“The Ghost”

Get outGet out of my office!”  Raucous shouts bounce off the concrete walls of the  Sierra College field house.  A hulking football player shuffles through the door with his head down and starts for the showers.  The disembodied voice booms again, “Who’s next?

The next challenger steps into the ring.  The grayish-blue haze of cigarette smoke was the first thing to greet those who dared challenge “The Ghost” in a round of bones, next came mocking shouts of good-natured ridicule.  “The Ghost” was king of the broom closet, he let everyone know it and would not be dethroned by anybody.  Freddie Solomon would unceremoniously dispatch those foolish enough to enter his office – the janitors closet – and test him in a match of bones (dominoes).  He sat atop a metal stool at the workbench, mops and brooms the members of his court, smoking a cigarette, clad only in his grass-stained football pants and his cut-off 49ers undershirt – his rule absolute, his authority unquestioned.

The previous invader vanquished, he sought another victim.  I would cower as I walked past the door carrying an arm load of soiled jerseys to the laundry room.  I knew anyone who walked by the open door with the smoke wafting from it would be subject to the king’s ire.  “Hey, little vonAppen!  You want some too?”  I didn’t want to challenge the king in his court so I would smile, wave, and go about the business of cleaning up the dirty laundry.  I offered deference in the presence of royalty.

“That’s what I thought!”

As a youth I spent 6 weeks with my father in the blistering heat of Rocklin, California at Sierra Community College as a ball boy at 49ers training camp.  My father and I shared a tiny dorm room on the campus during the summer starting when I was in the 6th grade and continuing through high school.  I made $100 cash per week – huge money for a kid at the time.  My father was an assistant coach for the 49ers from 1983 – 1989 and I had the privilege of being a part of something that most kids can only dream of.

The days at training camp were long for everybody, most of all for the players and coaches.  Luckily, I possessed the boundless energy of adolescence and was up by 6 am and off to breakfast at the cafeteria, then to the field house to get ready for the morning practice – the long days didn’t phase me much.  I reported to the field house and helped distribute the clean laundry from the night before, hanging the players freshly washed and often still warm jerseys on their lockers before practice.  I then set off on foot (or sometimes on a “borrowed” golf cart) to the 3 practice fields beyond the locker room and placed cones in neat rows every 5 yards along the boundaries of the fields.  Next, I headed to the baseball dugout to grab tackling dummies and horsed them to strategic locations across the various fields in preparation for the morning drills.  By now, my feet were completely soaked from the heavy dew on the grass and I sloshed in my shoes back to the field house to pack a bag of footballs for the players who were now about to hit the field.

When I was 12, I was awkward, ungainly, and I couldn’t catch a football – at all. My job as a ball boy involved a lot of catching and throwing.  It was painfully embarrassing for me when a player, like let’s say, Joe Montana would throw me a ball and I would bat it around as if he had just tossed me a hand grenade with the pin pulled.

Freddie loved to teach, even if it was the simple act of catching a football.

Number 88, “The Ghost,” was always out on the field before everyone else.  Freddie was a wide receiver for the team back then and he took an interest in me.  He could sense my panic and consternation as a ball zipped in my direction bounced off my hands as I awkwardly tried to grab it.

“Hey, little vonAppen. Come over here. We have some work to do.”

I trotted over and off to the side of the field we’d play catch.  Or more to the point, he would throw me the ball and I would try not to bludgeon it to death with the baseball bats I called hands.  Fast Freddie played soft-toss with me to build up my confidence.  He worked with me before practice in the wet grass, after practice in the gathering heat of late morning, and stayed late after practice again in the withering incandescence of the afternoon sun to help me learn how to catch the ball.  Freddie loved to teach, and he especially loved helping kids in any way he could even if it was as simple as teaching them how to catch a football.

“Little vonAppen, listen up, turn your hands this way when the ball comes at you like this,” he would patiently demonstrate the correct method for plucking the ball from the air.  “Thumbs together – like this.  Pinkies together – like that.”

Frustrated, I dropped the ball time and again and he’d say, “That’s alright.  Stick with it.  We’ll get there.  Don’t quit.”

I didn’t always want to stay after practice but Freddie wouldn’t let me quit.  I had to get better or else he wouldn’t let me off the field.  It wasn’t about playing catch.  It was an exercise in kindness, interest, and patience.

Freddie took time when he was hot and tired and spent it with me so I wouldn’t look like a fool when I was on the field with the team.  In his way, he left his mark on me forever.  For the years he was with the 49ers and throughout my football playing days I always thought of him as I caught the ball, looked it all the way in to the crook of my arm, and tucked it tightly to my body to ensure I wouldn’t fumble.  Freddie didn’t just teach me how to catch a ball, he taught me about patience – not just in teaching, but how to find patience in myself.  I learned that this little big man always had time for kids and gave of it freely even amidst the stresses of an NFL training camp.

“Your soul is nourished when you are kind.”

Since his retirement from the NFL Freddie has been serving as a mentor for at-risk youth in the Tampa, Florida area which he has called home since he hung up his helmet for the last time.  He has been a community coordinator for the Hillsborough County Sheriffs Department since 1991 and the department recently dedicated the sheriffs annex in his name.

The inscription on the plaque with a life-size image of Freddie Solomon with children in football uniforms says:




-Freddie Solomon

Freddie was diagnosed with colon cancer that spread to his liver last year.  He has been battling the disease and enduring brutal bouts of chemotherapy.  His spirits remain high.  In his address to the public at the dedication of the annex that now bears his name and likeness he said, “It takes a family.  It takes a team to make it work.  I’m only as good as the people around me.”

In a small way I was witness to Freddie Solomon’s charity and for a fleeting moment in time I was touched by his kindness.  He has built a life of making things better for other people.  Only now, as he battles cancer am I aware of the impact the small token of teaching had on me.  The night I found out that Freddie Solomon had cancer I lay awake and stared at the ceiling pondering how small gestures from big personalities leave lasting imprints on lives.  I thought of what a fierce competitor Freddie is and how kind he was to me as a kid.  When we’re young, we think those people, be they loved ones or sports heroes, will always be there – forever.  In our fallible memory, they’re suspended in time, always the way they were years ago.  Sometimes, these treasured memories are our favorite places to visit.

I am thankful to have crossed paths with such a great human being.  For me, there is more work to be done, much more.  Freddie has taught many people, young and old, that we must pay forward the virtues instilled in us by those we call dear.  He taught those whose lives he has touched that teaching is about humility, patience, and unearthing the best in others.

King Solomon said, “Your own soul is nourished when you are kind.”

Thank you King Freddie.  Your soul most certainly is well nourished.

God Bless.

From The Chicago Tribune:

Former 49ers Receiver Freddie Solomon Dies

February 13, 2012|Tribune news services
Former 49ers wide receiver Freddie Solomon died Monday at the age of 59 following a nine-month battle with colon and liver cancer.
Solomon, known as “Fabulous Freddie,” was a quarterback at the University of Tampa and spent the past two decades working with youths in the Tampa, Fla., area.
Former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo recently spent Super Bowl weekend with Solomon and his family as Solomon’s health deteriorated.

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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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Alchemy in San Francisco

Last week I posted a piece about Jim Harbaugh and the power of belief in a cause. The week prior to that, a post about Matt Flynn, preparation, and keeping your head in the game.

Smith and the 49ers have a leader they believe in.
I realize that this is a Fire Engineering blog, and not a sports blog, but bearing witness to the transformation of the San Francisco 49ers – and in particular Alex Smith (the starting quarterback) – makes one marvel at how for nearly 10 years an organization got it so wrong in terms of leadership and direction and why now they seem to be getting it right.

Where were the 49ers going wrong and how did they turn it around? They continue to pull things together – pulling out an improbable win in the waning seconds of the divisional playoffs – by rallying around one another. The 49ers and Alex Smith have a leader that believes in them – and a leader that they believe in as a team – this synergy is where the turnaround starts and maybe where it ends.

Can it really be that simple? 

Sometimes it is.

Quality Coaching

Much of Alex Smith’s success this season can be attributed to quality coaching. Smith has shown flashes of brilliance in his career; but overall, due to lack of a solid coaching foundation, he has not been able to perform week-in and week-out with consistency. The pieces were there – the sports pundits could be heard saying that the 49ers were one of the most talented teams in the league – the most talented team that wasn’t winning.

In any endeavor, results are based on high standards and the ability to achieve those standards consistently. Previous years had seen 49ers players subjected to many changes in leadership styles, and they had continually had the carpet pulled from beneath their feet. The only consistency in the organization was inconsistency – and nothing was working.

There isn’t a whole lot that can take place without first believing.

The previous two head coaches – Mike Nolan, and Mike Singletary – could easily have been described as impatient, irritable, vague, ruthless, egomaniacal bullies. At every opportunity they would publicly chastise players, and routinely threw Smith under the bus, questioning his toughness and his leadership skills.

So much for praising in public and criticizing in private.

The books say leadership is not a mysterious and innate quality that certain individuals are born into. True, some have a tendency toward leadership traits, such as a stalwart personality – but a strong personality on its own does not guarantee that a person will be successful in a leadership role. Sometimes the opposite is true.

Nolan and Singletary both possessed strong leadership characteristics, but couldn’t get their men to respond.

What doesn’t work as a leader:
  • Being ruthless
  • Being a loner
  • Being uncooperative
  • Being ambiguous
  • Being a dictator
Strong personalities, when left unchecked, can lead to a despotic form of leadership. Those who choose to lead by oppression and absolute power are not paying forward positive leadership traits, and often cause those who must follow this positional leader to detach from the organization in order to survive.

Which brings us to the current coaching staff. Harbaugh preaches the team concept and will not disparage his men at any time. Harbaugh has built a solid support system around his quarterback – pledging his allegiance to him even before the season started. 

There has been no ambiguity. Harbaugh saw something in the kid who had been the scapegoat for all of the team’s ills, and knew he could reach him. He has placed people around Smith who touch him in different ways. Smith has lacked quality coaching in the past – now that he has unwavering support and quality instruction there is no telling how far he and his team can go. A group of men once adrift in a sea of uncertainty are now one win away from the Super Bowl.

How many times over the last year have you read articles in fire service publications about the vacuum that exists in our realm as a result of the massive exodus of veterans? We have to constantly move forward and look to the past for guidance.

The key is that we must always move forward.

Many times, all people need to be successful is for someone to believe in them. There are many great brothers and sisters in the fire service today who are working towards leading the profession forward with forethought and insight as great as that of anyone of any generation, past or present.

Like Smith, these “doers” gain confidence if people in leadership positions recognize their drive and support their efforts. If their attempts at positive change are continually cast off or snubbed, their talent will wither and die. It happens all the time.

Alex Smith has the right people leading him.

Frank Gore (the 49ers starting running back) said this of his quarterback, “(Smith) deserves all this. He has had some tough times. We have the right people leading us. And he’s got the right people leading him.”

Egos Checked at the Door

Harbaugh has instilled trust in his men – he motivates them with an unflinching commitment to the team. He does this by defending them from outsiders and constantly supporting their efforts. He is honest with them – but most of all he is a team builder. Harbaugh is a great communicator who relates to his guys as a man who has been there before. He has credibility because he says what he means and means what he says.

Harbaugh knows what it means to be the underdog. Harbaugh was himself an NFL quarterback who was never the most gifted athletically and played with a chip on his shoulder the size of an aircraft carrier. He excelled because of a relentless pursuit of perfection and by getting his teammates to believe in him. He coaches the same way. Our job as leaders is to believe in our people and give them the opportunity to go wherever they want to go.

Give them the credit when they have earned it.
  • Be trustworthy
  • Make decisions
  • Have foresight
  • Encourage the team concept

Harbaugh has cultivated the same strong leadership qualities that he possesses in his contemporary, Alex Smith. In all likelihood, if Harbaugh had not landed the head job in San Francisco, Smith might have bounced around the league for a few more years and not amounted to much. This would not have been for lack of talent, but rather due to the fact that he had been so beaten down by the previous coaching staffs and the national media.

After a while, when people say enough bad things about you, you start to believe it.

Harbaugh gives all the credit to his guys. He once told the media, “Don’t talk to me, talk to the guys. They’re the ones that won the game.”

You have nothing to lose and everything to gain when your people succeed. Everybody wins because you got there together. Their growth and success is your legacy. If you can look down the line at all of the people who came through your firehouse that went on to be successful, charismatic, and understanding leaders, then you can be proud of the rich heritage that you helped to create.

It doesn’t just come from you, we are compilation pieces; collages made from everyone we have ever known. Pieces of our every contact mold us into who we are today. Today’s interactions change what we will be tomorrow. We are the result of a lifetime’s worth of input from all the leadership we have observed, be it positive or negative. Take in everything you are witness to. If we are keen observers of those around us, the learning never stops.

Outstanding coaches are often great simplifiers who can cut through nonsense and doubt to create a solution that everyone can rally around.

The 49ers and their coaching staff in particular are true alchemists. They have taken largely unappreciated talent and transformed it into something extraordinary. There isn’t a whole lot that can take place without first believing.

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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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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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