was plunged into the burning basement of a single- family dwelling during a four-alarm fire. As he struggled to survive against the fire, his brother-in-law, Deputy Chief Steve Adkins, helped to coordinate his rescue. Long’s wife Jeri, an EMT with Louisville Metro EMS, had just departed the fire scene with another injured firefighter en route to University of Louisville Trauma Center when her husband’s Mayday was reported.


Long put on his mask and crawled inside the house, following the hoseline. He traveled about eight or nine feet when he ran into the backside of a firefighter. The firefighter sensed Long’s presence and turned toward him, extending an arm blindly into the smoke in Long’s direction.
“You guys need to back out,” Long said. He slapped the firefighter twice on the shoulder as he spoke. Just inside the door, the visibility was only inches—if you did not touch the person you were talking to, the message did not get delivered. You might as well be talking to yourself.
Long asked, “OK?”
The faceless firefighter answered in the affirmative and passed the message up the line to the other two firefighters who were indistinguishable in the smoke. Long reemerged from the smoke and awaited the exit of the three firefighters. They exited one at a time on their hands and knees and stood up slowly as they reclaimed their vision from the blinding smoke.
Long and his crew performed a final check of their equipment and readied themselves for entry. Long took the hoseline; crouching, he slammed his ax down on the floor (made of conventional or “legacy” wood members) to determine its ability to support his weight and disappeared, crawling through the front door into the smoke alone.
When Long and his crew arrived, firefighters at the scene were battling an advanced, stubborn basement fire that exhibited no sign of slowing, and they had been going at it awhile. The fire had been burning for almost an hour; it was getting progressively stronger as the firefighters tried in vain to combat it. Complicating matters further was that it was reported that the stairs to the basement had been destroyed by flames (after the fire was extinguished, the stairs were discovered to be intact), so the firefighters could not apply water directly to the fire. The fire had spread through the exterior walls and was starting to get into the attic space. It was slowly attacking the house’s structural integrity from within. Outwardly, there was no forewarning of collapse.
Weather conditions were not helping either. It isn’t unusual for summer evening temperatures in Kentucky to be in the mid-90s with equal or greater humidity. This night, the heat was particularly oppressive; the heat index was 110°F. The air was syrupy, and there was no reprieve from the wet heat that hung heavily on the body. Such weather conditions add an additional level of strain to firefighters battling a fire in bulky structural firefighting gear; they can be deadly, causing heart attacks, heat exhaustion, and stroke. In such conditions, everything is more difficult; firefighters become inattentive, clumsy, and mistake prone. Muscle movements are unsteady and unreliable; fatigue quickly arrives, and accidents often aren’t far behind.
The plan was for Long to lead the crew in with a 1¾-inch hoseline for protection, cut a hole in the floor, drop a 2½-inch hoseline with a cellar nozzle in the hole, and put out the fire. Plans are a trick of the mind—an attempt to control the future. They are formed in the same part of the brain as memories, blurring the boundary between reality and fantasy. Accidents occur near the boundary of reality and our projections of the future—like floor collapses. The problem occurs when reality doesn’t play along with the story you create for yourself.
Long convinced himself that this was the best plan and that it would work. He had been in situations worse than this, and everything worked out just fine. Throughout their careers, Adkins and Long had normalized risk. There was no reason to believe that the plan would not work.
He continued across the fire-weakened floor with the hoseline in one hand and his ax in the other.
A gnawing doubt persisted inside him. He continued to pound the floor with his ax. The floor felt stable. Long knew as soon as he felt it in his gut that something was terribly wrong. The floor he was crawling on, blindly, settled suddenly. The floor is collapsing, he realized.
He thought he would have enough time, maybe two to three seconds, to retreat the six feet following the 1¾-inch hoseline to the protection of the front porch. In reality, he had much less time than that. The floor bowed beneath him, dropping slightly, perhaps only inches, enough for Long, now the only one inside the house, to perceive it. In an instant, the floor below him, in fact the entire first floor, buckled. There was no sound, no warning.
A moment of weightlessness followed, similar to the time when you were a child hanging from a tree branch that snapped. You seemed to hang there weightless until gravity took effect and then came the sensation of falling. The body’s natural reaction when falling is to reach out in an attempt to stop the motion. It is instinct. The attempt to reach out and stop the downward plunge caused Long to lose his grip on the hoseline. He disappeared into the basement that was fully engulfed in flame.

In the Basement

He hit the ground feet first and fell forward to his knees. Immediately, he was met by the sense that thousands of bees were stinging him over his whole body. Then it got worse. It is like placing your hand in the center of the red-hot embers of an uncontrolled bonfire—only it is your entire body. Instinct dictates that you immediately withdraw from the painful stimulus. When you touch something extremely hot, instinct commands that you instantly let go of whatever it is. But Long could not remove his hand from the coals. He was the hand, and the embers were the fire that surrounded. There is no sanctuary to draw back to. It’s a pain you’ve never felt. You’re burning alive.
His body reacted violently to the agonizing stimulus. Long thrashed wildly as he tried to break away from this unbearable, ultra-hostile environment. His natural reaction only made things worse. The more he flailed about, the more air he used, and the more air he used, the more his fear grew. Long exceeded the output capacity of the regulator on his self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), which could not match the rate at which his panicked body was using air. The lack of adequate air flow caused a vacuum in his mask, causing it to pull inward toward his face with each deep, frantic gasp. Long was outbreathing his mask. As he did so, his panic compounded.
Time slowed as Long became acutely aware of his surroundings.
There is a lot of fire around me, he thought. At this time of intense struggle, Long was able to see the wonder of his environment, accept his dire situation, and begin to plan. I need to find the stairs, but then he remembered that the stairs were burned out.
If I wander too far from where I am, they’ll never be able to find me, he reasoned.
Long decided to stay where he was and wait it out. He could hear anxious voices above him, but he could not understand what they were saying. The firefighters’ voices were distorted by their masks; they sounded as though they were speaking into tin cans connected by strings. The sound of frantic voices above him offered a tiny bit of reassurance: His crew was above him and was doing everything in their ability to retrieve him.
Long willed himself to stay where he was even though he was burning alive. It was his last best option, his best chance of survival. Long began to realize how insignificant his life had become in this strange, new world. His existence had been reduced to a few square feet of hell.


Long had just disappeared into the smoke when the collapse happened. The snap of timbers was the first sound Adkins heard. It was followed quickly by a rumble as the first floor and its contents spilled into the basement. Garbage trucks make a comparable sound at the moment the trash container they are lifting with their powerful hydraulic arms tips its load, sending it cascading downward—the sound of a fully burdened trash container and all of its various contents rolling into the collection bin in the back of the truck. It was an instant of cacophony followed by the almost passive crackling of timbers as the flames drew moisture from within the wood. The thick smoke that extended from the sill to the top of the front door and rose lazily from the eaves above them was sucked rapidly inward as if the basement fire were drawing in a massive breath of air. It was.
The smoke drew backward momentarily and then was at once belched outward. Pressurized smoke, burning embers, and ash burst forth furiously from the narrow opening. The pressure buildup from 3,500 square feet of explosively blazing materials was seeking the path of least resistance—now a 36- × 90-inch opening, the front door through which Long had entered. From his position on the front stoop, Adkins was out of the smoke and out of visual contact with Long. The muddy-brown turbulent smoke swirled about and occasionally gave way to flames.
With smoke and fire conditions as they were, there was no way to immediately determine what had fallen or how catastrophic the collapse was. The smoke cleared momentarily, and Adkins could see the undulation of flames where once the floor had been. It took some time for his mind to make sense of what his eyes were seeing, as it sometimes does when we see something that is incomprehensible.
Adkins and the remaining members of Quint 5051 quickly pulled the 1¾-inch hoseline back toward them in an effort to reel Long in from the danger. The nozzle at the forward end of the hose marked the end of the line. Long wasn’t there. The first floor was gone, and Long with it.
Hold on, Long! Adkins shouted into the doorway. The thick smoke and fingers of flame within seemed to deaden the sound. It seemed to go nowhere. Adkins lurched forward, sprawling on his belly, so he would not get dragged in, too. He extended an arm into the flames, groping desperately for Long. As he peered into the vortex before him, he could at times make out some familiar sights—an arm would appear, the common shape of an SCBA cylinder, a helmet.
Occasionally, he saw the reflective trim on Long’s helmet and turnout gear. Long appeared to rise up through the flames and then disappear again as if dropping into the troughs between waves of smoke and fire. Long surged upward through the flames and then faltered. Moments later, there would be another upward surge, followed by another—each time, the heave was weaker and the interval greater. Adkins could reach in only for seconds at a time; his protective gear could insulate his body only for so long before he finally became saturated with heat. Adkins reluctantly withdrew his arm each time the bees began to sting. Long’s helmet flashed through the flames one last time and then disappeared. Adkins could not reach him, and he was only precious feet away. Adkins reached in again and called out to his fallen brother, “Long…!”
Adkins grimaced and recoiled his arm in pain. He rubbed his left arm with a gloved hand in an attempt to brush away the stinging sensation. The arm of his turnout coat was smoking; its yellow reflective trim had wrinkled and was now brown from the heat. One of the other firefighters nudged past Adkins and directed the hoseline into the fire in an attempt to protect Long. He, too, sprawled on his belly; he frantically spun the nozzle around in a circular motion to provide a safe haven for his captain. The intensity of the fire turned most of the water to steam, doing little as far as cooling was concerned. His efforts were only somewhat helpful.
Adkins rolled to his back and looked desperately for a way to hoist Long from the hellhole. The rapid intervention team (RIT) members hustled up to the door with their gear, donning their masks, preparing to launch a rescue attempt. Seven firefighters now crowded near the front door, urgently trying to help.
Adkins stood up and stepped away from the melee at the front door. The RIT would take far too long. Long didn’t have that much time. There was way too much fire down there. Adkins surveyed the chaos around him and knew that he needed to bring things to order in a hurry if there was going to be any chance for rescue. His eyes fell on a ladder that was lying unused scant feet away on the front lawn. He pushed through the horde of firefighters and picked up the ladder.
“Move!” Adkins shouted as he positioned the ladder near the door. The mob before him parted, as Adkins plunged the ladder into the fiery abyss.
“Long! Grab the ladder!” Adkins shouted.

In the Basement: Long

Long was exhausted. He slumped to the floor against the front wall—at last, too tired to make another attempt to clamber out.
So this is how it happens, he was thinking. As he lay there on the basement floor, other thoughts came to mind. Long began to reason that his sacrifice had actually saved three others. Three firefighters were inside only minutes before he fell. Long had ordered them out. He alone was inside when the floor fell out from beneath him. If anything encouraging was to come from his death, it would be that one firefighter—not three firefighters—died in the basement.
Stay here, he reminded himself. The muffled shouts above him were growing distant. What were they saying?
The air he was breathing through his mask was becoming hotter, making each breath an effort, and the rubber of his face piece was getting all too malleable. Long knew the temperature of his immediate world was rising beyond the tolerance of his protective gear and that his face piece was the weakest part of all—perhaps a cruel flaw in the design of his protective ensemble, or maybe a merciful design. If his mask failed first, exposing his fragile airway, death would come promptly.
A speedy demise would certainly be a welcome reprieve from the all-out assault on his every superficial nerve.This is it. I am going to die here. He was going to die in the basement of this house, a house that was beyond saving. How did it come to this?
The clanking sound of a metallic object striking the fiberglass-wrapped air bottle on his back only marginally peaked his interest. Is more debris falling?The pain was beginning to subside.
Then, there was an instant of clarity. He distinctly heard the word “Ladder!” shouted from above. The ladder had Long pinned between it and the wall. Long reached behind him with a free hand and could feel the familiar vertical beams and horizontal rungs of the ladder. It was definitely a ladder. He had to find the strength to move out from under the ladder and then to climb it. The fire had taken a tremendous physical toll on him; he had little fight left.
He slid his hands up the beams and then to the rungs. He made it up on one knee and pulled himself to his feet. Wilting against the ladder, he managed to get a foot up on the bottom rung. It seemed to take forever. He pulled himself up again; his foot was on the second rung.
Keep going. Breathe. He lifted his foot again in an effort to gain the third rung. He managed to get only the tip of his boot on the rung. His foot slipped as he put weight on the foot. He fell face first onto the ladder and then tumbled backward to the basement floor, again into the fire.
This is it. I am dead for sure now. It was all I could do to climb three rungs. Now, I am right back where I started.And still, he burned.
It would be too easy to lie there and die. Long could not subject his family to this. His survival was no longer about himself. It was about his family. He couldn’t leave them—not now, not this way. Long endeavored again to stave off death. I will climb the ladder again. This time, I will not be denied. I will live to see my family again.
Long thought of Jeri, his wife, and their three boys. He again thought of Adkins, his brother-in-law, who was above him watching as he struggled for life against the inferno. Adkins was going to watch as he died. Adkins would have to tell his little sister that he watched as her husband, father of her three beloved boys, burned to death. This defied Long’s imagination. How would he explain it to Jeri? How would the boys take it?
Long attempted to climb the ladder again. He stumbled over the first hurdle. He gathered strength and resolve once again and began to climb. This time is much more difficult than the first, if that is possible. Long’s mask continued to cave inward as he gasped for air. The air he so desperately needed was now becoming unbearably hot, causing him to choke on each breath as his body protested the inspiration of heated air.
Long reached the fourth rung and felt gloved hands pawing at him. Two firefighters grasped the shoulder straps of his SCBA and pulled him violently from the pit of fire. Long was quickly dragged down the front steps of the house and onto the front lawn. He couldn’t see anything even though he was free from the smoke. His mask had been rendered completely opaque with carbon and soot. He was too exhausted to move. He felt as though he were being yanked back and forth in a tug of war where he was the rope as his rescuers removed his damaged gear from his body.

Long’s gear was so hot that the firefighters had to wear gloves as they removed each piece of equipment. Parts of his gear were actually on fire and had to be extinguished with a garden hose before he could be treated for his injuries.

Long sustained second- and third-degree burns to his hands and legs and was transported to the University of Louisville Trauma Center for treatment of his injuries.


(In the words of Captain Long)

  • Train as if it is real. Train, train, train, and then train some more. Take advantage of every opportunity to train. The better we are trained, the less our chance of injury. The training must be physically and mentally. Crews must focus on more hands-on scenario-based training that allows for problem solving. If crews are taught that the outcome to every scenario is static, they are not being encouraged to think. Every run is different; no single solution applies to every situation. Adaptations or decisions that are not in step with changing conditions can actually be disadvantageous. We must make the right decisions based on the correct interpretation of the environment and blend those observations with our knowledge, skills, and abilities to map a course of action that will lead us to a successful outcome. Read reality and come up with the best possible plan. In my situation, quick thinking and adapting to the problem that presented itself saved my life.
  • Mutual-aid training is a must. We must train more with our neighboring departments to improve operations. It is occasionally difficult to work in situations where you do not really know with whom you will be working or where the command structure and tactics differ from those of your department. We all learn from the same book; however, the interpretations and tactics differ from person to person and department to department. I am not saying anyone is right or wrong in the way they do things—we all just need to do a better job of understanding that there is more than one way to get the job done.
    We cannot know exactly how everyone on an emergency scene will perform because each person has a different interpretation of his surroundings and role in the system. Standard operating guidelines (SOGs) can assist in this area, but SOGs rely on perceptions and interpretations by individuals to be implemented as intended. Accidents often happen because everyone has a unique perspective on the environment, and each makes different decisions based on their perception.
    We must perceive the environment correctly to ensure we make the right move. If these actions are not communicated and coordinated in the intricate system that is the fireground, accidents will be the inevitable and regrettable results. Training and frequent reviewing of SOGs are vital to our safety.
  • Risk assessment. Sounding the floor prior to entry is not always a good indicator of the floor’s stability. Less than two minutes before I made entry, there were three other firefighters, at least the same weight as I, in the same area where the collapse occurred. Everything changed in a very short time. There was no warning. Adkins told me at the hospital that all he heard was a “whoosh” sound when the floor collapsed. Then I disappeared. Within two minutes, the floor assembly went from being able to sustain a live load of at least 900 pounds in that area (accounting for gear, equipment, SCBA, and so on) to collapsing with about a 300-pound load, and I was close to a load-bearing wall. A good way to evaluate risk vs. gain is to get the most accurate report on burn time as possible to help determine structural integrity.
  • Rapid intervention. RIT is a critical fireground benchmark and is very important for safety, but it would have been ineffective in this situation. Had my crew not reacted the way they did immediately, I would not have been able to last long enough to wait for the RIT. In the time it would have taken for the RIT to gear up, come up with a plan, and enter, I would have died. The stars aligned in my favor that night. The person calling the Mayday or a nearby crew often mitigates personnel emergencies. My crew was able to act decisively at the correct time, and I am alive because of it. It is important to remember that a large percentage of Maydays are mitigated by the crew to which the lost firefighter is assigned or a nearby crew. RIT deployments account for a small number of rescues; we must always be alert and ready for the “incident within the incident.”
  • Manage your emotional response. From a personal standpoint, you must rely on your training and try not to panic. Know your equipment and procedures well. I did panic, but I was still able to keep myself together enough to know not to leave the area since I had been told that the stairs had burned away. Keeping my SCBA on, resisting the emotional reaction to remove my mask because of claustrophobia, was a huge factor in my survival. If I had tried to find another way out, my crew could not have gotten to me with the ladder. Had I removed my mask, the story would have ended quite differently. When I teach, I try to train as if it is the real thing. Never take a run for granted. Always expect the worst; you will be better prepared to deal with the unexpected.
    If we continually study accident reports and learn from them, the likelihood of being surprised will be diminished. Peter Leschak writes in Ghosts of the Fireground: ”In fire and other emergency operations, you must not only tolerate uncertainty; you must savor it, or you won’t last long. The most efficient preparation is a general mental, physical, and professional readiness nurtured over years of training and experience. You live to live. Preparing is itself an activity, and action is preparation.”
  • Talk about it. Critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) is important for ensuring that personnel from all departments on scene are taken care of emotionally. CISD needs to extend beyond just one or two briefings. Personnel involved in a highly emotional event must be given the opportunity to speak to a trained CISD team member early and be given as much time as is needed to work through their issue. Some firefighters have a macho attitude and try to deal with their emotions on their own, or maybe they don’t deal with them at all. Others self-medicate with alcohol or, worse, these difficult emotional events are allowed to fester with no relief. People should be accepting of those who deal with issues up front and tell their stories. Telling these stories makes us better and helps to keep us safe. This reduces the possibility of “snapping” because you have too much pent-up emotion.
    My fellow firefighters are still affected by this event, even those who were not there. Department personnel must be open-minded and receptive to the fact that emotional events will affect your performance and your personal life and that it is acceptable to be open and deal with them. When difficult emotional situations present themselves, members should attempt to deal with them as soon as possible.
  • Know what is possible and what is not. Know the experience level of your crew. Going into a bad situation with a crew that may not have exposure to a lot of different situations or that you aren’t that familiar with could make operations more difficult. I had everything from a 30-year veteran to a one-year recruit, so the experience level was all across the board. I knew that the situation we were going into was getting worse and required quick action, so I took the lead to ensure that the operation would be completed as quickly as possible. I knew my deputy chief would be watching us to ensure things were proceeding safely. I knew my crew could get the job done; however, this was an operation that is not often practiced and I wanted to make sure it was done correctly. I will not send my crew into an area that I am not comfortable going into. The more you train and the more people you can train with, the better you will understand your capabilities.
    Another survivor, Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger III, the U.S. Airways pilot who made an emergency landing in the Hudson River in New York City in January 2009, says the following about knowing your limitations: “You can’t be a wishful thinker. You have to know what you know and what you don’t know, what you can do and what you can’t do. You have to know (what you and your crew) can and can’t do in every possible situation.”


The near hit that occurred at Minuteman Court in Kentucky on July 25, 2010, was just the beginning of an extensive journey for Long. What followed were extensive and painful surgeries to repair the damage to the skin of his legs, physical therapy, and a difficult emotional journey back from his near-death experience.
These traumatic events often leave those who experience them with deep emotional scars and lingering doubts about their ability to perform their jobs capably. They can alter your life in dreadful and irrevocable ways.
Jeff Helvin, a captain from Sacramento, California, who was trapped by a flashover in 2008, says this about his emotional road back to the firehouse: “That fire ruined me. For a time, it ruined my confidence and shook me up about my ability to do my job. The road to emotional recovery was long and difficult. I speak about my experience with others often. As time has passed, it has gotten easier to deal with. Talking about it helps a lot.” (See “Sacramento Near Miss of Four Firefighters,” Fire Engineering, April 2010.)
Long and Helvin endured the same type of emotional passage on their comeback to the firehouse. Long’s second shift back was on Thanksgiving Day, 2010. The firehouse was overflowing with family, friends, and his fellow firefighters. Long had many reasons to be thankful that day. “Every day brings new challenges as I have come back to work. My family at home and my fire service family have been instrumental in my recovery both physically and emotionally. I couldn’t have done it without them. I am blessed to have been given a second chance.”
MARK von APPEN is a firefighter for the Palo Alto (CA) Fire Department, where he is assigned to the Training Division and the ladder company. 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 academy instructor for the Santa Clara County Joint Fire Academy, a recruit instructor for Palo Alto Fire, an instructor at the South Bay Regional Fire Academy, and a member of the “Nobody Gets Left Behind” training group.
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Trapped by Flashover: A Survivor’s Journey (Fire Engineering)

by Mark vonAppen

The harrowing story of four Sacramento, California, firefighters who were trapped by flashover in a two-story residential structure is one in which a number of seemingly trivial events added up and almost cost the lives of a captain and three firefighters. The accounts of this fire and the circumstances surrounding it have been well documented. To the credit of all involved, the story of Stilt Court was an open book as soon as all the facts were assembled. The Sacramento City (CA) Fire Department (SFD) has approached the incident from the standpoint of sharing the lessons learned so that others may live. Moreover, this incident shows that the present fire survival training of our firefighters needs to be supplemented with training in how to overcome and manage emotions when in circumstances that pose serious injury or death. In this article, the behavior and actions of Captain Jeff Helvin, who was caught in a flashover, are analyzed from the perspective of how he overcame his emotions and saved his life, using a process that is similar to that of working through grief. [For a personal account, see “Sacramento Near Miss of Four Firefighters” by Jeff Helvin (What We Learned, April 2010, 199-202).]


The following information is taken from the official investigation of the Stilt Court residential fire. Some language has been added for clarity.
On October 7, 2008, Sacramento Regional Fire Emergency Communications Center (SRFECC) received multiple 911 calls for a building fire at 17 Stilt Court. The callers stated smoke was coming from the second floor of the house.
At 0929 hours, SRFECC dispatched a residential structure fire assignment. The SFD dispatched three engines, two ladder trucks, two battalion chiefs, and one paramedic unit (Engines 15, 18, and 30; Trucks 2 and 5; Battalion Chiefs 3 and 4; and Medic 30).
Engine 15 (E15) arrived first on scene, within 6 minutes and 7 seconds of the initial dispatch, and reported heavy dark smoke from the second floor. E15 was to initiate fire attack and requested the second-due engine (E18) take command, establish a water supply, and pull a backup hoseline to assist E15 with fire attack. The E15 crew—consisting of the captain, the nozzle firefighter, and a backup firefighter—stretched a 1¾-inch hoseline through the front door and proceeded to the second floor to search for fire.
E18 arrived 35 seconds after E15 with only three crew members—a firefighter who was working for a few hours as an acting captain while his captain was at a meeting, the nozzle firefighter, and the engineer. E18’s acting captain established “Stilt Command” and directed his nozzle firefighter to pull a backup hoseline. It should be noted that SFD typically staffs equipment with four firefighters and at the time of this incident did not have standard operating procedures (SOPs) for emergency responses when companies are at decreased strength.
Command (E18’s acting captain) was able to perform a 360° lap of the building to get a look at all four sides of the house. During the walk-around, he opened a sliding glass door on the Bravo side [Alpha (A) = address side, Bravo (B) = left side, Charlie (C) = back side, Delta (D) = right side] and noticed two windows opened on the B side on the second floor. Command went back to the A side of the building and noticed the E18 nozzle firefighter assisting with the advance of the initial hoseline from E15 through the front door. Command ordered E18’s nozzle firefighter to assist E15 with advancing the hoseline upstairs. Command did not advise E15’s captain that an additional firefighter had been assigned to E15. Command then advised the third-arriving engine (E30) to staff the hoseline that had been pulled to the front door to back up fire attack. A water supply was established; E18 was connected to the hydrant feeding water to E15.
E15’s captain advised Command that they were not able to locate the fire on the second floor and that they needed positive-pressure ventilation (PPV). (PPV is performed by placing a gas-powered fan at the front door to remove smoke and fire gases through an exhaust opening in a building. The exhaust point is created by breaking windows or by cutting a hole in the roof. PPV is typically assigned to truck companies.) Command advised the E15 captain that there was no truck company at the scene to perform PPV. Command advised E15’s captain that a sliding door had been opened on the first floor to try to clear out some of the smoke. At about the same time, E15 captain had opened three windows on the second floor—one window at the top of the stairs and two windows in the master bedroom.
E30 and Medic 30 (M30) arrived on scene 3 minutes and 42 seconds after E15. E30’s nozzle and backup firefighters began donning their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) on the front lawn, preparing to staff the backup hoseline. E30’s engineer placed a 24-foot extension ladder to the B/A corner of the building, and M30’s firefighter placed a 14-foot roof ladder to the A side of the building.
The M30 firefighter went to the D side of the building and noticed fire coming out of a window. He used a 2 × 4 to clear the window of glass in an effort to remove smoke from the building. Prior to breaking the window glass, he noted that the window was cracked; he then broke out the sliding glass door and removed the screen on the C side. He did not announce his intent to break out windows on the first floor prior to taking action.
After the M30 firefighter evaluated the B side of the building, he went back to the A side and advised the E30 captain that the fire was on the first floor in the C/D corner. The discovery of fire on the first floor was not communicated to the E15 captain, who was searching for fire with his crew on the second floor. The E30 engineer had opened up the main door on the D side and the roll-up garage door on the A side. When the E30 engineer opened the interior door to the kitchen and discovered heavy fire conditions, the E30 engineer closed the door. The E30 engineer immediately advised the E30 captain that the first floor was fully involved with fire. The detection of fire in the kitchen by E30’s engineer was not communicated to Command or E15’s captain. It is at this point that flashover occurred on the first floor.
Conditions quickly deteriorated on the second floor, followed by the hoseline’s going flat. All crew members immediately realized that they needed to exit the building. The E18 nozzle firefighter and E15 backup firefighter escaped down the stairway, exiting through the A side by the front door. The E15 nozzle firefighter descended the stairs halfway and then exited a window at the top of the stairs and onto the roof of the garage. E15’s captain retreated to the master bedroom, searching for the windows he had opened earlier. Unable to locate the windows, the captain decided to follow the hoseline down the staircase.
As firefighters from E15 and E18 were exiting the building, Stilt Command discovered that the E15 captain was unaccounted for and initiated a Mayday. Shortly after the Mayday, the E15 captain was in the backyard on the C side of the building. By his own account, he came down the stairs, dived over the railing, and crawled out a sliding glass door on the B side.
Truck 2 (T2), with four firefighters, and Truck 5 (T5), with four firefighters, arrived simultaneously approximately 4 minutes and 23 seconds after E15. T2 began exterior operations by setting up the truck-mounted 100-foot aerial ladder and ground ladders on the A side as T5 prepared to enter the building for a search of the house’s interior.
Battalion Chief (BC) 4 arrived 9 minutes and 18 seconds after E15. He requested a transfer of Command and asked for a report on conditions, including the status of the Mayday. BC4 assumed Command and acknowledged the priority radio traffic. Command ordered all personnel to vacate the building and attempted to account for all members from E15. Command assigned medic units to prepare to treat and transport injured firefighters from the scene. He then conducted a personnel accountability report (PAR) to gain control of the resources at the scene. T2’s captain, advising Command that a medic unit was also needed at the C side of the building for an injured firefighter, broadcast “Emergency traffic.”
BC3 proceeded to the C side of the building and was assigned as the safety officer. Safety assisted Command with a PAR of crews operating on scene. All members from E15 and E18 were accounted for and were placed into paramedic units. M30 transported the captain from E15, who was the most severely burned, to University of California—Davis (UCD) Medical Center. The three firefighters were moved into M17 and also were transported to UCD.


E15’s captain suffered serious second-degree burns on the hands, neck, and left ear. E15’s nozzle firefighter and backup firefighter suffered moderate second-degree burns to the ears and hands. E18’s nozzle firefighter suffered second-degree burns to the ears, neck, hands, and leg.


The following safety issues were reviewed in connection with this incident:
  • There is a need for secondary hoselines to protect the stairwell and floors in multiple-story buildings.
  • Incoming companies must have appropriate staffing levels to perform the necessary fire operations. Prioritize needs for the fire scene.
  • Ventilation techniques must be performed in coordination with fire attack.
  • Specific actions or conditions (the location of the fire, ventilation activities performed, and so on) must be radioed to crews.
  • All members operating on the fire scene must wear proper personal protective equipment.
  • All members must comply with the SFD firefighter accountability tracking system.


There is much more to the story of Stilt Court than can be explained in an official investigative document. The stark account of what transpired contained within the SFD report does not reveal the personal struggle of a man who nearly died while attempting to protect life and property. Official reports are not intended to convey emotion but to simply report the facts. The report is accurate and detailed; more than 300 hours went into researching the sequence of events.
Many attempts have been made over the years to engrain procedure into the consciousness of firefighters in an effort to improve performance in survival situations. The National Fire Academy (NFA) program “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday” is based on military fighter jet training and is heavily reliant on recognition prime decision making (RPD). Much research went into creating the NFA Mayday program; it is the underpinning of many firefighter survival programs nationwide. Mayday training gives firefighters a process for calling for help when they encounter immediately life-threatening situations. So, why do our training practices in the fire service sometimes fall short? The answer lies in our subconscious. Frequently overlooked in the fire service is the power of emotion and how it can influence our actions when our lives are in jeopardy.


The flashover at Stilt Court is a harbinger of what can happen if our culture and training practices do not evolve with the changing fires we face in this modern era. E15’s captain is not a nameless, faceless character in a close-call report. He has had more than two decades of experience in the fire service and 18 months of experience as a captain. He has seen his share of fire over the years. His name is Jeff Helvin, and he has a wife and two children. His story is not just one of an officer trapped inside a fire structure, facing what he was sure would be his own death and the deaths of three others in his charge. His is a tale of survival when faced with truly overwhelming circumstances.
Helvin’s experience while trapped above a fire and the torment he endured, physically and emotionally, produced a range of emotional responses that almost all who survive extraordinary circumstances say they experienced. Emotions can produce overwhelming physical reactions. Those who survive make the correct decisions by overcoming their emotional response to their environment.


The range of emotional responses Helvin and other survivors experienced can be likened to the stages of grief described by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. The stages of grief are as follows:
1. Denial: This is not happening to me.
2. Anger: How can this happen to me?
3. Bargaining: Just let me live to see my children again.
4. Depression: I’m going to die. What’s the point?
5. Acceptance: It’s going to happen; I might as well not fight it.
In his book Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales describes a survivor’s journey as he works through the survival process. Survivors, he explains, undergo the following stages:
1. Look, see, believe.
2. Stay calm; use fear to focus.
3. Think, analyze, and plan.
4. Take correct, decisive action.
5. Celebrate successes.
6. Count my blessings (survivors often think of families when finding strength).
7. Play (keep your mind active).
8. See the beauty; survival is a vision quest.
9. Believe. Convince yourself that you will survive.
10. Surrender. Give up the fear of dying. Put away the pain.
11. Do whatever is necessary.
12. Never give up.
The stages of grief or survival do not always occur in a specific order, and some may not occur at all. When Helvin presents his account of what transpired on that day, he talks about denying his situation, fear, accepting that he was about to meet his fate, thoughts of his family, and finally anger. All of these emotional responses were happening within just a few minutes. Anger compelled him to take action, ultimately leading him to safety outside the burning structure. Although burned, he survived, as did the other two members of his crew and a third firefighter who had been assigned to Helvin’s crew without Helvin’s knowledge. Gonzales notes that survivors are not immune to fear: “Survivors know exactly what is going on around them, and it scares the (hell) out of them,” he explains. “It is all a question of what they do next.”
During the search for fire on the second floor, things simply were not adding up. E15’s crew was searching calmly for the seat of the fire in zero visibility, without success. The second floor was being searched systematically, room by room, but the fire was nowhere to be found. There was no discernable increase in heat as E15 moved between rooms, and the thermal imaging camera (TIC) was of little assistance in locating a source of heat. The first floor had appeared clear; Helvin had perfect visibility from the front door, through the house, to the backyard. He recalls being able to see patio furniture in the backyard; there was nothing to indicate there was any threat to the crew’s safety on the first floor. He had seen heavy smoke from three windows on the second floor and reported it in his size-up. E15’s response route gave Helvin a view of the three sides of the house. He developed a plan and decided on a course of action based on his prior experiences and his observations.
The fire had to be upstairs—22 years of firefighting experience made Helvin sure of it. In his mind, he had been to this fire before. His RPD experience had led him to the quick decision that the fire was in a bedroom on the second floor. “I’ve got this,” Helvin thought confidently. His experience of successful fire operations throughout his career that had presented in a manner similar to this fire all but set him up. A major problem with RPD training is that it is prone to serious and often devastating failure in unusual or misidentified circumstances. Gonzales writes, “Successful training practices can work against us, giving us an emotional certainty that it will work. We’ve felt it work before, the body knows. Unconsciously, we ask ourselves, ‘How have I done this before?’ The model under which we operate, unlike the real environment, is stable.”
Helvin had established an emotional bookmark based on successful actions under similar circumstances. For a bedroom fire on the second floor of a single-family residence, the plan was straightforward. One hoseline would be sufficient—a simple hose stretch up the stairway to the fire room, a quick and easy knockdown, no problem. He had taken comparable action at fires just like this one, and everything had gone according to plan. The fire was extinguished, no one got hurt, and they were back in quarters by lunchtime. “The annoying thing about plans is how rare it is for everything to go just right,” Gonzales says. Problems arise when reality does not match the plan. The picture of this fire was incomplete; Helvin had seen only three sides of the house as he approached, a misstep that almost cost him dearly. The fire was actually beneath them, in the kitchen, and was smoldering angrily, waiting for a breath of air.
In an attempt to create better visibility upstairs, Helvin opened windows on the second floor. As E15 made it to the master bedroom, at the rear of the house (C side), the search for fire and life continued with no indication that there was anything out of the routine. Soon after, a firefighter walking the perimeter of the house opened an unlocked sliding door on the first floor, B side. Another firefighter began breaking windows and a sliding door with a 2 × 4 as he walked around the outside of the house on the D and C sides. The smoldering kitchen fire on the first floor exploded back to life as it received the oxygen it needed. Flashover occurred, sending a violent flame front throughout the entire first floor, causing the firefighters’ hoseline to burn through.
The first indication that something was wrong was the hoseline’s going flat. Helvin was met with a tidal wave of heat at the entrance to the master bedroom, then chaos. The fire crew upstairs was caught in a chimney without the protection of water or an immediately available safe exit. Helvin heard shouting, as the other firefighters were scrambling down the hallway toward him in an attempt to escape the instantaneous onslaught of heat. Helvin did as he was trained to do when he perceived that he and his crew were in a situation that was rapidly turning lethal: He immediately gathered and pointed them toward the direction of the staircase, their only known means of escape.
All four firefighters were stacked one on top of the other at the crest of the stairs as they attempted to make their way out. E15’s backup firefighter and E18’s nozzle firefighter fumbled blindly down the stairs and into the teeth of the fire, eventually escaping through the front door. E15’s nozzle firefighter was driven back up the stairs by extreme heat and was forced to dive out of a window at the top of the stairs. When it came time for Helvin, who was last in line, to descend the staircase, the heat was so intense, the insult to his senses so severe, that he was forced to retreat deeper into the structure. Confusion and fear began to overwhelm him. He was unsure of what had become of his crew, and the shape of his environment had become intolerable.


Helvin thought he had failed his crew by placing them in danger and then sending them down the stairs into the fiery tempest beneath them, possibly to their deaths. Early in his entrapment, Helvin tells of being incredulous that he was unable to find his way out of a bedroom in a single-family residence. He also recalls being angry at his own arrogance. He was confident as he read articles about firefighters being trapped and killed in residential fires that it could never happen to him. Yet, there he was, staring death in the face in a seemingly nonthreatening structure.
Firefighters have trouble perceiving that a fire in a single-family home is a threat to their safety. As firefighters, we have experienced environments that seem much more intimidating than a fire contained to a suburban dwelling. Homes are associated with family, shelter, and security. To the firefighter’s subconscious, the residential fire is a benign event. House fires are supposedly bread-and-butter operations—easy fires. “This is it. I am going to die in a residential fire. This can’t be happening.” The fact of the matter is that more firefighters are killed in residential structure fires than any other type of fire. It makes sense; residential fires are the most common type of fire firefighters encounter in the United States.
His mind began to sort through the possibilities: Escape by the hallway to the stairs? It’s too hot, not an option. Find a window and jump out. He had, after all, opened windows in that very room. Can’t find the windows. Now what? The fear and painful stimulus began to eat into Helvin’s ability to think clearly. Fear can lead us to do things we know are wrong. Helvin’s nozzle firefighter dived head first out of a second-story window. Helvin was prepared to do the same. “I was prepared to be a quadriplegic. I didn’t care what happened at that point. I was getting out. It was that bad in there,” he said of his experience. Helvin’s thoughts went from articles he had read the previous morning on firefighters dying under these same circumstances and then to his family—his wife, their young son and daughter. Helvin knew what he was supposed to do: call a Mayday, turn on his personal alert safety system (PASS) device and flashlight, seek safe egress, or seek refuge and await rescue. He was intelligent and was well-trained. He had received training on Mayday procedures. Why had the training not provided the correct response immediately?
The problem is that our training practices cannot simulate the high energy levels that exist on the fireground when the environment is extremely hostile and dynamic. Training scenarios are safe and predictable, not chaotic. Our experiences in training are at low-energy levels, and there are no consequences for making the wrong move. “Fire destroys that which feeds it.” (Simone Weil). The environment in which we must operate, and survive, is a high-energy environment that is unyielding and indifferent to our plight. When you add to the equation emotion, which has priority over rational thought, it is almost impossible to sort through it all. Our emotional response will overrule our ability to think in a rational manner. Cognition, the ability to think things through, is at once cast aside in favor of an emotional response. Knowing what we are supposed to do is no match for the power of our emotions.

Count Your Blessings

Survivors often report finding the resolve to carry on by making their survival about someone else. Thoughts of loved ones give the mind a place to go that is separate from the pain being encountered at the time. In Helvin’s case, many thoughts flashed through his mind during his fight for survival, but he ultimately settled on thoughts of his family. Even as he felt as though the skin on his neck, ears, and hands was melting from his body, his mind for the moment had taken him somewhere else. His thoughts were of his growing old together with his wife, his son’s playing baseball, and walking his daughter down the aisle some day. The thought of not being present for these events began to stir another powerful emotional response. Helvin’s fear turned to anger, anger at his predicament and how it was going to affect his ability to be with those most important to him. Helvin took this anger and used it to bring the correct action into focus.


Acceptance is one of the pivotal stages of the survival process. At one point, Helvin was in so much pain, and his situation was so dire, that he considered what his options would be if his air ran out. Acceptance is the point at which survivors begin to turn the corner. No longer victims, they accept their environment and their circumstances and begin to formulate a plan. He made up his mind that when his air ran out, he would remove his mask and take a deep breath of superheated gases. Doing so would surely kill him instantly, as the superheated air would sear his lungs, causing sudden pulmonary edema; at that hopeless moment, this seemed a better alternative to him than being burned alive. “If I was still trapped and my air ran out, I was going to take my mask off and take a deep breath. I wasn’t going to hang around and burn to death. Taking my mask off would be the last option,” Helvin said. Norman Maclean, author of Young Men in Fire, describes dying in a fire as dying multiple deaths: “First the failure of your legs as you run, then the searing of your lungs, and finally the burning of your body.”
Helvin had accepted his situation, given up his fear of dying, and faced the reality that his fate might be to die in a structure fire. This illustrates the power of emotion. He knew that the only things keeping him alive were his SCBA and his bunker gear (structural firefighting clothing), yet he had to struggle with the unreasonable impulse to remove the one thing that was protecting his airway. He was beginning to take control by choosing to go out on his own terms; he was going to choose how to die that day. The environment would not dictate the conditions of his demise.
Others, when placed in similar situations, were later found dead with their masks removed. SCUBA divers have removed their regulators while underwater because of claustrophobia. Even though the SCUBA divers knew it was the wrong thing to do, their emotional response sealed their fate. Helvin was able to seize control of his emotions and use his ability to reason and get him past his illogical urge. The worst-case scenario had been addressed. Next, he made the decision to make another attempt at escaping by the hallway, the only true way he knew to get out. Helvin said, “I knew I was going to take a hit.” At best, he would get burned; at worst, he would die. Regardless of the outcome, Helvin was determined to take action.


“Survivors aren’t fearless. They use fear. They turn it into anger and focus,” Gonzales points out. He explains: “Only 10 percent to 20 percent of people can stay calm and think in the midst of a survival emergency. They are the ones who can perceive their situation clearly. They can plan and take correct action, which are key elements of survival. Confronted with a changing environment, they rapidly adapt.” Helvin was scared to death; he will freely admit to that, but he channeled that fear into anger. As Helvin sorted through his emotions—fear; denial; bargaining; acceptance; and, finally, anger—he, like other survivors, was able to take his fear and harness it.
He used anger to find the strength within himself to take action and formulate a plan. Helvin summoned the fortitude to pick himself up and fight his way down the hallway—now an uncontrolled inferno—to the stairs, tumbling down the stairs and over the banister and finally landing in a heap on the first floor. A flash of daylight through the vortex of flame helped filter his disorientation. The plan was immediately clear: Move quickly toward daylight and safety.
Helvin experienced many of the critical steps in the survival process. He was conscious of his environment, accepting of it, and turned fear into anger and focus. He formulated a plan and acted on it, taking correct action. He did what was necessary and never gave up. Helvin crawled through the flames and out the B side of the structure, turned, and ran along the B side to the C side, not stopping until he crashed through the neighbor’s fence, where crews operating in the backyard discovered him. Jeff Helvin is a survivor in the truest sense. He was able to rein in his emotions, remain calm, think clearly, and act decisively.


We can learn many things from Helvin’s and other survivors’ experiences. First, we must always gather as much information as possible about the situation into which we are stepping. The importance of the 360° lap cannot be overemphasized. “Every time you step into the river, it is a different river,” Gonzales notes. There is no such thing as a routine structure fire; every incident to which we respond has its own exclusive and vexing set of circumstances. Complacency is the foundation of disaster. Time is certainly of the essence on the fireground, but not at the expense of safety. Critical elements of size-up were not carried out at Stilt Court, and the results were nearly catastrophic. Prior positive experiences, and even our own eyes, can deceive us, giving us a false sense of confidence that our actions will be correct, that everything will work out according to plan. Fire departments must begin the process of slowing down the culture in an effort to achieve safer operations by forcing crews to perform better fire reconnaissance prior to committing to a course of action.
We should understand that we will respond emotionally, powerfully so, when our lives are threatened. Emotions will drive us toward action, sometimes seemingly irrational action. Knowing this, we must be able to sort though our emotional responses and find the ability to think clearly and stay calm. “Sometimes (bad things) just happen,” cautions Gonzales. “There are things that happen that are simply out of your control; so you had better know how you are going to react to them. If we have had the right experiences, it will instantly direct correct action.” Taking pause, if it is possible, to collect yourself before lurching into action may aid you in making the correct choice. The approach Gonzales recommends is as follows: “Recognize that an emotional response is taking place. Read reality and perceive circumstances correctly. Override or modulate the automatic reaction if it is an inappropriate one. Select the correct course of action.”
The fire service should commit to continuing realistic scenario-based training. The military has known for years that survival has its roots in sound policy and training procedures. That is the reason the military trains in basic skills to the point of exhaustion. In military aviation, when presented with an in-flight emergency, pilots are instructed to maintain control, analyze the situation, take proper action, and land as soon as conditions permit. When trainees are pushed to the limits of their abilities, they can sort through the stresses to which they are exposed and act in a manner that helps them to complete their assignment safely and to survive the perils of the system in which they are expected to function. Intense training practices are intended to develop emotional attachments to the situations encountered. These are known as secondary emotions. Primary emotions are those with which we are born, such as the drive for food. Secondary emotions are emotional responses attached to an event or developed through experience. Secondary emotional attachments, once they are established, can be just as powerful in influencing behavior as primary emotions.
We must be able to adapt. Procedure, training, and planning are certainly important, but a rigid adherence to a plan that is not befitting the changing conditions can be suicidal. Those who survive in high-octane environments are those who can anticipate changes in the environment and adapt accordingly. Controlling our emotions, staying calm, and being able to plan and adapt are extremely important in the survival process. Equally important is believing that you are going to get out alive and have the courage to never give up. Fire Order 6 of the Standard Fire Orders states: “Be alert, stay calm, think clearly, act decisively.” That sums up the survival process succinctly.
Finally, we ought to recognize the need for a shift in our approach to safety and the haste and audacity with which the fire service often launches its members into action. Many positive parallels can be drawn between military and fire service traditions, but there is a dark side to some of our training practices and traditional values, an attitude that has infected the cultures of the military and the fire service. These sentiments are those that convey that somehow it is acceptable, even glorious, to die in the service of others and that a call for help is a sign of weakness. “Emotional bookmarks that have been established label rescue as bad and self-sufficiency, and even pain, as good,” Gonzales observes. “No matter how threatening the environment, soldiers are taught that it is better to die than to fail, death before dishonor. The training works.”
Like the military, the culture that has been created in the fire service works also. Every year, we lay to rest an average of 100 firefighters. “I will call for help with my last dying breath.” Such a statement is hubris. This reckless abandon toward our well-being must end. Once again, refer to the Standard Fire Orders, Fire Order 10: “Fight fire aggressively, having provided for safety first.” A better way to make that statement would be, “Provide for safety first, then fight fire aggressively.” Safety should never be an afterthought; call for help as soon as it is necessary.


Today, Jeff Helvin makes the rounds to some of the major and not so major fire conventions across the country, telling his story in the hope that sharing his terrible experience might make a difference in someone’s life. Since that day in the Natomas neighborhood of north Sacramento, a few things have changed for Helvin. He has recovered from his physical injuries and is back answering the call at one of the busier houses in the SFD. Though the injuries he sustained to his body have healed, the emotional scars that he bears persist, although they are not readily apparent.


At the time I met Jeff Helvin, it had been 18 months since Stilt Court. The power of the emotional experience lingered. He was still visibly moved as he recounted the incident. “It only takes one fire to change your life forever,” Helvin said. The audience was apprehensive, wondering collectively, “Do I have what it takes to survive?”
Helvin choked back emotion as he spoke about his arrival at UC Davis Medical Center, his first conversation with his wife, the sea of blue uniforms at the emergency room as his brother firefighters flocked to the hospital to hold vigil, and seeing his crew members as they were treated for their injuries. He still carries the burden of their suffering with him, even now. He feels that he let his crew down by placing them in the precarious position from which they so narrowly escaped. Helvin accepts full responsibility for what happened that day and thinks about how different things might have been if he had just slowed down a little. Helvin noted: “When I was in my interview with the chief before I was promoted to captain, the chief told me, ‘Your most important job is to keep your crew safe.’ I didn’t do that.”
Helvin says he views his SCBA and radio differently today. He practices calling a Mayday every time he does a daily safety check on his SCBA. He stresses the importance of a 360° lap to incident safety. Historically, safety advances in the fire service have been paid for with firefighters’ lives. Theodore Lee Jarboe, a former chief and author, notes: “There is no greater influence for change in the Fire Service than the line-of-duty death of a firefighter. Yet, there is no greater tragedy than that of a fallen firefighter whose death prompted the passage of a safety policy that may have prevented his or her death.”


In 2009, another survivor, Captain Chesley Sullenberger, the now-celebrated pilot who landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River, saving the lives of more than 150 passengers and crew, survived by keeping his cool. A catastrophic bird strike that destroyed both engines of his aircraft 90 seconds after takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia Airport necessitated an emergency water landing. Sullenberger is a product of military fighter jet training and a fastidious planner. He had implemented his own emergency landing procedures for that airspace many times in his mind while flying over the New York metropolitan area. He is a true student of his profession and found value in the experiences of those who preceded him.
Meditation, preparation, and teamwork were the catalysts of the positive outcome on the Hudson River. There may have been a bit of luck involved, too. Sullenberger had a plan well before “The Miracle on the Hudson,” but “Miracle on the Hudson” makes for better headlines than “Planned Event on the Hudson.” Sullenberger tells of learning the magnitude of the commander’s responsibility to his duty at an early age:
When I was a boy, my father (who served in the Navy) would talk about the great obligations of a commander to look after every aspect of everyone’s welfare who served under him. My dad made it clear to me how hard it would be for a commander to live with himself if, through a lack of foresight or an error in judgment, he got someone hurt or killed. When I was a boy, he impressed upon me that a commander’s job is full of challenges, and his responsibilities are almost a sacred duty.
He later writes: “With the lives of hundreds of passengers in our care, the stakes are high. That is why, long before Flight 1549, I read about and learned from the experience of others. It matters.”

Link to Stilt Court Helmet Cam


Gonzales, Laurence. Deep Survival: Who lives, who dies, and why? Miraculous stories of survival and sudden death.W.W. Norton and Company, 2004.
Personal interview, 2010, Jeff Helvin. “His Own Words,” Sacramento City (CA) Fire Department. Jeff Helvin provided information for this article to ensure its accuracy.
Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth. On death and dying. Scribner, 1969.
Sullenberger, Chesley. Highest Duty: My search for what really matters.Harper Paperbacks, 2009.
MARK vonAPPEN, a member of the Palo Alto (CA) Fire Department since 1998, is assigned to the Training Division and is a firefighter on the ladder company. 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. He has been involved in training and public speaking since 2003 and is lead instructor for “Read and React: Calling the Mayday,” featured in the California State Training Officers Symposium Fresno in 2009/2010 and at the TAK Response Conference in September 2010.
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55th Way

A heavy morning mist hangs on East Market St. as Engine 11 slows and stops in front of Station 11, firefighter Charles Hakopian steps off the left side of the engine into the darkness and the dank early morning air. He slams the door behind him and walks into the squad bay out of the dark. The bay is empty except for Truck 11, Rescue 11 is on its way to Long Beach Memorial Medical Center on an emergency medical service (EMS) run. Engine and Rescue 11 had been running hard all day and the beating continued into the early morning hours- neither crew has seen their bunks for most of the night.

Engine 11 groans as the engineer presses the accelerator swinging the engine in an arc across East Market to get in position to back the rig into the bay. Charles takes his position on the right side of the bay next to the bright yellow line on the floor that was the landmark the engineer used to back the hulking apparatus into the station. 

Charles places the boot of the suction hose over the exhaust pipe of the engine and pushes the button to inflate the bladder. Seeing that the boot and hose are firmly in place he begins to roll his turnout pants down around his boots. The parking brake on the engine pops and hisses signaling that the engine has come to rest. He grasps the handrail on the side of the engine and removes his bunker boots and pants, the motor rumbles to a stop.

The bay door is still open and the cold, damp air has displaced the warmth of the squad bay. Even in Long Beach, California it can get chilly in December at 1 o’clock in the morning. Charles hustles over to the apparatus bay door in his tee shirt, shorts, and stocking feet- he pushes the close button on the automatic door. The door rattles, clicks, and squeaks as it’s many sections protest having been awakened at such a perverse hour of the morning. It crashes closed and the bay again becomes quiet. He and his fellow firefighter, Carsten Sorensen restock the medical gear to be ready for the next run.

The crew shuffles off to the dorm. They have a collective feeling that trying to get some rest was going to be futile- it seems as though it was going to be one of those nights. Charles collapses into his rack and quickly falls into an exhausted sleep.

Twenty minutes later, a few miles away the residents of an apartment complex are awakened by the piercing shriek of a smoke detector and shouts of “Fire!”
The phones in the Long Beach Fire Department dispatch center begin to ring.

Long Beach Fire Dispatch

Dispatcher: Long Beach Fire Department paramedics.

Indiscernible shouting from the caller can be heard.

Dispatcher: Fire Department- what’s going on?

Caller: There’s a baby in the house.

Dispatcher: Ok- what’s wrong with the baby in the house?

Caller: Oh my God, the house is on fire. It’s a new born- a newborn!

Dispatcher: Which apartment is it?

Caller (shouting to another resident): What apartment number is it? Apartment number 9*…

Dispatcher: Apartment number 9?

Caller: Yes.

Dispatcher: Tell everyone to get out of the building. We’re on our way.

-Alert tones-

Dispatcher: Area 11 Foxtrot- 2676 E 55th Way unit number 5 for an apartment fire. This will be an apartment fire with people trapped in apartment 5. Engine 11 is first due.

*Callers erroneously identified the apartment as number 9. Subsequent callers correctly reported the apartment as number 5. The correct address was given to the units at the time of dispatch.

The dispatch

Ascending peals of electronic alarm tones echo throughout the station, fluorescent lights flicker awake. The clangor jolts the crew from their half slumber. Charles felt as though he had been asleep only minutes- he looks at the digital clock next to his bunk- it reads 0130. He rolls from warmth of his berth and starts for the squad bay.

The ethereal voice of a female dispatcher rings all through the station:

Area 11 Foxtrot- 2676 E 55th Way unit number 5 for an apartment fire, this will be an apartment fire with people trapped in apartment 5. Engine 11 is first due.

Back to the squad bay, 10 firefighters pull on their bunker boots and pants, don their turnout coats in unison and then take their assigned seats on one of the 3 rigs in the bay. The bay doors for all three units assigned to Station 11- Engine 11, Rescue 11, and Truck 11- moan, screech, and rattle open once more.

In less than a minute all three rigs roar from their bays making a right on East Market Street and are en route to the apartment fire reported on East 55th Way. Engine 11 leads with its federal siren wailing as it makes off into the wet darkness. As the rigs disappear into the night, the dispatch center updates the responding units that they have received multiple calls confirming the fire- many of the callers report that there is someone trapped upstairs.

It is 2 miles from Station 11 to East 55th way- a mostly straight shot that the three units can cover in a hurry at that time of the morning as almost no one is on the road. The lights of fast food restaurants illuminate the corners of E. Market and Atlantic Avenue as the three units pass through the intersection. As they continue along E. Market leaving Orange Avenue behind, the lights of the business district fade as East Market turns residential. 

The apartment complex on 55th Way is at the outer edge of Station 11’s response area- it’s one of the longest runs they can make in their first-due district. Engine 11 makes the first of 2 left turns, its motor growling as the automatic transmission down shifts the engineer accelerating out of the turn- the first left is onto North Paramount Boulevard where a 24 hour convenience store dots the bend, then 3 blocks to another left on East 55th Way. The task force makes excellent time- the first due companies arrive in just under 3 and a half minutes. The public housing complex comes into view on the driver’s side of E11.

Engine 11 at the scene

Engine 11 slows and passes the apartment building to give the captain a three- sided view and leave room for the ladder truck. As the engine slows in preparation to stop Charles has one hand on the door handle, the other on the release for his seat belt and one foot in the step well. 

 The captain evaluates the building and transmits his size up on the tactical channel.
Engine 11 is on scene- 2- story garden style apartment building with light smoke showing from the second floor. We’ll be pulling a line.

Charles announces over the headset that he will pull the line because the fire building is on his side. This was not normally his assigned task- pulling the line and operating the nozzle was the job of the number 1 firefighter- Carsten, the number 1 firefighter sits behind the captain. Charles, riding in the number 3 position was responsible for wrapping the hydrant to establish a water supply, assisting with maneuvering the attack hose line and performing an initial search for fire victims. Engine 11 decides to “tank it” meaning the captain chose to work with water from the booster tank due to the report of a rescue- water supply would be passed to the second due engine.

The maxi brake pops and the apparatus bucks to a stop- Charles steps off the driver’s side of the engine and begins his mental size up of the structure; he notes lazy white smoke rising from a second story window and eaves. The smoke is not under pressure indicating that the fire has not yet gained momentum. He fastens the waist strap on his self- contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and readies himself to pull the hose line. “It looked like a nothing fire.” Hakopian said in an interview. “It looked like someone had left something cooking on the stove too long.”

There are a dozen or more people gathered in the courtyard.

Doesn’t look like much. Probably a pot on the stove…

A panic-stricken woman in a night- gown who shouts at Charles that there is a child trapped upstairs in the burning apartment interrupts his inner monologue.

She tugs at his arm and speaks with terror as she reports that a young boy was upstairs in the apartment. Charles tells the engineer to have Carsten pull the hose line- he was going in to start the search.

“Whenever it’s a kid it always kind of tugs at your heart strings little bit more.”

Okay, okay. We’ll get him.

The crowd of a dozen or so mills about in the courtyard as Charles hustles through the crush to the apartment door. They point to the second story window where sluggish gray- white smoke issues. In the wet night air smoke drapes the courtyard like a shroud, an acrid smell suspended within, a west wind stirs the smoke only a little.

The door to the apartment is open wide – the boy’s mother had returned home and opened the door, noticed smoke and began screaming hysterically. Later, residents of the complex had tried to rescue the little boy and were driven back by smoke and fire. Charles pauses at the entry point and peers through the open door, neither smoke nor fire is evident. He pushes inside and clears the first floor.


Seeing that the first floor is free from hazard Charles scans up stairs and notes languid, muddy smoke backing down the stairwell. The smoke has banked down close to waist level on the second floor.

He forges up the stairs taking care to stay low out of the smoke- Charles notices a marked change in heat conditions as he moves between atmospheres- from the cool of the first floor to the hellish surroundings of the second. He crests the stairs- visibility is clear beneath the smoke- Charles is able to chart the lay out of the second floor. He now can see fire emanating from two bedrooms.

Charles enters a state of hyper-focus as his adrenal gland dumps catecholamines into his system in response to the threat his body senses. Catecholamines are “fight or flight” hormones released by the adrenal gland in response to stress. These hormones- epinephrine, norepinepherine, and dopamine- cause an increase in heart rate, a corresponding increase in blood pressure, the pupils to dialate, and shunting of blood to the major muscle groups needed in a fight. The chemicals cause vision to narrow in order to focus on the danger, and hearing to become selective. Light still hits his retinas sending images to his brain and his ears still hear but his mind casts aside information that it regards irrelevant to the survival mission.

In this condition, Charles sees the environment with particular clarity and detail. Here the world has a weird, hushed tranquility- the top of the stairs is exceptionally quiet, the only sounds are the crack and pop of the fire while the contents of the apartment warp and twist as the fire devours them.

From his vantage point he can see fire undulating from both bedrooms across the ceiling into the hallway. The fire cascades mesmerizingly- resembling a luminous orange inverted waterfall, it is at once striking and also pitiless to that in its path. Its wicked allure belies a vicious nature. Charles is momentarily hypnotized by the fire’s brilliant display.

He can go no further- his advance cut off by the fire. At the top of the stairs Charles puts his SCBA mask on. Fastening his chin- strap he looks about for his captain and nozzle man- time is of the essence- he knows how quickly a fire left unchecked can progress. Charles clicks his mask- mounted regulator in place, takes a deep breath, holds it for a moment, exhales slowly, and waits for his crew. He repeats the breathing procedure as he watches and waits. Charles employs this controlled breathing technique to slow his heart rate. Intuitively he recognizes that he must keep his emotions in check. A tiny snap of fear will give him an edge in this fight- too much will be counterproductive.

Breathe in, hold it, and let it out.

Though he couldn’t see his nozzle man before he sprinted up the stairs Charles knew Carsten would be only seconds after him. He is an efficient and capable firefighter- training and fighting fire together had proven this out. Charles would recon the second floor while visibility was still good and Carsten would be right behind him with the hose line to protect the search. Charles waits at the top stairs for what seems like an eternity. In reality it is only seconds, when Carsten enters the apartment through the front door. He sees Charles above him on the stairs motioning for him to pass the hose line up the stairs.

Carsten hands the line to Charles and withdraws to the first floor to put on his mask. Charles takes the hose and nozzle and aims it toward the ceiling that is awash with fire. Fire continues to flow like a molten torrent across the ceiling from the near bedroom and into the second- crouching low, Charles dispenses water from the adjustable nozzle in short, controlled bursts on a narrow stream setting. With each quick blast from the nozzle the fire recoils deeper into the first bedroom.

Charles is careful not to open the nozzle on a wide fog pattern as this will pressurize the fire compartment and upset the thermal balance, leading to temperatures at the floor level exceeding those at the ceiling for a short period of time- driving heat and fire gas brutally downward, all but eliminating the possibility of survival for anyone who may be trapped.
Fully opening the nozzle on a wide fog pattern would cause an instantaneous, volatile conversion of water into steam- the rapidly expanding steam cloud will effectively poach anyone without the benefit of structural turnout gear and SCBA. Conditions at floor level will for a time remain relatively cool in comparison to the blistering temperatures at the ceiling- offering a greater chance of survival. A firefighter skilled in the art of water application can keep it that way. Armed with this knowledge, Charles jabs at the fire and drives it back into its corner.

Floor Collapse

The heat and fire conditions permit Charles to advance in a low squat as he pushes toward the first bedroom- penciling the fire as he advances. As he enters the first bedroom his feet are cut from beneath him. His left foot penetrates the floor first- his body weight causes more of the floor to fail. He instinctively spreads out in an attempt to catch himself when his body recognizes it is falling. He extends his arms and legs outward as though he is a cat trying to avoid being immersed in a bucket of water. In an instant Charles falls through the floor up to his chest and is resting on his elbows. He concludes that he has two basic options, he can try to free himself by pushing up from the hole in the floor, or if the floor continues to crumble from beneath him as he fights he can plunge the remaining 4 feet and land in a heap on the first floor.

“It all happened so quickly- as I braced myself with my arms I could look down and see light coming from the first floor. That’s when I knew I needed some help.”

As chance would have it Charles was in the right position when the small section of floor disintegrated beneath him. Had he been crawling head- first, instead of crouching- a fall of greater than 10 feet onto his head or back would have resulted in serious injury. Charles is able to look between his body and the floor joists and can see light coming from the first floor. “I knew something was wrong when I could see the first floor between my legs.” He kicks his legs and pushes himself up with his arms- his feet find a first floor wall and in seconds he is able to push and kick himself free of the hole.

Carsten clicks his regulator in place and is at the threshold as Charles springs from the hole.
Charles shouts to him from inside the bedroom.

Watch out- I just went through the floor.

Carsten has no idea what had just taken place- he was on the first floor putting on his mask when his partner crashed through the second floor. Charles was up and out of the hole before anyone could notice. Carsten is incredulous- he wasn’t sure whether Charles had simply fallen or was entangled in wires that had dropped from the ceiling.

What happened?

Carsten scans the floor with the Thermal Imaging Camera (TIC) and can clearly see the hole in the floor between him and his partner. The camera displays the infrared spectrum that is invisible to the human eye- building an image based on heat. Through the eye of the TIC areas of heat are displayed as white and areas of cold are black- a gray scale is in between.

The camera creates an almost ghost-like image of the invisible light world that it can distinguish through its core-processing unit, allowing the firefighters to literally see through smoke. Carsten sees the black outline of a hole in the floor- it is a stark contrast to the floors structural members that show up as a white, radiant halo around the black opening.

“As I looked through the TIC I could clearly see the outline of the hole- it was still burning,” Sorensen said. He scans the bedroom from the hallway- beyond the hole he can see Charles near the bed as he rummages through the room, scouring it urgently for the little boy. “As I looked through the TIC I could see him in the bedroom. I didn’t see him go down. I could see the hose line down in the hole.” 

Charles completes his tactile search of the room satisfied that no one is inside. He exits the room and meets Carsten in the hallway.

Another firefighter now joins them in the passageway- a firefighter from Engine 12 (E12) has come up stairs to join the fray. He nudges past Charles and Carsten blasts the fire now seething from the second bedroom with the 1¾ hose line he carries. He utilizes the same suppression technique mentioned earlier to maintain the delicate thermal balance. Carsten holds at the first doorway with the TIC to monitor fire conditions, and protect the search- ensuring another firefighter does not go through the floor.

The fire in the second bedroom hisses disapprovingly and withdraws as the E12 firefighter prods it. Surprisingly, heat conditions in the hallway are tolerable- in a small space such as this heat development would normally be extremely rapid. The window had failed in the second bedroom- allowing for the release of heat, carrying it away from the firefighters and Justin. The combination of the open front door and the window shattering- allowing the heat to escape- contributed greatly to Justin’s chances of survival.


Charles shoves past the E12 nozzle man who turns the hose line to the fire coming from the closet. He has only a moment to distinguish the room’s layout before the room goes black. The fire and water combination will produce a steam cloud that will rob the firefighters of their sight. 

A closet is to his right; a bed in the center of the room and a window is to his left. Charles crashes the right side of the room sweeping the area of the floor closest to the fire looking for the child. Finding nothing on the floor, his focus turns to the bed- he searches atop it- Charles finds the bed empty. He makes his way to the foot of the bed and continues his search on the bed’s left side- nearest the window. The smoke and steam lift momentarily- Charles looks down and his heart leaps as he sees the shape of a young child’s hand. The child is laying face down and motionless on the floor.

“It was kind of a blur,” Hakopian said. “It was very emotional.”

Charles scoops the boy into his arms- cradling him gently and pulling him close to his body in an effort to shield him from the heat. Heartbreakingly, the little boy does not stir when he is picked up. Charles can feel heat from the little boy through his thick firefighting gloves. Hakopian said in an interview, “I didn’t try to check for breathing or a pulse- I knew I just needed to get him to fresh air as fast as I could. He was hot to the touch- he had been in there cooking for a while. As I carried him out he didn’t move at all- I thought he was gone.”

Justin was discovered in the only place in the room where he could possibly have survived- between the bed and the window. The fire that rages from the closet on the opposite side of the bed caused the window to shatter- the natural ventilation carried the intense heat right over Justin- the bed acted as a shield- insulating him from the inferno. The toddler is overcome by smoke but is relatively unburned. Charles starts for the front door with the child in his arms. As he exits the bedroom he hears the Truck Company (T11) on the roof- the throaty snarl of their chainsaw operating at full rpm as the crew tears the roof open above his head.

“The bed was between him and the fire…the floor was hot but it was cooler than up on the bed so it was the best place for him to be,” Hakopian said.


Rescue 11 (R11) and Engine 9 (E9) are assigned to medical group and have their medical equipment and a gurney ready to accept the toddler as Charles rushes from the apartment. Charles hands Justin’s lifeless body to Joyce Vanderweide, a R11 paramedic. She places the child’s wilted body on the bed. Vanderweide and her partner, Mark Miller, immediately begin resuscitation efforts. Vanderweide said she and Miller were about to start CPR when she touched Justin’s chest and felt his heart was still beating. “The amazing thing,” said Vanderweide. “Justin was so hot when Charles handed him to us…he was much hotter than a 105- degree fever.”

The four firefighters from E9 descend upon the little boy’s body and support the resuscitation attempts. The medics follow a well- rehearsed script as they work to bring the little boy back to life. The emotion of the situation is not lost on any of the firefighters, now emotions must be cast aside if Justin was to have any chance.

Charles steps away from the melee surrounding the child and removes his helmet and mask. His hands shake as the catecholamine release surges through his body. The slamming of his heart fills his ears- his heart rate has soared into the 150’s. He feels clumsy as his body experiences the natural fight or flee response- fine motor skills have all but left him for the moment. He inhales profoundly as he tires to regain his breath and slow his heart rate. Charles watches for any sign of life from the little boy as the medics continue to treat the child according to protocol. The boy shows no signs of life – Charles feels heaviness in his chest as he observes the medics administering treatment. Hakopian said, “I thought we were too late. I didn’t think he would make it.”

Until now Charles didn’t have time to think about the personal aspect of the situation. From the time of dispatch, and throughout the rescue he had simply responded to the situation at hand. Charles couldn’t develop emotional attachments to the situation as it evolved, emotion would cloud his judgments- possibly causing him to hesitate at the moment of truth. Until now he had only thought about the rescue in detached terms- he was searching for a victim, not a little boy. That victim now had a face and the tiny features of a 2 year- old child. As the chemical release in his system is metabolized, catecholamines have a half-life of a few minutes when circulating in the blood, Charles senses the emotion of the circumstances- they begin to weigh on him. The little boy is not responding to treatment.

“It was kind of a blur,” Hakopian said. “It was very emotional.”

The crowd gathered in the courtyard is now kept at a distance by police officers. They had watched the entire event unfold before their eyes; some had even tried to rescue Justin before the arrival of the fire department. They were emotionally involved. They knew the little boy who played in the courtyard, his shouts and laughter filled it during the day as he played and rode his tri-cycle. The group had looked on helpless as the firefighters arrived and dashed inside. They watched as the window on the second floor shattered and a sheet of flame issued angrily.

Their emotions alternating from hope to despair, then hope again as a firefighter emerged from the burning building with little Justin. The normal childhood effervescence that Justin displayed wasn’t there. He didn’t cry in fear or struggle with the medics the way a child his age should when scared out of his mind and longing for his mother. The little boy could not have looked worse. All vestiges of life have left him. Unified in concern, they each wear a look of anguish on their face as they collectively pray and try to will little Justin back to life.

The group of firefighters and paramedics that surround the gurney start as one toward the rescue. The gurney is loaded in the back- Miller and Vanderwiede accompany the little boy in the patient compartment, the back doors slam shut and the rig sets off for Long Beach Memorial with its precious cargo. R11 speeds into the night, its siren growing distant as it recedes into the night.

As R11 brings Justin to Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, Miller and Vanderwiede are able to start his breathing again.
Justin’s mother was arrested that night and charged with felony child abuse and neglect.
The 2-year-old suffered severe smoke inhalation and second-degree burns on his feet. Investigators said if he had been in the apartment any longer he might not have survived. Justin was listed in critical condition upon his arrival at Long Beach Memorial Hospital. After a few days in critical condition he made what doctors called a “miraculous recovery.” Today, he is alive and well thanks to the strong work of the Long Beach Fire Department.
“If I could take one thing away from out training that was invaluable it is that we are always taught to think on our feet. We always hear in the Long Beach Fire Department , ‘We are not going to teach you to be robot,'” Hakopian said.
“Whenever it’s a kid it always kind of tugs at your heart strings little bit more,” said Vanderweide. “We really look forward to the positive results like we experienced with Justin. We were all lucky to be a part of it.”
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