Defiant

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.
Respectfully,

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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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?

Certainly.

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.

Bibliography:
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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