Craig Rose photo

By Mark vonAppen

Be careful with the word potential.  It can have a misleading connotation. We often refer to potential as a positive thing, an imaginary upside that exists solely in our minds if only we could tap the unharnessed energy that lies inside each of us. There is a big difference between performance and potential.  The fact is, potential can be a dirty word if we don’t help people to be all that they can be.

Potential is unused energy, it is just a possibility.  When we speak only of someone’s potential it means they haven’t really done anything.  The world is full of stories of unrecognized genius and wasted potential.  “This person displays tremendous potential” means one thing, they haven’t done anything yet.  Potential energy is nothing until someone figures out how to use it, unleashing it for the betterment of all.  We never talk about potential with elite performers, we talk only of results and achievement. 

We have a word for those who don’t reach their potential.  That word is underachiever.

You can’t teach heart and you can’t teach effort.  The will to prepare takes potential and molds it into promise.

Actualizing potential is the key to moving any organization forward.  As leaders and mentors at every level, we must strive to actualize the talents of all of those in our purview, and stop talking in terms of potential.  

Performance versus Potential
  • Performance seeks challenge, potential shies away from it
  • Performance is decision, potential is indecision
  • Performance is accountable, potential looks to blame
  • Performance gets the job done, potential procrastinates

I would much rather have someone on my crew who might not be the most physically gifted, but demonstrates high effort and heart over someone who played professional sports and displays tremendous potential, but never reaches it because of a poor work ethic and lack of passion. Potential means nothing.  The biggest tragedy in the fire service is someone who has all the physical and mental tools to be an elite performer, but lacks the desire to be all that they are capable of being.  You can’t teach heart and you can’t teach effort.  

The will to prepare for is far more important than the will to be great.  Many of us sit around and wait for greatness to fall into our laps.  Excellence is found by those who are active participants and seek it, not by those who close their eyes and wish for it.  The rogue’s edge comes from a strong work ethic and a passion for the craft.

You are the biggest handicap that you face. You are the one who must decide how much sweat and study will go into determining who you are.  You must weigh how far you you want to go.  Don’t go through your life never knowing who you are.  Standing on the sidelines as an observer is a big mistake.  Start the job and then finish the job. 

To be, or not to be?  That is the question.  More to the point; who do you want to be?

Do you want to be special?  Hard work ensures that promises are delivered upon when the moment of truth arises.  Those who excel are the ones who are willing to give more than others are willing to give.  They don’t bank on potential.  They want to be special and they work at it. 

Life’s battles aren’t always won by the biggest or the strongest, they are usually won by those who work the hardest.  Stop talking about potential, yours or anyone else’s, and do something with it.  The will to prepare takes potential and molds it into promise.  Don’t think about what you have accomplished.  Think about what you should have accomplished if only you’d accessed all that you are capable of.  

Do your job.

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Successful Training Depends on Practice and Trust

Firefighter survival and Mayday training have saturated the training circuit over the past few years. These important foundational skills have no doubt increased our awareness of the perils of the fireground. In the days following these or other drills, the average firefighter’s skill level in these areas is elevated, his awareness is heightened, and the path to skill mastery is in sight. But as weeks and months pass without incident, complacency creeps in, and the path becomes overgrown. Skills and attentiveness are pushed to the farthermost recesses of the mind. In these times of doing more with less (and things are only getting worse), it is imperative that we maintain readiness at the individual and company levels to ensure combat effectiveness.
What happens if we do not practice these skills regularly to maintain a sharp edge? How often does your crew practice the firefighter survival basics or calling the Mayday? We all know we are responding to fewer and fewer fires; this just means we must train more often. On-the-job training through responding to a lot of fire calls simply doesn’t happen anymore.
The classroom and the drill ground serve essentially the same purposes: providing explanation, demonstration, correction, and repetition. Skill maintenance involves revisiting critical basics with regularity to ensure the proper response when needed. Thus, we are prepared to function when anxious, confused, or fatigued.


To almost anyone reading this article, the levels of learning or mastery are academic. Those who regularly teach are well schooled in the levels of learning and the learning domains—cognitive, affective, and psychomotor skills.
Let’s review the levels of learning.
Unconscious incompetence is the lowest level of mastery. People aren’t good at something, don’t even know it, and won’t admit it. To improve a member’s task performance, he must first admit that he needs experience and practice.
Conscious incompetence is a level at which one is convinced he is an expert at a task when he is not. The instructor must make the student aware of his limitations and educate him on the subject.
Conscious competence is the level at which the person has the ability to do the right thing but has to think about it.
Unconscious competence is the highest level of mastery. As Bruce Lee put it, “Learn it until you forget it.”
The scope of our profession has become incredibly vast—30 years of mission creep has left the fire service with a serious identity crisis. As a result, most of us operate in the unconscious incompetence realm.
If we’re good, we move to the conscious incompetence region—making us a little safer—because we’re smart enough to recognize that we don’t know something.
If we’re really good, we operate in the conscious competence realm. Those of us who work hard at our craft can perform most skills competently, although we must rifle through our memories to retrieve the correct action.
I would hazard to say that I don’t know (you don’t, either) anyone who has achieved unconscious competence, a sort of Zen mastery, in our profession. I wish I did; I’d join his crew and try to figure out what his secret is.
I have never gotten good at anything by not doing it. I’m the type of person who has to practice a skill over and over again to get it right. Once I do get it, I still have to practice tirelessly to make sure I stay sharp. It’s exhausting. I am extremely envious (and rather skeptical) of anyone who can observe a skill once and believes he has mastered it. I want to know the secret, too.
Our ability to retain information and apply it to the correct situation is directly related to how far we are willing take ourselves on the path to mastery. According to the National Training Laboratories Institute for Applied Behavioral Sciences, learning retention depends on how learning is imparted and what, if any, learning reinforcement occurs thereafter: lecture, five percent; reading, 10 percent; audiovisual, 20 percent; demonstration, 30 percent; group discussion, 50 percent; physical practice, 75 percent; and teaching others, 90 percent. Most fire department training ceases at the 75-percent level, practice by doing, and progresses no further.
We cannot wander through our career blissfully unaware of the hazards associated with our profession. We must maintain superior skills and study accident reports assiduously to avoid missteps. We must know with certainty our limitations and those of our equipment in any given situation.


If you want to challenge yourself and your crew, conduct a “flash drill.” Assemble personnel on the apparatus floor, in full turnout gear, and in a timed drill have them don their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). Once they are sufficiently frustrated with you (because it is either too easy for them or they look like they are trying to fight off a rapacious spider monkey clinging to their back), ask them what their Mayday parameters are, and have them call a Mayday.
We have implemented some of this “flash” training with some of our probationary firefighters. We conducted Mayday training for our folks about two years ago and have subsequently trained about 10 probies in the intervening months. At six months’ to a year’s time, the training seems to disappear, even after we tell them to practice calling a Mayday every time they check their SCBA.
It’s called complacency—the nastiest word in our profession.
Ask 10 probies to call a Mayday a year after the training, and eight out of 10 will have the same reaction.
They roll back their eyes, tilt their heads, and purse their lips in thought. The first words will not be “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday” but rather “Oh, damn!” or “Umm ….”
Mayday and survival training is a form of stress inoculation training (SIT) designed to create emotional responses to stressful situations to achieve a desired response. These emotional bookmarks can become less vivid in our mind’s eye if we do not revisit these stressful training situations regularly—as is true with any skill.
Ron Avery is a law enforcement trainer and a world-class competitive pistol shooter. He pushes the envelope in terms of stress-related training through “stress acclimatization.” Your prior successes under stressful circumstances acclimatize you to similar situations and promote future success. Quoted in Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman’s book, On Combat, he describes the process this way:
With proper training and the requisite conditioning and practice, we can achieve skills thought by others to be impossible. There is a whole realm of possibilities we can teach and train (personnel) to perform. Stress acclimatization is about measuring precise doses of stress followed by waves of recovery and then repeating these cycles very specifically. There must be time for adaptation to take place and there must be enough training, repeated over time, to help it stick.
Without regular practice, skills are dulled and reactions to the stressor become sluggish. The firefighter involved in combat with a tenacious, relentless enemy cannot afford slow reflexes.


University of Pennsylvania researchers found mindfulness training, or MT, correlates with managing emotions and maintaining working memory. Mindfulness is a balancing act, the ability to be conscious and alert in the moment—i.e., having situation awareness—while maintaining emotional control.
Demanding training in military Special Forces involves months of food and sleep deprivation. In the months prior to a deployment, service members receive exhaustive training on mission-critical tactical skills, physical training, and SIT to orient them to stressors they may experience during their approaching mission. They also must psychologically prepare to leave loved ones and face potentially violent and unpredictable situations during their deployment. Misery in training has value—after this stressful training, regular life seems easy in comparison.
Constant and rigorous demands like those experienced during high-stress events have been shown to reduce working memory capacity and lead to cognitive failures during fast-moving events. Simply put, when we are scared out of our minds, we lose the ability to think logically. Working memory has a limited capacity and can be easily overwhelmed when subjected to a high amount of stress. Our emotional reaction can overwhelm working memory and will make it difficult to perform simple skills that have not been refined to the point of muscle memory.
Building up a tolerance to stress with SIT may help anyone who must maintain optimum performance during extremely stressful circumstances. A major part of what makes SIT successful is that it elevates the student’s confidence and takes some of the surprise out of combat. SIT may have cross-over benefits in that training for stressful situations in one discipline may improve performance under stress in other disciplines.
Preparing firefighters for life-and-death situations is our ultimate responsibility in training. The solution to lapses in memory concerning survival training is repeated stressful, challenging evolutions that include preparation for the possibility of being trapped or injured in a structure fire.


In his book On Combat, Grossman describes SIT training principles.
Never “kill” a firefighter in training. Often, training exercises involve trainees being “killed” when they make a move that is inconsistent with the desired training. Teaching students to die sends the wrong message. Instructors should never “pronounce” students on the training ground. We need to teach firefighters to live, not to die. We need to train ourselves to never give up and train our fellow firefighters to be equally tenacious in defense of their lives.
Giving firefighters the experience of losing in a scenario actually begins to condition a risk aversion pathway in the brain. They may actually stop fighting when presented with a similar situation in the real world, just as they were conditioned to perform in training.
Teach students that if they are trapped, they must follow their Mayday procedures and seek safety. If we are taught to stop fighting when confronted with a survival situation, we are programming ourselves to roll over and die when the real situation arises. Giving students the possibility of success in extremely challenging situations inspires “learned resourcefulness” as opposed to “learned helplessness.” We must continue to fight. The fire may take our life because sometimes the objective hazard is simply too great, but we must never give it willingly.
Don’t let anyone leave the training site a loser. The job of the trainer is to design evolutions that are challenging but not impossible to complete successfully. Designing evolutions that have no possibility for success and are beyond the aptitude of the students, thus making them feel stupid, gives the trainer (in this case, a megalomaniac) a sick form of gratification. Just as we should never “kill” a student in training, we must never “kill” his will to learn.
Standing over a trainee with your arms folded, shaking your head disapprovingly as he struggles to grasp a concept, only proves that the trainer hungers for others to fail so that person can assert his knowledge and authority. In no uncertain terms, this is bullying, which leads to resentment and inhibits the creation of a positive learning environment. If you want to lose your audience immediately, act like a pretentious know-it-all on the drill ground.
Students must be allowed to make mistakes in training. Doers make mistakes. If a trainee fails to perform an evolution correctly on the first attempt, train that person on the desired behavior. Allow him an opportunity to perform the skill correctly. In doing so, you expose a weakness in the trainee’s game and then give him the opportunity to correct it, making that trainee a stronger fireground performer.
Never talk trash about your students. A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment. Cultivating trust in the training environment is a must if we seek an elite level of performance.
Trust in the instructor and faith in the training mission allow trainees to stretch themselves, to go to places outside their established comfort zones. The result is trainees who seek greater depths of knowledge because they feel comfortable trying new things. If they are free to ask questions, they are better able to maintain a beginner’s mind, where possibilities are many, as opposed to someone who thinks himself an expert, closing his mind to different points of view, where the possibilities are few. Trust allows the instructor to take the students to places they wouldn’t ordinarily go.
The old axiom applies here, “Praise in public, criticize in private.” If the proper training environment is created, people will no longer avoid training. When the word gets out about all of the positive experiences people have had during training you have sponsored, people will want to be a part of it.
Report successful operations to everyone—celebrate success. Celebrating success is a key element in the survival mindset. Report failures up the chain of command to ensure that proper follow-up training is administered.
Creating an environment that inspires thought, involves everyone, and makes them want to train is paramount to maintaining good faith in training. Do not “kill” students. Do not allow failure and bullying to take over your training ground.


It is acceptable to have a bad day, but it is unacceptable for bad days to become habit. It is unacceptable not to train and exercise all resources at your disposal to improve performance and ensure that a bad habit does not show itself at the moment of truth.
We must develop good habits and continually put them into practice on each response. Initiate every response from an aggressive standpoint. The word “aggressive” may disturb some people, but it’s not about the current safety-vs.-attack culture clash. It’s about aggressively employing tactics and strategy on every response—wearing appropriate personal protective equipment; using the correct incident command system or fire command terminology; and, if you really want to step up your game, performing a tool drop that is appropriate for the structure. We must aggressively assert our knowledge, skills, and abilities at every opportunity. It makes good sense.
Accomplishing these skills repeatedly reinforces the correct behavior when the bullets are flying for real. We become the things we do. Your crew members will not rise to the level of combat. They will sink to the level of their training.
Elite performers are not immune from bad days. They are creatures of habit; they rise to an elite level with God-given talent but also through hard work and a dogged determination toward a goal. They become what they repeatedly do.
Think of your favorite professional athlete. I’m sure you can recall a time when he looked as though the other players were two steps ahead of him. What separates elite performers from the rest of us is their ability to recognize their shortcomings, recover quickly, and adapt to what their opponent throws at them. They emerge from their bad day better and stronger.


The drive for excitement and the accompanying emotional payoff may lead us at times to exceed an acceptable level of threat and assume undue risk. When we are rewarded with a rush of emotions after successfully completing a dangerous fireground task, we bookmark the experience as positive. We continually seek the emotional reward brought on by previous successes—while increasing risk taking—and might miss important cues about the constantly changing environment.
Organizations cannot train for unimagined, highly dangerous, never-before-seen situations. If we continually study accident reports, learn from them, and participate repeatedly in stressful, scenario-based training, we are less likely to be surprised. Also quoted in On Combat, Brigadier General Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to break the sound barrier, said the following regarding preparation:
I was always afraid of dying. Always. It was my fear that made me learn everything about my equipment, and kept me respectful of my machine and always alert.
Recognizing fireground accident triggers is key. Removing a link from the error sequence can prevent tragedy. We must know these fireground triggers—accidents are often the culmination of many common events that align in unexpected ways leading to hostile events. It means we must pay attention—all the time. The fireground will punish inattention absolutely. We are not often afforded a second chance when dealing with Mother Nature; she likes to strip the unwary of their arrogance. The fireground will not adapt to us; we must adapt to it.
The attitude that the fireground is something contrived, almost too familiar, is an extremely dangerous one. To help bad days from developing into bad habits, keep these common accident factors in mind.
Common human factors that contribute to accidents include the following:
  • Inadequate or impaired communications.
  • Unclear direction from incident command.
  • Repeatedly attempting to achieve unattainable goals.
  • Failure to recognize rapid fire growth potential.
Interior operations warning signs. Keep an eye out for the following fireground situations, and be prepared to take the appropriate measures:
  • Active working fire, delayed entry, or loss of “time recognition” by crews or the incident commander (IC).
  • Multiple companies assigned to enter through one entry point.
  • Roof division companies retreating from the roof as crews are preparing to go inside.
  • Air is rapidly drawn in zero visibility and heat is banking down.
  • Interior crews can hear but not see the fire burning above them.
  • Interior crews are working under a mezzanine.
  • Crews feel “uncomfortable” with the situation they are in.
  • A crew member’s SCBA low-air alarm activates and the crew continues searching for the seat of the fire.
  • Interior crews flow water for several minutes but make no progress on the fire.
  • Interior crews hear the sound of roof ventilation operations conducted behind them.
  • Crews are unable to communicate with the IC or division/group supervisors.
  • A crew or crew member is in trouble and fails to recognize it.
  • An “Emergency Traffic” call is delayed or not initiated.
  • Crews are deep inside a commercial building with 1¾-inch lines instead of 2½-inch lines.
  • Prior to building entry, fireground companies and the IC fail to recognize basic construction features that should influence decisions and actions.
  • Crews and ICs do not follow the “order model” for communications, or they use unclear terms and send mixed messages.
  • Company officers are not monitoring the air supply status of their crews and are not practicing proper air-management techniques.
  • All members operating on the fireground fail to evaluate and apply the risk management philosophy to their assignment.
As stated earlier, without continued practice and visualization, training can disappear from our memory center. We must take classroom concepts and practice them religiously so that they become muscle memory.


Serious study of entrapment situations, rehearsing your response, calling the Mayday, emergency SCBA profile maneuvers, and knowing where important tools are located in your pockets prior to the emergency will aid in keeping you prepared for survival events.
Situations that warrant an immediate Mayday transmission include, but are not limited to, the following: falling through a floor or the roof, separation from a partner or crew, low-air alarm activation, entanglement in wires, or entrapment from a collapse or the fire.
Use the FACT acronym to identify a Mayday situation.
  • Fall: through a floor, a roof, a ceiling, or something falls on you.
  • Air: experience an SCBA malfunction or other air emergency.
  • Caught: entangled or otherwise stuck.
  • Trapped: by fire, collapse, or disorientation.
    Use the NUCAN acronym to report a Mayday.

  • Name: Identify yourself.
  • Unit: Provide unit designator and location.
  • Conditions: Describe your situation/condition and fire conditions or entrapment level.
  • Actions/Air: Explain actions taken and air remaining.
  • Needs: Identify what you need for your rescue.


    Individuals and crews can practice calling the Mayday using the following scenarios.
    Scenario 1. You are assigned to Engine 1, fire attack. You and your partner enter a single-family dwelling using the A side door. The floor collapses, sending you into the basement. You cannot locate your partner, and you are pinned under debris. Three-quarters of your air remains.
    Scenario 2. You and your partner from Engine 2 are backing up fire attack on the primary hoseline when you lose voice contact with your partner and lose contact with the hoseline. You are in a large commercial building, approximately 200 feet inside. You attempt to find the hoseline several times without success, and your low-air alarm has activated.
    Scenario 3. You are assigned to Truck 1, primary search. You and a partner enter a two-story single-family dwelling by an A side door, ascend the stairs, and begin primary search operations on the second floor. During the search, the ceiling collapses, dropping wires on your partner, entangling him. You attempt to free your partner but succeed only in entangling him further. Fire and heat conditions are getting worse. You are both running low on air; neither of you has wire cutters in your turnouts. You both have just above one-quarter of your air remaining.
    Scenario 4. You are assigned to Engine 3 and are performing a search with a partner in a single-family dwelling when the roof collapses on you and your partner. You entered on the B side of the house through an exterior window. You are uninjured and mobile, but your partner is unconscious and pinned. You are cut off from your primary exit, and the fire is advancing on you. You have half of your air remaining.
    Have personnel read each scenario, one at a time, to give them an idea of their situation. For each scenario, they must use the FACT acronym to confirm they are in a Mayday situation and must call the Mayday using the NUCAN acronym steps. Additionally, participants must state the actions they would take—turn on personal alert safety system (PASS), turn on a light, turn up radio volume, and so forth. Also, they would provide any additional follow-up information (i.e., sights, sounds, floor coverings).


    Firefighter: “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!”
    IC: “Firefighter calling Mayday: Give me your NUCAN report.”
    Firefighter: “IC, Firefighter Jones. Engine 3, searching first-floor, Bravo side.
    There was a collapse; I fell into the basement. I am alone, pinned, and cannot move.
    I am turning on my PASS and light. I have half a tank.
    I need immediate assistance.”
    To increase difficulty, have the firefighter in the distress scenario don his SCBA mask and try to communicate on a portable radio. Place the lost firefighter in a location remote from the rescuer. The rescuer should attempt to obtain a NUCAN report from the down firefighter and take notes while doing so. Once the transmission is complete, the participants should get together to compare notes. The rescuer will thus see if he correctly understood the lost firefighter. If using radios in this training, be sure to use a nonmonitored tactical channel.


    Successfully navigating the perils of a career in firefighting requires complete buy-in of discipline, training commitment, and the safety mission. It involves total awareness—or meta-knowledge—a synthesis of knowledge accumulated over a career, training the right way, perceptions, processing risk, and discoveries of the ever-evolving environment. Only through this type of hyperawareness can we be better fireground combatants.


    Grossman, Dave. On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and Peace. Warrior Science Group Inc., 2007.
    National Training Laboratories Institute for Applied Behavioral Sciences, “The Learning Triangle: Retention Rates from Different Ways of Learning,” Bethel, Maine, 2005.
    MARK vonAPPEN, a member of the Palo Alto (CA) Fire Department since 1998, is assigned to the Suppression Division, where he is a 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. vonAppen writes the blog “Fully Involved” for fireengineering.com.

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    The Difference

    Craig Allyn Rose Photo

    By Mark vonAppen

    “Our standard of performance on defense is to get 11 men to the football on every play,” my father would say as he stood before his players to begin the season.  “We have a standard to uphold, and each one of you has stake in it.  If you believe in it, hold each other accountable, and work hard at it, we will all succeed. If you don’t, then you need to find somewhere else to play, because you won’t measure up to our standard.”

    The team held itself to a high standard of performance. The result was a tight-knit defensive unit, part of an even tighter-knit team, that won a number of world championships.  True communication existed, open door policies were truly open door policies, and everyone believed.  Players and coaches of character were welcome, characters were not.  Accountability went up as well as down, and it was known that leadership is a two-way street.

    That was 30 years ago, but it still holds true on the football field today, and in all aspects of our lives.  Sports are a metaphor for life.  

    Everyone has to do their job.  Everyone has to treat one another right.  Everyone has to give all out effort.  Everyone has to have an all in attitude.  Without these things, the group will stand still.

    All in, or all out.  The choice is yours.

    Success comes from total buy in, and you don’t get that when accountability is synonymous with closed door meetings and punishment. 
    Accountability is a word that is thrown around somewhat recklessly these days.  We give a lot of lip service to it, but we don’t truly define what it means.  Accountability, like so many other buzz terms becomes an oft-ignored, eye-rolling, sound byte when we sling it around with phrases like, “Everyone goes home,” or “We do that.”  If the organization doesn’t invest in people, and hold itself accountable by living up to the heuristics they so carelessly wield, then there is no way to become a first-class workplace.  All of the signage, the patches, the business cards, and speeches will be useless unless you live it. 

    Holding people accountable isn’t disciplinary, but it is nonetheless a discipline.

    Catchy phrases and sound bytes don’t move things forward.  Accountability exists when you do what you say.  A lot of people in the fire service are preaching the same message right now, and some of us have been sermonizing for a really long time about it.  Do your job.  It’s as simple as that.  The difference comes from those who actually do it. 

    Craig Allyn Rose Photo

    Accountability, like excellence, begins with each person in the organization, and grows when we realize (and believe) that we are all interconnected, and are extensions of one another.  Holding people accountable isn’t disciplinary, but it is nonetheless a discipline. Holding each other accountable means elevating everyone’s level of performance through a common belief system.  It comes from honest dialogue, having expectations, and communicating a vision.  Accountability means believing in each other.  That is the discipline, caring enough to talk to people honestly.

    Most of all, accountability takes follow through.  Excellence and accountability go hand-in-hand. You don’t just show up one day and decide to be excellent.  You start with accountability.  You continue with a grinding dedication to the craft.  You finish by working tirelessly to create belief first in each other, and then in the system.  It takes hard work.  Without it, even the greatest ideas fade into oblivion.

    Why is the bar set so high?  It has to be.  The stakes are too great.

    Accountability is a discipline.  All in, or all out.  The choice is yours.  

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    By: Mark vonAppen

    The automatic fire alarm is the bane of most firefighters existence, oh how we lament “smells and bells” calls.  These hum-drum events often occur in the middle of the night when we are at our cross-eyed, complacent, bed-headed-worst.  As common as the  drone of the oft-ignored car alarm, we sleep-walk through these mundane calls missing cues to things that are out of the routine, until we get caught with our pants down.  

    My first and last encounter with playing catch-up at an auto-alarm-that-wasn’t was a seminal moment in my career.  A single incident forever changed my perspective on the fire service, the immediacy of the fire scene, its ability to punish inattention, and its lack of forgiveness.  I chose to pay attention from that day onward and pledged to never again let my brothers down as the next man up.  

    The clout aside my naive head occurred as a probationary firefighter nearing the end of what seemed to be a long start to a career that had only just begun.  Like most males in their mid-twenties, I was invincible and knew everything.  

    Dinner time was approaching as my engine company was kicked out on an auto-alarm in a commercial building.  I half-heartedly dressed out and with my suspenders down at my knees, hood stuffed in my pocket, and with my coat open, to the alarm we went.  

    In standard auto-alarm fashion, we arrived to a building that presented us with no outward signs of peril, no smoke, flames, or screaming civilians hanging from windows in desperate need of rescue.  We – the heroes dressed in black – dismounted the pumper and shuffled unenthusiastically to the Knox Box, retrieved the keys and set about restoring the squawking alarm system with baseball caps protecting our heads, coats still unclasped, our warden was limp complacency.

    (Sigh) What a bunch of malarkey.

    I followed my captain’s lead as we performed the perfunctory bottom to top building check after the pesky alarm would not restore at the first attempt.  We began our search of the basement and were met by smoke pushing from the seams of the tightly sealed entry door.  We scrambled to the engine, fumbling for our gear as the chauffeur hastily hooked the connections.  Three alarms and six hours later, we packed up our last stick of hose and went back to quarters, humbled by our new perspective on urgency, tempo, and automatic fire alarms.
    Have a plan, script your plays.
    The Boy Scout motto is, “Be prepared,” it became my motto after this fire.  I vowed to wear all of my gear on every fire response, even if my captain didn’t, and consistently ask myself, “What if?”  I became a jackhammer who constantly mulled over every conceivable contingency, every outcome, good or bad.  I vowed to never show up ill-prepared and get caught with my pants down again.
    In this case, nobody got hurt and the building wasn’t totally destroyed, but the incident was a disaster from the start.  I was reminded of Regis Towers in Memphis, TN, where firefighters and civilians died in a tragic case of complacency.  Learning from the past matters, every error chain set in motion from this day forward has already befallen someone, somewhere, at some time.  It is our ability to recognize the error sequence and change our plan, how we imagine the future, that separates the success from failure.  We must know that there is no ultimate plan for, or guarantee of success.  
    Planning for, and overcoming failure creates the type of critical thinking skills that allow us to stay ahead of the ever-changing fireground. 
    It was my “aw-shucks, at-least-nobody-got-hurt” inability to grasp the scope and breadth of incidents that was most concerning to me, my resistance to the knowing the truth that accidents on the fire ground do not discriminate.  It was something I knew I had to change in myself.  Near misses and deaths can occur in every borough and township in any corner of the world.  Laziness is the secret ingredient in failure, it is usually kept secret by the one who fails and lives to keep the truth shrouded.  

    The notion that we are somehow at our best when under the gun, able to fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants, is a fantasy that can lead to poor preparation and a false sense of security.  We all admire those who say, “I’ll figure it out when I get there.  I thrive under pressure.” But it usually isn’t true, we are not at our best when we are subjected to strain, anxiety, and fear.  It is the work we do prior to an event that prepares us for success and allows us to function when subjected to external stressors.  It is exhausting to constantly prepare, but it is the only route to choose if we wish to excel at our craft.

    We have to prepare mentally and physically, so that when the pressure of a situation knocks everything out of us, and all we are left with are the raw bones of the fundamentals, we are prepared to fight and win.  The “to succeed you must fail” principle was handed down to me from my father.  I watched it all my life growing up on the sidelines and the classrooms that my football-coach-father prowled from one side of this country to the other.  It is a simple concept that I have adopted in training the people that I work with.  It has its roots in capturing people’s attention and ensuring they grasp the magnitude of their responsibilities to the team, the family, and community.  It is all about turning failure into learning opportunities.

    How do you deal with set-backs?
    1. Expect mistakes – Plan for success, but know with certainty that you will fail, spectacularly at times, and have a plan to move on.  Ask yourself, “What do I do if this works?  What do I do if it doesn’t?” And so on.
    2. Don’t dwell in the past – You can’t change it; why worry over it?  Moving on with a solid action plan for improvement shows strength of character.  It is the fool who pines for his yesterdays, a fool who gets left behind.
    3. Own your mistakes – Stand up and say, “I did this (insert blunder here), learn from my mistake.”  If you did something and it didn’t work out as planned, share your misadventures to save others the misstep.
    4. Allow time to lick your wounds – Feeling miserable after a poor performance is normal.  You just got your ass kicked, allow yourself some time to recover (not too much though). 
    5. Get back in the game fast – You can’t lose your nerve (think Maverick in Top Gun).  Get back up and get in the fight.  Things always appear to be the worst right when you’re closest to success.
    6. Focus on the future – Plan on ways to improve and implement the plan of what you learned as soon as possible. 
    Consistent effort is a constant challenge. When you get back up after a significant failure, you find an inner confidence that stems from owning up to your mistake and taking steps to ensure that you don’t commit the same error again.  Planning for, and overcoming missteps creates the type of critical thinking skills that allow us to stay ahead of the ever-changing fireground.  Our job is no different than any high-stakes endeavor where the competition is vicious and unyielding.  Our character is defined by the ability to learn when we stumble and from adjustments made after less than spectacular performance.  

    It’s all about how we rebound.

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    Take This Pill…

    By Mark vonAppen

    “It’s an easy fix,” they say. “Just take this pill and it will fix everything.”

    I sit dumbfounded at the lunacy of such statements.  An anger swells inside of me.  I boil at the notion that all ills, and all behaviors can be corrected by taking the easy way out.  Opting for the easy way out is what is killing us as families, as an industry, and as a society.  Take a pill, a magic elixir, and you’ll see improved behavior, increased performance, you’ll lose weight, and somehow become more attractive to others.


    There are some nasty side-effects of seeking temporary expedients to solve your problems.  I get nervous when things seem too easy, knowing that temporary remedies only make for harder going in future. 

    What do we do when the quick-fix stops working?  Do we try another stop-gap measure?  What are the repercussions of choosing the easy road?  Some of the side-effects include a decreased work ethic, loss of passion, and an overall loss of the will to fight.  All of these side-effects take us farther away from who we are.

    I would sooner quit than roll over in an act of total submission, caving in to a society and an industry that professes the importance of original thought, but seeks only to destroy individualism, and looks to promote those who succumb to the pressure to conform.  Choosing the easy road changes behavior, though not for the better.  Nothing good ever comes from taking the easy road.  It is where the weak, the lazy, and the suspect of character can be found.

    The only way to fix anything is through a grinding dedication to whatever it is that you love.  Hard work is the only way to hold on to anything worth holding on to.  A true test of anyone’s character is to watch what they do when adversity arises.  Do they look for the easy way out; or do they stand their ground and fight for what they believe in?  Character is revealed through adversity.

    When we lose our will to fight, we lose our passion, and then we lose everything.  Passion drives great things. When it goes away, so does progress.

    There is a difference between being a character and an individual.  A character has an unreasonable need for attention, and is a force for disruption.  They need to be controlled.  An individual stands out because they are different, but they have the best interest of the group at heart.  Rogues are individuals.  They need to be celebrated. 

    Be an individual.  The world needs those who push, kick, and fight.  When we lose our will to fight, we lose our passion, and then we lose everything.  Passion drives great things.  When it goes away, so does progress.

    There is no pill that you can take to make things better; no silver bullet.  When you reach your desired goal the old-fashioned way, you’ll be that much more satisfied with the result, knowing that it came from your hard work, not from taking a shortcut.  The only panacea for what ails anyone is hard work.

    Quick change happens slowly.  

    Don’t heed the warning to shut up, to take the easy way out.  If your message is the right and true, eventually they’ll listen.  Never cave in to the pressure to conform.  Just because you can’t beat them doesn’t necessarily mean you should join them.  

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    The Cost

    By: Mark vonAppen

    Expect the unexpected.  History repeats itself.  These confounding statements are constant tormentors in our lives and careers.  So, if history repeats itself and the unexpected forever surprises us, it seems as though we are powerless to learn from experience.

    If it is true that history repeats and we are helpless to learn from experience, what is the value of sharing our experiences?  Is our experience, our recollection, really the truth?  Or is it more to the point that we are we incapable of telling the truth?
    What is the cost of knowing the truth about our past?

    Damaged egos and wounded pride? 
    We must subscribe to the school of thought that in our world of the fire service, there are no mistakes made in the moment; there are only decisions.  Those who hesitate out of fear or out of a sense of inferiority are the ones who lose because they have forever lost an opportunity to learn, see, and grow.  We must also subscribe to the sticks-and-stones school of thought that names cannot hurt us.  We must speak the truth, and share our debacles, close calls, and every lesson we have ever learned with anyone who will listen.  Call me anything you want, but I believe that keeping lessons learned, even painful ones, inside is the ultimate act of selfishness, and cowardice.

    It takes a considerable amount of arrogance to think you can do something a couple of times a year, for a few minutes at a time, and consider yourself an expert.  Likewise, it takes an equal amount of pride to think you wrote the book on something that has existed in one form or another for thousands of years.
    In order to grow as students of the craft we must be humble enough to admit that we don’t know everything.  Remember the beginner’s mind thing?  Beginners are open to any and all ideas because they are aware of their incompetence. 
    Cast off pride and stop asking, “How many fires have you been to?”  Look at our practices and ask, “Is what we’re doing really the safest and most effective way to do business?  What can we learn from this?”
    Do we dare to tell the truth?  Do pride and tradition impede progress?  Do we operate in a profession where the anecdotal passes for truth?  If we’re honest we might not like the answer.
    A distinct problem exists in the fire service because of its insular nature.  We teach what should be rather than what is, which serves to impede learning.  We raise members in the service to live up to a what should be that has never existed—existing only in the imagination of certain members of the profession, with no facts to validate how it should be.  It’s why when accidents happen there is a rush to blame, to cast the first stone, to rationalize, and gain distance from it. 
    Honest dialogue, surrounding topics on which we disagree, can help us guard against arrogance and duplicity.  Pride and vainglorious traditions continue to kill and injure American firefighters at a higher rate than in any other first-world nation.  In the absence of practical experience we must supplement our lack of real-world repetition with a vigorous pursuit of knowledge.  Knowledge is fostered when we are honest about our experiences and share them with one another.
    We must take our knowledge beyond the surface-scratching, anecdotal world that many of us operate in.  Experience is something personally encountered, undergone, or lived through.  Experienced often refers to someone who has gotten away with doing the wrong thing more often than you have.  Are we experienced or are we educated?  We should strive to be both.
    Sometimes in order to progress we must unlearn what we have learned.  Progress is impossible without change. Those who are too prideful to change their minds are incapable of forward movement.  It is painful to admit when we are wrong, but the sooner we face reality, and the more we seek to reshape our reality, the farther we will go.

    What is the cost of not knowing the truth about our past?  We know the answer; we can read about it over and over again in Line of Duty Death Reports, dust off our dress blues, listen to a forlorn refrain of bagpipes carried by the wind at the cemetery, and raise a glass to the dead, wondering if we can cheat Death by hook or by crook, or by chance.   We can try to fool ourselves into believing that we are really better, smarter, and faster than the souls who paid the ultimate price.
    We aren’t.

    As we progress through our lives and careers our feeling of invincibility recedes into a feeling of marked vulnerability that can only be assuaged through a relentless pursuit of knowledge and training.  We go from, “It can’t happen to me,” to, “It can happen to me,” and ultimately, “It is going to happen to me and I have got to find a way to control my destiny.”
    We never stop trying to control it.
    Our professional learning curve is steep and the environment unforgiving.  We are guardians of the community who solve problems by taking action, not through diplomacy and indecision.  Not many among us in society possess the courage and moxie to make the push down a hot, dark hallway to protect their neighbors.
    We do. 
    In order to successfully navigate the perils of a career in the fire service we must be at once bold and informed.  Until we stop being the champions of mediocrity as a culture and work towards a true meritocracy, where the truth has value, we are doomed forever to repeat history and be ambushed by the unexpected.
    How many brothers and sisters would be with us this day if we all shared our stories, every one of them, no matter how painful?  Somewhere in the world right now someone is making the same decision you made last week, last month, last year.  We will continue to die in the same ways over, and over, and over until we learn to set ego aside and tell each other the truth.

    I would much rather choke on a hunk of humble pie, admitting my errors and the lessons learned for the world to see, painful as they are, than hear story upon story of tragedy repeated time and again.

    Lies are easier for everyone to hear, but they don’t stop anyone from knowing that the truth is out there.  The truth of all of this is that it is difficult for us to be honest.  When we are honest, nobody will listen because they don’t want to believe the truth—that even the best among us are fallible—and that our number could come up at any time despite taking every precaution.  Damn your ego and damn your pride.  Let go of your fear of knowing the truth.

    Maybe history wouldn’t repeat as often and we wouldn’t be so easily surprised if we were accepting of telling and hearing the truth.  Mistakes are windows into learning and discovery.  Everyone makes mistakes; the smart ones among us learn from them and share the knowledge gleaned from experience with others.  It is how we develop and evolve as a collective. 
    What is the cost of not knowing the truth about our past?  That cost is ignorance; and in our business ignorance is the most dangerous foe we will ever face.  We must see things through the same eyes.
    If we don’t start telling each other the truth, the next time could be our last time.

    If we are not advancing knowledge, we are fostering ignorance.
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    Never Sit Still

    By Mark vonAppen

    As we work to correct all that is wrong with the fire service, we have to keep in mind all that is right with our people, and this great and noble profession of which we are a part.  We are at our best when we are outside. When we train, sweat, and improve together it makes us feel alive.   

    Don’t spend your career being bored.  If you are, maybe you should think about doing something else.  Nobody will do it for you.  If you aren’t moving, you aren’t progressing.

    Nobody will do it for you.  If you aren’t moving, you aren’t progressing.

    Never sit still.  Focus on what you can control.  Too often, we focus on things that we can’t control, and it keeps us from focusing on the things that we can positively influence.  Your reach is far greater than you realize.  Give your best effort every day.  Do your job, treat people right, give all out effort, and have an all in attitude.  

    That’s all anyone can ask of you.

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    We Are

    By Mark vonAppen

    We know who we are, do you?

    We are a spark.

    We live for the fight, the sting of heat on our skin.

    We are edgy.

    We are confrontational.

    We are aggressive.

    We are smart.

    We push the limits as we pull others along.

    We are those for whom good enough isn’t good enough.

    We are never satisfied.

    We do as we are told, but not only as we are told.

    We are moody.

    We are complicated.

    We are committed.

    We are dirty.

    We are relentless.
    We are those for whom good enough simply isn’t good enough.  We are frightening to some.
    We are frightening to some.

    We are individual.
    We are team.

    We are different.

    We are the same.

    We are teachers.

    We are students.

    We are questions.

    We are answers.

    We are fighters.

    We are survivors.

    We are dauntless.

    We are brothers.

    We are sisters.

    We are who we claim to be.

    We are real.

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    Be Here Now

    By Mark vonAppen

    I believe that you have to build a strong foundation in all aspects of your profession, whatever it might be.  A solid base includes having a strong grip on the mental, physical, and emotional aspects of yourself and your game, because they are all linked together. 

    If everything else is equal, mental and emotional control can make the difference. Most people feel that sports is all about speed and strength, but it goes much deeper than that.  Some people have a fear of success, others have a fear of failure. You have to prepare to succeed, you have to see it.

    You have to ask yourself, “What is most important right now?” 

    You have to learn how to be present in the moment, to be able maintain your focus on what is happening around you.  If you focus on living – or playing – in the moment, the pressure goes away.  In the present you’re not worried about the past, or what might happen, you are only focused on the task at hand.  You have to ask yourself, “What is most important right now?” 

    On our crew, we work hard at maintaining focus and recognizing when our attention begins to drift.  We all have triggers to snap our focus back to where it needed to be, and it differs from person to person.  When I begin to drift, I look at the Fully Involved sticker on the underside of my helmet and it helps me regain focus.  We start each training session by saying, “I need your eyes and ears right now.” 

    Practice hard and set goals for each training session.  I’m not one to go out and simply go through the motions.  My mind is set on winning, even in practice.  Practice is where you develop good habits.  In sports, just like firefighting, you must train proactively for any situation.  You have to know how you will react given any circumstance.  You can’t guess, you must practice for every possible scenario so you don’t get surprised.  You have to train to the point that you can anticipate what is going to happen next.  

    You have be willing to move out of your comfort zone.  When you try something new and you feel awkward and uncomfortable, but that is when you grow.
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    Keep Right

    By Mark vonAppen

    If being a driver means you are doing your job and working as hard as you can to be the best you can be every day then what is the problem?

    I’m serious.  

    I always get a big belly laugh out of the politically correct approach to how we communicate.  We dance around touchy subjects in order to protect feelings rather than talking honestly.  When all is said and done, a lot is said and little is done.

    If we continue to defend mediocrity we will never truly move forward.  We can create the illusion of progress by telling lies because they are easier to hear, but everyone knows there is no substance in them.  Let’s face it,
    honesty, vision, and drive are scary to people who lack these traits. 

    We spend more time protecting the feelings of those who are more comfortable staying inside rather than those who are getting outside and progressing.  The focus should be on celebrating those who give back to the profession through passion, learning, teaching, and leading.  We must hold up those people whose personal tools include drive, high standards, and lofty expectations.

    Anyone who gets their feelings hurt by people who are fired up about the job is way off base. Those who speak out against us do so because they are angry at themselves for who they are, rather than at us for leading.  It is an anger that is misdirected and projected upon us.  The complainers have an ear because they squeak, we don’t talk about what we’re going to do, we do it.  We must go around it all and continue with our way.

    We can’t change the past, but we can shape the future by focusing on right now.  Focusing on now keeps us right.

    It is ridiculous to say, “These people are trying too hard to be great at their jobs. They must be stopped!”  Instead of saying to the drivers, “Pump the brakes,” management needs to tell the noisy, complaining people to “get on the gas.”

    Reality is a bitter pill for some to swallow. The truth has no anger.  It simply is.  Open minds are required on both sides. Unfortunately, it feels like the cards are stacked against those who care the most about the craft.  

    Continue to lead by example and communicate your passion. We need to focus less on who gets their feelings hurt by a message (The BIG4) that has no downside and get on with doing our jobs.  We don’t engage in jealous fantasy.  We are free when we are outside training and doing what we love with our brothers and sisters.  

    Maybe we’re dreamers for life.

    Working hard at being the best we can be is all we can control, so we work tirelessly to achieve perfection.  We know that the journey is the destination.  We can’t change the past, but we can shape the future by focusing on right now.  Focusing on now keeps us right. 

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