humility [hjuːˈmɪlɪtɪ]
the state or quality of being humble

An undercurrent in many of the posts in Fully Involved has to do with the leader’s role in being humble, and the importance of passing credit to the people who play a big part in accomplishing a goal.  While it is true that there is a lot that goes into the responsibility of being an officer (or a coach), a large part of the credit for the success of the team is due to the hard work of the masses.  

Harbaugh displays a deep commitment to each member of the team.

The people that fall in line with the leader’s vision are those who shoulder the burden of implementing the plan. They are the ones who must execute the game plan successfully. When the goal is attained, they deserve a great deal – if not all – of the credit.

Jim Harbaugh and the 2011 San Francisco 49ers have been an excellent example of the leader – the one with the vision who inspires his disciples – deferring credit to those who do the work in accomplishing a goal. Harbaugh took a rudderless organization and turned it around with an unwavering commitment to his men. Though the team did not win it all – they were defeated in the NFC Championship game by the eventual Super Bowl winners, the New York Giants – Harbaugh was named The Associated Press’ (AP) Coach of the Year.  The award is typically given to the coach who orchestrates the greatest turn-around of an organization during the previous season. Bill Walsh was the last 49ers coach to receive the award. It is an esteemed award to say the least.

When Harbaugh was notified that he would be a candidate for the award, he was so humble in his response to the honor that he dispatched his starting quarterback – Alex Smith – to accept on his behalf. Harbaugh did not want to accept credit for a season made possible by his players.

Your people will appreciate you as a leader if you take the lead when danger and adversity arise.  

“I did not want to take a deep bow for what the players had done,” he said. “And what our players did was play their hearts out and had an incredible season. They are the ones that hold our fate in their hands.”

Harbaugh has inspired his men by demonstrating strong beliefs, values, and vision.  He has set the example and creates enthusiasm for his vision with a strong dedication to the team, and by giving the credit to those who accomplish the work.  Harbaugh knows that his players are smart enough to understand that words alone do not accomplish much of anything.  People respond more to what they see than what they hear. What his men see is a leader who supports their efforts from a position of humility.  

He is very modest in the assessment of his own importance. “Winning as a team is better than anything. It’s great to share success.”

Harbaugh (The Jackhammer) is at it again.  He is laying the ground work for next season and the clean up crews at Lucas Oil Stadium haven’t even finished sweeping up the confetti from the Super Bowl. He continues to show that he believes in the team concept, and that he places the success of the team above self-gratification.

Alex Smith accepts the AP Coach of the Year Award on behalf of his coach.

All members of the team are with the program. “We are in lock-step as an organization,” Harbaugh said. When celebrating success, it is better to lead from the rear and put your people out front. Your people will appreciate you as a leader if you take the lead when danger and adversity arise.  

The picture of Alex Smith accepting the AP Coach’s award on his leader’s behalf tells the story. Harbaugh puts his players out in front – giving them much deserved credit – but the leader looms large in the background, ever watchful, and supportive of their efforts.

Think about it.

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Fireground decision making is a critical factor in the outcome of any incident.  Fireground accidents are most often the result of a series of small cascading failures – both tactical and strategic – that lead to a major accident.  Every error compounds the next – this is also known as the sand pile effect.  

Many things can influence what are often construed as errors in judgement.  Errors in judgement can be influenced by both internal (emotional) and external (distractions) factors.  With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to dissect the actions of others who came before and form an opinion, deciding on a better solution to the problem.  It is even easier when you have the test group to learn from.  

In retrospect, predictable certainly is preventable.

Some theorists, such as Charles Perrow the author of Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies,” suggest that accidents are simply a part of the natural order of things and cannot be completely eliminated.  In his book he describes systems and their interactions. “A complex system exhibits complex interactions when it has: unfamiliar, unplanned, or unexpected sequences that are not visible or not immediately comprehensible.”  Perrow’s description of a complex system sounds an awful lot like the fireground.

Perrow goes on to describe complex, tightly coupled systems.  “A complex system is tightly coupled when it has: time-dependent processes which cannot wait.  Rigidly ordered processes (as in sequence B must follow A). There is only one path to a successful outcome. There is very little slack in the system- requiring precise quantities of specific resources for successful operation.” By Perrow’s definition, the fire ground is a complex, tightly coupled system. Perrow’s “Normal Accident Theory” suggests that in complex, tightly coupled systems accidents are inevitable.

It’s all about how we recover.

Organizations cannot train for unimagined, highly dangerous, never before seen situations. Close call and Line of Duty Death (LODD) reports are definitive learning devices; we are foolish if we do not examine them. The message that our fallen comrades are sending us through the reports is, “Don’t do what we did. Learn from our sacrifice.”  It’s been said that it is unfortunate that we only get to die once, for there are so many lessons to be learned in death.

Aggressive fire companies do not make mistakes in the heat of battle- they make decisions. Decisions are based upon the best perception of the environment at the time. This is why being acutely aware of the environment and possessing the ability to adapt to changing conditions are vital.
 Preparing is itself an activity and action is preparation.
Keeping in mind that fire ground decision making is done in seconds with an endless list of often unknown variables is essential to the learning process- to honor the memories of our brothers and sisters who precede us in death we must study their every action to aid in preventing the same catastrophe again. Failure to learn from tragedies in the fire service means that we are destined to keep reliving these “unexpected” circumstances in a terrible reality production of ground hog’s day.

If we continually study accident reports and learn from them, the lesser the likelihood of being surprised. Peter Leschak writes, “In fire and other emergency operations, you must not only tolerate uncertainty, you must savor it or you won’t last long. The most efficient preparation is a general mental, physical and professional readiness nurtured over years of training and experience. You live to live. Preparing is itself an activity and action is preparation.”
Know what you can do and what you can’t do.

Training and repetition are keys to avoiding potential errors in judgement. Captain Chesley Sullenberger speaks of the value of preparation in his book “Highest Duty”. Sullenberger writes, “You can’t be a wishful thinker. You have to know what you know and what you don’t know- what you can do and what you can’t do. You have to know what (you and) your (equipment) can and can’t do in every possible situation.”

Sullenberger is saying that we must train and constantly plan. 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.  They are the ones who can think and function under pressure.

Know the rules. Know yourself. Remember, the game is about vigilance and preparation.

Think about it.
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One Team, One Fight

by Mark vonAppen

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

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

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

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

Raised on the ball field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Championships started with expectations.

From the field house to the fire house

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

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

Do I go in now?

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

Donuts first.

What if we get a call?

Turnouts first it is.

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

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

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

How do I open the door?

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

Tell me something great. Lay it on me.

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

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

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

“Yes sir,” I say.


Gee, that was inspiring.

This is a joke right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You might say, “Common sense; right?”

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

Mediocrity makes an appearance

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

This ought to be good.

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

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

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


Hold me back- I can hardly contain my enthusiasm.

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

What a letdown.

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

Why spell it out?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sounded good to me. I had a plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes sir,” I say.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Back up- will investigate with the Captain.

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

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

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

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

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

I had achieved fire department nirvana.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to expect from one another

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Way to lead brother.

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

He’s sort of right I guess.

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

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

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

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

“Follow me.”

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

Mark can be contacted at: [email protected]
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Surprise and the Fireground

Ignorance is bold- knowledge is reserved.
We participate in an endeavor that is at times high stress, high risk, and for some of our brothers and sisters, inevitably lethal. It is how we prepare ourselves for the possibility of these combat situations that leads to a greater possibility of success. Some of our brothers and sisters are going to die, and they’re going to do it on a fairly regular schedule. When they do, we owe it to their memory to study in detail each action or lack of action that led to tragedy. There is a big difference between going forth boldly, and going forth blindly. Our dilemma is to strike a balance between dedication to the mission and initiating action with informed caution.
Panic and confusion should be reserved for the citizens who call us on the worst day of their lives. Our job is to bring order to disorder- it starts by understanding what our response will be under extreme stress. Without understanding of how we will react to “unexpected” stressors we will be unable to function effectively when high RPM events occur.
Surprise! Now you’re scared out of your mind.
There is a saying in military aviation, “You lose half your IQ when you walk across the tarmac to your aircraft.” The same can be said of firefighters when we’re kicked out on a working fire. Our heart- rate soars into the 140’s or 150’s and we experience a physiological reaction to stress. Our forebrain- the part that makes us human- shuts down and yields to the midbrain- the part of our brain that is impossible to differentiate from that of an animal.
Our vision narrows (tunnel vision) to focus on threat, and our hearing becomes selective (auditory exclusion) as we channel our attention on danger. This physiological reaction is compounded when we are faced with truly dire circumstances. We are literally scared to the point where we are incapable of rational thought. We must know what our emotional reaction will be in response to strain because sometimes, no matter what we do, bad things just happen- we cannot be surprised by our natural reaction.
We must have a firm bail out plan once external stressors attack our ability to think logically.
Correct experiences in training= correct reaction when it counts
Experience is knowledge or skill acquired over time either through training or by practical application of learned skills in the real world.
Experienced sometimes means that someone has gotten away with doing the wrong thing more often than you have.
Taking short cuts on the fire ground over time will catch up with us. Short cuts bite an unfortunately high number of our bothers and sisters every year- causing injury, death and an untold number of near hits. Pride often leads us to sequester close call incidents- all but ensuring that a similar misstep will befall another brother or sister somewhere, sometime in the future. NIOSH is kind enough to publish the findings of their investigations so we can learn from the dead.

Ultra-dangerous + seldom experienced circumstances = a greater need for quality training!

There are four poisons of the mind according some martial arts practitioners. In the art of Kendo these poisons said to be: surprise, fear, confusion, and hesitation. The panacea for these poisons is correct experiences prior to a hostile event. Only through repeated stressful training, or experience in advance of these ambushes can we stand a chance of making the right decision.
The difference between the average soldier and elite special- forces teams in the military is how well they perform the basics. “Operators” as they are known in Delta Force, perform the basics of their intense training well all the time on their own. This sets them apart as elite military performers.
Training to the point of muscle memory- or auto pilot- should be our goal for vital survival skills.
The keys to avoiding the poisons of the mind are to train, plan, to know your stuff, commune with the dead, and remain humble.
Is anyone else tired of hearing us say, “The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in battle?’
I am. But it’s true…
Its simple- train hard, stay abreast of current industrial trends and you’re better suited for the dynamic nature of the profession- truer words have never been said. Controlling surprise, fear, confusion, and hesitation are directly related to how well our training prepares us for adverse situations.
Believe it or not, if you put on a drill that is thought provoking, and challenging, but not ridiculous, people will be inspired and want to show up.
I was once told that not every drill has to be a great drill. I would argue vociferously to the contrary. Every drill must have a purpose. If students can’t figure out the reasoning behind a drill, explain the relevance to them. They might not agree with the reasoning or methodology but at the very least they will know why they are doing it.
Perfunctory training does not inspire people. There is value in performing rote skills to the point of wanting to scream. Basic skills must be practiced until they become as common as speaking. We don’t have to think about speaking, we just do it. Be certain those you train learn the value of drilling on the basics. It isn’t fun but it is necessary. We are afforded precious little training time. Make sure students are engaged in the short time they are on the drill grounds. Make it fun. Do it right. Make sure that everyone present participates and walks away having learned something useful.
If you don’t have time to deliver quality training to your people the first time, when will you find time to do it over?
RECEO/ VS for the classroom and drill grounds:
R= Respect the learning environment
E= Engage all present
C= Communicate the desired behavior
E= Educate tirelessly until the student understands the concept
O= Observe the results- Are we reaching the student?
V= Vital – make it realistic, interesting, and fun
S= Satisfy the training needs of the organization and individual
Realistic, stressful, scenario-based training is a must to establish the emotional bookmarks necessary for complete buy in from personnel.
Your plan for survival is formulated by a lifetime and career of experiences that either prepare you to survive or be crushed by the situations you are faced with. John Dryden said, “No one can possibly know what is about to happen; it is happening each time for the first time and the last time.” The inherent dangers of the fire environment cannot be fully calculated away.
Start by believing the worst.
Information flow on the fire ground is extremely fast and makes for an incredibly stressful environment. This rush of information envelops us in a very short period of time and results in sensory overload. During extremely stressful situations, sensory overload can cause us to become fixated on a particular aspect of the incident resulting in “tactical fixation”.
Firefighters who experience this type of fixation have very vivid memories of the task they were involved in during a hostile event. Fixation is due to “perceptual narrowing” where the senses collapse into a central point of focus as stress ramps up. This can lead to a situation where only visual cues are processed and important and sometimes powerful cues from the environment go unprocessed by our brains.
If a leader does not have a firm foundation that includes a plan for how things should progress then the entire system breaks down. The old adage applies, “As the first line goes, so goes the fire.”
It is important that fire ground leaders have the ability to supervise- to carry out the plan- and not be intimately involved at the tactical level. The more fixated we become with a task, the less we are able to maintain the global awareness necessary to maintain safety.
Strategies and expectations must be communicated in advance of an emergency for success to be possible. We are in the fix- it- now- fix- it- right business. We are often afforded only one chance to get it right. We should know better than to make it up when we get there.
General George S. Patton said this about planning:
“A good plan executed now is far better than a perfect plan executed too late.”
Plan for the event and then execute the plan. Don’t fall in love with the plan though, be open to an ever- changing environment, let go of the plan when necessary and be ready to adapt. As the environment and the plan undergo their changes- they always do- you’ll be ready to do the next correct thing.
Know your stuff
Knowing your stuff involves having intimate knowledge of policy and procedure, your equipment, and yourself. Having depth of knowledge in these areas affords a certain amount of emotional security. If we posses this meta- knowledge we have fall- back procedures in the index of our mind when things aren’t going as we imagined. Being highly trained under stress in certain areas allows us to function with greater effectiveness when subjected to stressors in other areas.
Forces of nature are more powerful and can progress with a swiftness that our minds cannot comprehend- this is true of any outdoor endeavor, white water rafting, mountain climbing, or hiking.
The fire ground is no different. Our training practices cannot replicate the speed at which fire progresses. National standards limit how far we can go when setting fires in training. NFPA (1403) standards for live fire training are no doubt instrumental in restraining the occasional over zealous or ignorant ignition officer. These rules keep us safe but we are only getting a small piece of the picture when we observe fire behavior in this manner.
When was the last time you entered a structure fire where the fire load in the building was made up entirely of hay and palettes?
Me neither.
We must be able to blend the linear- standard operating guidelines- with the non linear- the chaos of the fire ground, our emotions, our knowledge skills and abilities- in order to affect the best possible outcome.

Fewer fires means we need to put more hose on the ground. It is counter-intuitive to say we don’t fight fire that often any more, therefore we should train less.

Following the accomplishment of putting a fire out, we are especially vulnerable. We experience an explosive burst of activity and an accompanying emotional rush. After this rush we experience an emotional dump (parasympathetic backlash) where our guard drops – this is because we cannot maintain these high emotional output levels for prolonged periods – the body must recover. We are emotionally and physically depleted, leaving us inattentive and accident- prone.
Survival situations are a ticking clock. You only have so much energy and air, every time you exert yourself you are using them up. Know your physical limits and the performance standards of your gear.
Now might be a good time to do that air consumption rate test you’ve been avoiding.
Know thyself.
Commune with the dead
Many things can influence what are often construed as errors in judgement. Errors in judgement can be influenced by both internal (emotional) and external (distractions) factors. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to slice up the actions of others who came before and form an opinion, deciding on a better solution to the puzzle. It is even easier when you have the test group to learn from.
We must always bear in mind that fire ground decision- making happens in seconds and entails processing incredibly high information flow with limitless variables. Add fear to the equation- shutting down our fore brain- and you can see how the error chain gets started. Removing just one link in the chain may get us out of a situation safely.
LODD reports are definitive learning tools; we are foolish if we do not examine them. The message that our fallen comrades are sending us through the reports is, “Don’t do what we did. Learn from our sacrifice, don’t do it again.”
It’s been said that it is unfortunate that we only get to die once, for there are so many lessons to be learned in death. Voyeurism such as that afforded by LODD reports is invaluable.
We must respectfully Monday morning quarterback LODDs- using what we know about our ability to process information when under extreme stress can aid us in reviewing LODD reports objectively. We can look at them from the outside with cool detachment because we are not emotionally involved. As always, learning from the past, training, and repetition are the keys to avoiding errors in judgement.
Be humble
We know fire as a thing alive- if you turn your back on it for even a moment it will seize the opportunity and consume you. Fire punishes those who underestimate its might with swiftness only those who are taken by it can comprehend. The ill- fated few that witness its energy and velocity up close usually do not survive to tell anyone about it.
We need to appreciate the power of the forces we are up against.

Paul Combs.

Hubristic statements such as, “We don’t go to fires that often any more so why do we need to train?” always make me bristle. If you’ve ever read anything I’ve written before you know I have to practice like a fiend in order to get a skill right.

So, let me make sure I’ve got this right. We rarely see it, it’s really dangerous, and we’re not going to train you adequately to perform your job when you get shot at? How do you think the military would respond to that line of thinking?
Ultra-dangerous + seldom experienced circumstances = a greater need for quality training!
Fewer fires means we need to put more hose on the ground. It is counter-intuitive to say we don’t fight fire that often any more therefore we should train less.
Remain humble- pride makes us a fake- being humble makes us real. We must maintain a beginner’s mind in order to keep learning and maintain awareness. As soon as we think we have figured out the situation it changes. Be humble enough to say you don’t know exactly what is going on, pay attention to the cues the fire ground is sending you and formulate a plan of action based upon a true reading of the environment.
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 out mental models. Hence, maintaining an open mind has us constantly curious about our circumstances so we continually reassess our situation.
Remember that some of our best ideas and plans come from listening to others. Take advantage of all the training available to you.
Peter Leschak, the author of “Ghosts of the Fire Ground” says this about the fire ground and his connection to it.
“There is a core of mystery and faith that has guided not only my career but also, my life. To me, the fire ground is a sacred locale, a place of power that is rich not only in tradition and history, but also in sources of emotion, and meditations that I can only describe in terms of reverence and awe.”
Sit down and listen to a veteran tell you a story about their most memorable fire. Be humble and listen more than you talk. The old guys have a lot to pass on – and they’ll do it happily – all you have to do is ask.
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Rainy Day SCBA Drill

This drill is a quick and easy way to increase familiarity with SCBA when performing emergency profile meanuvers:
  1. Place SCBA in somewhere in the station or training tower
  2. Tighten straps down or twist them up
  3. Set off PASS device
  4. Have student in full PPE with face piece covered located in another part of building
  5. Student must follow the sound of the PASS and locate the SCBA
  6. Once student locates SCBA utilizing right or left hand search have them lay flat on their belly, silence the PASS, and disentangle the straps (with structure gloves on)
  7. Student will then don SCBA while on knees- adjusting and tightening all straps appropriately
  8. Have student recount MAYDAY parameters (FACT) and call a MAYDAY (NUCAN) (Parameters: F=Fall, A=Air Emergency, C= Caught/Collapse, T= Trapped) (Report: NUCAN Report N= Name, U= Unit/ Assignment, C= Conditions, A= Actions, N= Needs)
  9. Students must locate key personal equipment:
  • Radio
  • Flashlight
  • Wire cutters
  • Pressure gauge
  • Main line valve
  • By pass valve
  • PASS (Activation, Silence)

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Service, Effort, and Mathematics

Level of service is not the same as level of effort. Let it be clear.

With the potential reallocation of fire resources the citizens of this nation can still expect to receive top service from people who care but don’t be surprised if it takes a little longer to get it to your living room. It is simple math – algebra really – fewer resources responding from further away means it takes us longer to get there. 

This is due not to an apathetic group of firefighters, we still care deeply for the public that we serve and for the great and noble profession we represent.

These are statements of fact and are not subject to interpretation.

It’s about the reputation of quality organizations, with superior employees that have been devalued and denigrated by those seeking to bring down a proud and storied service.

It’s about truth and ethics.

Stop by a firehouse and have a talk with the crews. You’ll find a group of people who are active, caring members of a community in which they cannot afford to live. These public servants help make your community the safe and desirable place that it is, and part of why you pay so much for the home that you live in.

The entire nation is suffering financially – as public servants we accept this reality and are on board attempting to share the burden of the budget crisis with other public service agencies. Your public servants will still answer the call for service and deliver an outstanding product but to understand our frustration you must know that our angst is only partially due to the fact that we must tighten our belts. 

We get it.

Our aggravation has roots in the fact that we might not be able to serve our customers to the level in which we – firefighters and citizens alike – have grown accustomed to. We feel much better hearing, “You got here so fast,” rather than, “What took you so long?”

We think the citizens feel the same way.

Firefighters will not be tardy in arriving to the scene of your emergency because they are dragging their feet getting out of the station when the bell hits. There will be no work slow down when it comes to emergency response. I don’t know any of my brothers and sisters who will compromise their principals by not hustling to the fire engine when the bell strikes. Our commitment to the community and to each other runs too deep. Frustration arises when city officials prey on this commitment, continually taking away funding from training, personnel, and equipment; expecting the same outstanding product but not wanting to support it.

Efficiencies do not always translate into effectiveness.

In order to be ready to serve our – adopted – communities in the most effective manner many of us must train on our days off at our own expense. We are the ones at the gym, in the classroom, studying our every weakness. We sit around and think about them, we plot and plan on ways to improve. We attend to every detail. We work on our weaknesses and overcome them, to better serve the community.

“We will always be ready. Hopefully, we will always be there.”

Those of us the make the commitment – to ourselves and to the adopted community – do so willingly, recognizing that the cities we work for are often happy to accept the lowest common denominator when it comes to the level of preparation to deliver service, because it is cheap. 

We will not tolerate this. 

Mayors and other government officials have very thoughtful and kind words they use to describe firefighters. In seemingly heart-felt speeches they refer to firefighters as heroes. They seem quite sincere in their view of our profession. We are humbled and flattered by these generous words.

We’re not heroes. 

We’re not villains. 

These terms make every one of us uncomfortable.

We are heroes no more than the police officer that puts on their shield every day and goes about their duties – standing between the bad guys and the average law-abiding citizen. We, like peace officers, are guardians of the community. Our greatest act of bravery took place when we accepted the honor and responsibility of protecting the citizens of each and every community we serve.

We are professionals.

The current leadership in the highest levels of local and federal government doesn’t make any public employees feel of much value. Customer service works both ways.

Think of it like this: More expensive paint covers better than cheap paint. Expensive cars have a better and quieter rides than entry-level cars. Good carpentry costs money. In communities where a premium is not placed on emergency services the rate of survival for cardiac events is lower and fire loss is greater. Crime rates increase when you take police officers off the street. 

It’s pretty simple to understand.

Longer response times and reduced response capabilities can be directly attributed to government officials that truly do not understand the mission of the fire service. They possess only anecdotal knowledge of how we deliver quality service to the citizens that the city has an obligation to protect by providing a robust emergency service.

The cuts have not all come to fruition but they are forecast.

Victory is achieved through overwhelming the enemy with a disproportionate amount of force. That enemy may be a fire or an emergency medical call. This is why we arrive at the emergency scene with the numbers that we do. If those numbers are not available the problem compounds so long as the clock ticks.

It’s about math.

Fire doubles in size for every minute that it is unrestrained, more brain cells and heart muscle die for every minute either goes without oxygen. This means that on certain occasions  there might be more casualties than we as a service provider or you, the customer are willing accept. They might be civilian or they might be firefighters. Nothing is worse than knowing we could have made a difference but we couldn’t get there in time due to a lack of resources.

It’s not about scare tactics as some of the more vocal opponents of the fire service would have you believe.

It’s about math.

Our job is to be ready. If the citizens of the community choose to have fewer resources available to respond to emergencies then our job is to do the best with what we are given. When there is an emergency we are the ones who show up say, “Stand behind us. We are here to make the bad stuff go away. We are here to make you safe.”

This we will continue to do without question, it is our oath.

To accomplish our goals it might take longer and there might be a real consequence on the unfortunate occasion that due to reorganization – cuts – we cannot get to those who call us for help in a timely manner. Most people will not be touched or affected by scaled back emergency services. They might hear about a child drowning, a person choking, or a house burning down and chalk it up to rotten luck.

“Too bad for themI’m glad it wasn’t me.”

We as rescue professionals know the difference a minute or two can make. We have been there often enough to know the sick feeling of arriving precious minutes too late. Anyone who tells you that seconds don’t count or that 5 people on a medical call is too many isn’t telling the truth.

Visit your neighborhood firehouse and ask a firefighter why 5 of them show up on a medical call to support a person whose heart isn’t beating. You might find that 5 aren’t enough. If we’re not out of the station on an emergency call, training ourselves to answer the next call, or performing life safety inspections we are more than happy to talk to you honestly about all of the services we provide.

We’d rather talk service than money.

How many guardians do you want to show up at the door when you call?

Ultimately, the decision is yours. True, government officials are appointed to make decisions on your behalf. Are these decisions always based on solid information and a concrete understanding of what the scaling back of vital services means to your standard of care?
Paul Combs
Disingenuous is word that comes to mind.

We hope and pray that you never need us but rest secure with the knowledge that we will never let you down willingly. If we fall short in delivering service it will be because we were not afforded the resources to accomplish our number one priority – keeping you as safe tomorrow as you are today.

It will not be from a lack of effort.

Slower delivery of service will be due to an algebraic formula where the political solution to the equation is pulling resources out of an already taxed system, requiring personnel and equipment to travel greater distances, thus increasing response times and reducing levels of service.

Level of effort and level of service are very different things. We will always be ready. Hopefully, we will always be there.
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