Three Decades of Perspective

By Mark vonAppen

In 1979, after 17 years of coaching football at the high school  and college levels, Fred vonAppen got his first professional coaching job. He and many others felt as if he had finally arrived. As he prepared to make the transition to the National Football League (NFL), he was fully aware of the challenges that come with coaching professional athletes. A man of strong convictions, he swore to himself and to his peers that he would not allow his principles to be compromised.

Professional football would not change Fred vonAppen.


The Idealist

April 10, 1979


“I’ll never forget it,” said Frederick (Fritz) vonAppen Sr., a retired captain with the Eugene Fire Department, speaking of his son’s playing days. “Fred wasn’t very big back then, and he came home after the first practice and just went to bed.”



But not before getting sick. “Coughing up blood,” said Fred Sr. “But Fred wouldn’t give up.”

He still hasn’t.

“It’s a mistake to compromise yourself.”

Tucked into vonAppen’s personality, somewhere in there, with his chaw of tobacco, his love of hillbilly music, and his bark-may-be-as-bad-as-his-bite bellowing that characterizes his on field coaching is the determination that kept him from quitting football. And he continued to flourish in his drive for coaching success.

“I aspired to play pro football, but I never thought I’d be coaching at that level. I didn’t make it as a player. I hope to do it as a coach,” vonAppen said. “I know I’ll be dealing with grown men whose motivations differ from individual to individual, men who are in a profession trying to be as good or better than anyone else in the profession.”


Change? Not vonAppen. “It’s a mistake to compromise yourself.”


-Bob Rodman
 Of the Eugene Register-Guard

The Radical

September 4, 1980

When I was a fourth-grader my mom and dad met us at the curb by the front entrance to our school. My folks rarely picked my sister and me up from school, I mean rarely. Even on days when the weather was at it’s most beastly in Green Bay, Wisconsin – with the wind howling and snow drifts taller than we were – to school we’d walk. Sometimes we’d arrive and the doors to school would be locked due to snow conditions.  

With school closed, we’d climb all over the playground until pins and needles on our noses and cheeks became too bothersome, then we’d trudge the three quarters of a mile back home.


The weather this day was beautiful – the afternoon sky unblemished – my parents met us at the entrance to the school – mom with my baby brother on her hip and dad beside her, arms folded as he leaned against the station wagon.

My parents never came to school together – especially in the Fall. Dad was usually at work these Autumn days until well past dinner time. My mom ran the house during football season and to have us assembled in the same spot during daylight hours – unless we were on the practice field – was entirely out of the ordinary. Even as a 9 year-old I could decypher the semaphore on their faces signaling loud and clear – something wasn’t right. 

He took a deep breath in, staring up vacantly at the sky he exhaled, “Hey buddy, I quit my job today.”

“Hey guys, let’s go,” my mother said. Leaning over she kissed us each atop the head. 


My folks shepherded us into the car and off we drove. When the car didn’t follow the familiar track to the house, my sister asked in the high, lilting voice of a 6 year-old girl, “Mommy, where are we going?”


“For a walk.” dad said. “We need to get away from the house for a while.”


Unbeknownst to us kids, a crush of reporters was camped out on our front lawn complete with cameras, notepads, pens, fedoras, and cigars. They all wanted a piece of my dad. My parents thought it best if we were not subjected to the media circus at our house, so we went for a drive.


We traveled – past the prison and over the Fox River Bridge – for 15 minutes in relative silence until we reached a park on the fringes of the city. 

Dad parked the car.


The creek muttered beside us as we walked through our favorite picnic ground not far from our home, a male and female mallard bobbed with the current. My father and I split from my mother and siblings – they headed for the swings beyond the picnic area – my dad and I continued along stream. My dad shuffled down the bank with me, hands in his pockets, head down in preoccupied thought until we reached the spot where I liked to skip stones. 

I grazed the pebbles with my hands as he absent-mindedly swept his foot back and forth helping unearth rocks right for skipping. Like a gem from the sandy earth I’d glean a skipper, examine it for symmetry, curve my index finger around it, whipping it across the stream I’d count.


“Three…”


I’d rake the ground some more and launch another, “Six…” The rock cracked against a boulder on the opposite bank.


My dad stooped, picked up a flat rock gave it a toss in the air and then fired it in a shallow trajectory just above the water.  It skittered cross the surface and it too ricocheted off a boulder on the opposite bank, a cracking report echoing in the maw of a nearby steel culvert that carried the stream to the opposite side of the highway.


Keeping score I said, “Wow, that was like 10 dad.”


He took a deep breath in, staring up vacantly at the sky he exhaled, “Hey buddy, I quit my job today.”


I paused momentarily and then skipping another stone I said, “That was really dumb dad.”


September 5, 1980


Fred vonAppen resigned as the Green Bay Packers defensive line coach just three days before the season opener against the Chicago Bears. (Head coach)Bart Starr said vonAppen, one of the teams most popular assistant coaches resigned because of an incident involving one of his players during a 38 – 0 loss to the Denver Broncos on Saturday night.

– Mike Christopulos, The Milwaukee Sentinel

In the fall of 1980 Fred vonAppen quit his job as defensive line coach of the Green Bay Packers over a matter of principle. His brash move was the culmination of much frustration after repeated attempts at changing a misdirected culture in an organization that was foundering for lack of direction and discipline. It was an incident involving a hot dog that threatened to derail the career of this talented and fiery young position coach.

Some felt that the head-strong vonAppen acted rashly. However, vonAppen said, “I have no regrets.”

After his initial season as an NFL assistant coach vonAppen was so troubled by the culture associated with the Packers and was determined to be a catalyst for change. A strong believer in the team concept, rewarding hard work and dedication, he became disillusioned with the team’s lack of discipline, the poor overall work ethic, and lack of direction. He was bent on driving change in the organization – starting with his men –  as he began his second NFL season. 

He was uncompromising in his convictions.

VonAppen had been assured by his boss – head coach Bart Starr – that change was on the horizon and they would work as a coaching staff to shift the practices of the organization. He met with his players and informed them of his intent to change the culture, improve discipline, and instill a firm work ethic. All the pieces appeared in place to start the revolution. The world as the Green Bay player’s knew it was forever to change.

The writing was on the wall though that changing the culture was going to be a long and difficult task because the organization was blind to the full extent of the problem. Time and again, disciplinary issues were lightly dealt with, or completely dismissed as insignificant, and the team continued down the loser’s path. VonAppen’s frustration with the organization reached a boiling point in the final pre-season game of the 1980 season.

Following a pre-season pasting (38 – 0) at the hands of the Denver Broncos, vonAppen learned that one of his players, Ezra Johnson, had been eating a hot dog on the sideline during the second half. Johnson was a tremendously talented player and a marked under-acheiver with a sizable attitude problem. Johnson said he didn’t mean any disrespect to anyone by his actions. “I was just hungry,” he stated in an interview. “I didn’t wave it around or anything.”

“I believe strongly in the principles of team play, and I am not able to compromise the principles I have.”

In a meeting the day after the “hot dog incident” between head coach Bart Starr and vonAppen, the defensive line coach was assured that the penalty levied against Johnson would be swift and severe based upon the symbolism and the potential negative impact on the rest of the team. VonAppen advocated suspending Johnson and went so far as to recommend trading him to another team. Both Starr and vonAppen agreed that a message needed to be sent. 

In the end, Johnson was fined $1,000 and was required to apologize to his teammates. The tariff and the apology were not severe enough in vonAppen’s opinion. Johnson was neither suspended nor traded, he was at practice the Monday following the game. 

At the first sign of conflict, and with an opportunity to show commitment to the new way of doing business, the organization did not support the assistant coach or his vision. Instead, they turned tail and ran. Feeling betrayed, vonAppen met with his boss and demanded an explanation. 

When interviewed on the matter vonAppen said, “I was deeply disappointed and troubled by the symbolism of something like that.” Then he quit saying that he had no hard feelings towards Johnson. “I am sure that people will think this is extreme, but they don’t know all that was involved.”

“We didn’t need that,” Starr said of vonAppen’s abrupt departure. “Fred is a man of high principle. Principle is one thing, principle without honor is another.” 

“That’s my personality make-up.” vonAppen said. “I believe strongly in the principles of team play, and I am not able to compromise the principles I have.  So I had to walk.”

September 26, 1980


Some people felt that the head-strong vonAppen acted rashly since his resignation came just days before the Packers’ season opener against the Chicago Bears. However, vonAppen said he would do the same thing again, “I have no regrets. I quit over a matter of principle. I know the whys and wherefores of what I did.”

– Mike Christopulos, The Milwaukee Sentinel

The Pragmatist

Thirty years after the fact, my dad has a different, softened, perspective on the incident. Beyond the precarious family portion of the story, my father’s actions did not create the change  he envisioned. The team continued its downward spiral (the Packers finished 5 – 10 – 1) and when all was said and done, he was unemployed. 

Nobody won.

Stories such as this can help those of us who are frustrated with their organizations – the bureaucracy, the pettiness, the lack of vision – find the perspective to carry on in a less confrontational manner knowing that in time that battle that you wanted so much to win was inconsequential to the outcome of the war. Taking a hard stand on principle is admirable, and for a short period of time it may steel some people in your corner, but as days and weeks and months go by these overt acts polarize and divide an organization and make the individual appear to be a loose cannon. 

I can hear myself in the quotes contained on the yellowed pages of the articles written thirty years ago. I think all of those who hit the road in search of “the way” will smirk as they hear themselves in my father’s words. It’s the same circus with different clowns no matter the occupation. 

Somewhere in a cubicle farm inside a nondescript office building in Any Town, USA some anonymous worker – toiling his life away in his tiny cube – is at odds with his boss waging a similar war based on principle. Or maybe it’s a firehouse, and instead of a football field it is the drill ground.

“In the end, I quit my job, making a stand for what I believe in and nothing really changed.”

My old man is not a quitter. When I speak with him now about the days when he quit his job with the Green Bay Packers, he is much more pragmatic in his assessment of how his actions affected everyone involved. 

After he quit his job, he had no money coming in, a wife and children to feed, and a mortgage. “You can’t feed a family on principle,” he said. “If you quit, the organization may pause momentarily to witness the display, but it will move on without you and all that will be remembered – forever – is that you lost your cool and gave up.”


Reckless actions aimed at revolution may make a big splash, but most times the ripples don’t shift the sands of the intended shore. 

“In the end, I quit my job, making a stand for what I believe in and nothing really changed. Would I do it again? I don’t know, but at the time, when I was much younger and more idealistic it seemed like the only move I could make. Would I jeopardize my family’s security and my career that way again? Looking back on it, probably not.”

Stick with it. Whatever it is.
 Photo by Lloyd Mitchell
We cannot go through our career throwing our hands in the air and giving up when things don’t go our way. Time has a way of rendering jagged edges supple. It also has a way of softening our perspective, making us less prone to impulsive decisions. The courage and perseverance that it takes to drive positive change and influence a cultural shift is much less spectacular than the story of one who quits in a fit of passion. The long road to change is not the spectacle of the former, but is nonetheless a mix of triumph and tragedy.

I am every bit my father’s son. I am quick to anger, motivated by passion, I have my principles – we all do – and there have been many times when I have been tempted to ring out from being monumentally frustrated and exhausted from jumping through hoops and over hurdles. I don’t know what the keys to success are necessarily, but I know the quickest route to failure is trying to please everyone. 

Passion, patience, and perseverance are the keys to driving positive change.

There is a difference between compromise and being compromised. Compromise is an agreement or a settlement of a dispute by two sides making concessions. Compromised is to weaken a reputation or principle by accepting standards that are lower than what is considered acceptable. It is possible to compromise on an issue without compromising your principles. 

Change what you can change and put the rest aside in the short term. The big battles will still be there when you get back, better to chip away at them over time than to try to break off a large piece all at once. The burden you bear will lessen, and your river of personal pessimism will recede because you will witness the positive fruits of your labor in the development of others around you.  

We have to find the thing that drives us most and stick with it. Passion, patience, and perseverance are the keys to driving positive change. It is patience that makes us choose to work for what we want most versus what we want right now. Slow, steady, and consistent wins the race.


Stick with it, whatever it might be. If you don’t, you will be forever left with the ache and wonder of what could have been. You can’t make the change if you are not there.


Continue Reading

Pass Road

Most all of us enter into our career in the fire service blind with ideology; thinking that we can master the learning curve and become difference makers, we seek to augment growth, foster development, and provide support to our brothers and sisters.

The Cat 5 sweeping through Grandpa’s firehouse, 1976. 

It’s a family after all, right?

Our fire ignited, we set about changing the world in our own way, one fire service knot, one hose evolution, one burpee, or one emergency medical call at a time. For a while, we are buoyed almost exclusively by the novelty of the new path, and the pride of displaying the badge of a time-honored profession.

Needing more, we pack our bags and strike out on our own to see for our selves that the world – widely rumored to be flat –  is round and does not drop off at the corners of our respective jurisdictions. We journey through Non Plus Ultra to Ad Adventurum. Live the adventure; whatever will be, will be. We discover the world to be a big, beautiful, humbling, mind-expanding place. Our fire grows so large that it creates its own wind, we feel ourselves to be a force of nature.

Our flame will never be snuffed because the commitment never ends.

We seek to expand our circle of knowledge, attempting to bring back what we learn on the path to the entire organization – our world – in a single person human wave assault. We sponsor training, and try our hand at policy reform as we take on the every perceived illness that afflicts the organization. We want to fix it all, and we want to fix it now.

Storm warnings are issued as we travel between firehouses. 

Look out for these guys.

Our wind speeds exceed that of a Category 5 hurricane, the fire grows unchecked. We are not-so-subtly reminded that firefighters don’t make policy, chiefs do.

Whatever bro, that’s cool…

And it’s on to the next skirmish. In our wake plumes of smoke issue forth from bridges ablaze from the energy of hubris and ego.

Driven by naive, youthful exuberance, and an indomitable spirit, heads down, we push on. Time passes and we recognize that there are a disproportionately high number of hurdles and roadblocks that we must negotiate in order to move forward. 

At first blush it appears simply to be the inherent friction in the system that slows innovation and stunts growth. As time goes on, we reach a dark and foul-tasting epiphany. The organization does not value innovation, and it does not want forward momentum. Worse yet, we discover that as much as we love the organization, our love is unrequited. There are few things harder to deal with than having a passion for something that burns inside you like a bonfire and not being able to express it.

Photo by Colin Carter


We far too often encounter a resistance to change or proposed growth combined with hostility which act as major distractions to the intended mission of the fire service. The mission is to serve the needs – and protect the safety – of the community. An on-going preoccupation with what cannot be done rather than what can be done renders a degree of dysfunction to operations and negatively impacts team building. Wind speeds slow and our fire is relegated to an angry smolder. It becomes personal.

There are few things harder to deal with than having a passion for something that burns inside you like a bonfire and not being able to express it.

It may take a few years for us to recognize that the political topography of municipalities and in turn, individual fire departments, often make it virtually impossible to actualize many of our objectives. A blend of parochialism and the cumbersome inbred bureaucracy that litters landscape of city government makes the situation untenable for some. Daily distractions become the norm. Friction within the organization can steal passion; it can take away love for the game, and it can break our spirit.

If we let it, the fire will go out and we grow cold and bitter inside. We struggle with the universal conundrum, do we lead, do we follow, or do we simply get out of the way? 

Some of us retreat into shells and shrink our sphere of influence – self, crew, station – in an attempt at self-preservation. Some give up entirely. Still others wage a misunderstood war – redefining insanity by continually launching headlong into a cement wall – in a vain effort to resuscitate a moribund fight. 

We try to bring others on board in the struggle, all the while the friction of the establishment has us in its undertow. What we desire most of all to preserve our way of hard work and dedication to the craft.


Our career can stall into a period marked by a lack of progress and little or no advancement because it is easier to roll over on our back and expose our belly in an act of total submission. 

But that’s not who we are. Quit is not in our vocabulary, fight and adaptation are. History shows us that wars are won by those who are students of battle stories and learn from the past. Full frontal assaults are suicidal. There is a better way. It might take much longer, but it will be less costly in terms of broken spirits and career casualties.

The road is more circuitous than we’d like, but we cannot forsake tomorrow’s battles for a lack of  immediate and overwhelming victory today. 

We search for the path though or around the detritus. We experience fleeting triumphs as we work against brazen lies in pursuit of the way. We will not allow what we cannot control interfere with what we can accomplish. 

We must augment people’s dreams, not disparage them.

Those who don’t lose their way are able to cup the ember in their hands and carry what remains of the fire and lay in wait until the time is right to move. They move through anger to acceptance and when it is safe to do so, they open their hands and issue the ember a breath of air. The flame of passion flickers back to life. 


In the shadows of the bare flame that fights off the gloom we see the others. All of us know that it is far better to be a light than to curse the darkness.

We assemble our team of fire service seekers and start spot fires, one knot, one training evolution, one small change at a time. We continually ignite these small fires and slowly we outflank the fortifications defilade before us. We take the fight from the open fields where we are easy targets to the streets and engage in a house to house, street to street fight aimed at cultural renaissance.

We take the fight underground. 

We call it positive subversion. We will not allow personal limits to be placed on us. We create our own beginning, middle, and ending. We search for the pass road through the mountains that loom before us. 

Eventually we find our way.

If we work at it as leaders, we can actually eliminate the conditions that make leadership necessary. Like a coach or a teacher who bridges the learning gap between themselves and their pupil until it disappears, we try to bring equality to our crew, station, and battalion, thus enabling greater relationships to blossom. 

If you lead your people properly there doesn’t necessarily need to be an end-game in sight. They don’t have to know where exactly they’re going so long as they believe in the concept, plan, or vision. If we’re doing it right, we allow our people to find their way and through shared ideology and innovation we all move forward together.

How do we foster our people and promote positive change?

  • Solicit input from the crew.
  • Under promise and over deliver.
  • Take accountability for your shortfalls and pass credit for success to your people.
  • Be disciplined in your approach to the craft. Your people want structure – they want to know what to expect.
  • Don’t keep knowledge to yourself, share what you learn.
  • Be a positive role model and encourage others who share a passion for the craft to become mentors too.
  • Communicate your passion, have fun, and show humility.

We can no more explain our passion to a person who has never experienced it than we can explain light to the blind. Passion is energy, it is palpable. We must never lose it.

A large part of what it means to lead is having the courage to disobey; not in a sophomorish revolt against the establishment simply for the sake of conflict, but because we feel that there is a better way to be found through independent thought, communication, innovation, and teamwork.

The passage is narrow and its walls are sheer. The road is strewn with the burned-out, still smoking hulks of what were the dreams and aspirations of those who preceded us. Real leadership is bringing those disenfranchised individuals back into the fold, helping them reclaim their dreams from those who took them away.

We must augment people’s dreams, not disparage them. Too often the opposite happens. Courage and character are developed by celebrating initiative and independence. Our time in service and in this world are limited, we cannot afford live our lives in a rigid adherence to dogma, living exclusively by someone else’s rules. Our flame will never be snuffed because the commitment never ends. 


Sometimes you have to wage the war of positive change on a small scale; one person, one drill, one company at a time. It requires perseverance – total buy-in – and long term commitment. Stay in the fight, it’s a war of attrition, not a shock and awe campaign.



Continue Reading

Increasing the Odds for a Successful Rescue (Fire Engineering Magazine – June, 2012)

06/01/2012
BY MARK vonAppen
On December 6, 2010, the crew of Long Beach (CA) Fire Department (LBFD) Engine 11 (E-11) responded to a residential fire with a two-year-old boy trapped. This article examines the actions of E-11’s crew and offers insight into the factors that made this incident end as it did. This incident is a reminder that each call has its unique aspects, is affected by circumstance, and often comes perilously close to turning out differently, whether an uplifting or a heartrending conclusion.

ENGINE 11

A heavy early-morning mist hung on East Market Street as E-11 returned to Station 11. The station’s engine and rescue had been running hard all day. As the crew finished setting up the equipment for the next run, they headed to the dorm to try to get some rest.
(1) Smoke was issuing from a second-story window on the arrival of Engine 11. [Photos courtesy of the Long Beach (CA) Fire Department.]
(1) Smoke was issuing from a second-story window on the arrival of Engine 11. [Photos courtesy of the Long Beach (CA) Fire Department.]
Twenty minutes later, the residents of an apartment complex a few miles away were awakened by the piercing shriek of a smoke detector and shouts of “Fire!” The phones in the LBFD dispatch center began to ring.
Dispatcher: Long Beach Fire Department paramedics.
(He hears indiscernible shouting from the caller.)
Dispatcher: Fire Department. What’s going on?
Caller: There’s a baby in the house.
Dispatcher: OK. What’s wrong with the baby in the house?
Caller: The house is on fire! It’s a newborn—a newborn!
Dispatcher: Which apartment is it?
Caller (shouting to another resident): What apartment number is it? Apartment number 9. (It was learned in later calls to the station that the fire apartment was actually number 5.)
Dispatcher: Apartment number 9?
Caller: Yes.
Dispatcher: Tell everyone to get out of the building. We’re on our way.
(Alert tones are sounded.)
Dispatcher: Area 11 Foxtrot—2676 E 55th Way, unit number 5 for an apartment fire. This will be an apartment fire with people trapped in apartment 5. Engine 11 is first due.

THE DISPATCH

Ascending peals of electronic alarm tones echoed throughout the station; fluorescent lights flickered. The crews, jolted from their half-slumber, hear the voice of a female dispatcher:
Area 11 Foxtrot—2676 E 55th Way unit number 5 for an apartment fire; this will be an apartment fire with people trapped in apartment 5. Engine 11 is first due.
In the squad bay, 10 firefighters pulled on their bunker boots and pants, donned their turnout coats, and took their assigned seats on one of the three rigs in the bay.
In less than a minute, all three units—E-11, Rescue 11, and Truck 11—were en route to the apartment fire. Engine 11 led they way, its siren wailing. While en route, the dispatch center advised the responding units that it had received multiple calls confirming the fire, and many of the callers reported that someone was trapped upstairs.
It was two miles from Station 11 to East 55th Way. The apartment complex was at the outer edge of Station 11’s response area. It was one of the longest runs in the station’s first-due district. The task force made excellent time; the first-due companies arrived in just under three and a half minutes. The public housing complex came into view on the driver’s side of E-11.

AT THE SCENE

E-11 slowed and passed the apartment building to give the captain a three-sided view and to leave room for the ladder truck. As the engine slowed, Firefighter Hakopian had one hand on the door handle and the other on the release for his seat belt and one foot in the step well. The captain evaluated the building and transmitted his size-up on the tactical channel.
(2) A view of the front entrance of the fire apartment.
(2) A view of the front entrance of the fire apartment.
“Engine 11 is on scene. Two-story garden style apartment building with light smoke showing from the second floor. We’ll be pulling a booster.”
Hakopian announced over the headset that he would pull the booster line because the fire building was on his side. This was not normally his assigned task. Pulling the line and operating the nozzle were the jobs of the number 1 firefighter, who sits behind the captain. Hakopian, riding in the number 3 position, was responsible for wrapping the hydrant to establish a water supply, assisting with maneuvering the attack hoseline, and performing an initial search for fire victims. The E-11 captain chose to work with water from the booster tank. Because of the report of a trapped occupant, water supply would be passed to the second-due engine.
As Hakopian stepped off the driver’s side of the engine and began his mental size-up of the structure, he noted lazy white smoke rising from a second-story window and eaves. The smoke was not under pressure, indicating that the fire had not yet gained momentum. He fastened the waist strap on his self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and got ready to pull the booster line. He thought, It looks like someone left something cooking on the stove too long.
A dozen or more people were gathered in the courtyard.
A panic-stricken woman in a nightgown shouted, “A child is trapped upstairs in the burning apartment.” She tugged at Hakopian’s arm and reported that a young boy was upstairs in the apartment. Hakopian told the engineer to have the firefighter in seat 3 pull the hoseline. He was going in to start the search.
The door to the apartment was open wide. The boy’s mother, who had gone out and left him alone in the apartment, had returned home and opened the door, noticed smoke, and began screaming hysterically. Residents of the complex had tried to rescue the little boy; they were driven back by smoke and fire. Hakopian paused at the entry point and peered through the open door; neither smoke nor fire was evident. He pushed inside and cleared the first floor.

INSIDE

Seeing that the first floor was free from hazards, Hakopian checked upstairs and noted languid muddy smoke backing down the stairwell. The smoke had banked close to waist level on the second floor. He forged up the stairs, taking care to stay low out of the smoke. He noticed a marked change in heat conditions as he moved from the cool of the first floor to the hellish surroundings of the second floor. He crested the stairs; visibility was clear beneath the smoke. He was able to chart the layout of the second floor. He now could see fire emanating from two bedrooms.
He entered a state of hyperfocus: His heart rate increased as he focused on the danger. He disregarded information his mind saw as irrelevant to the survival mission. He saw the environment with particular clarity and detail. It was exceptionally quiet at the top of the stairs. The only sounds were the crack and pop of the fire.
From his vantage point, he could see fire undulating from both bedrooms across the ceiling into the hallway. The fire cascaded mesmerizingly, resembling a luminous orange inverted waterfall. The fire’s brilliant display momentarily hypnotized him.
He could go no farther. The fire cut off his advance. At the top of the stairs, he put on his SCBA mask. Fastening his chin strap, he looked about for his captain and the nozzleman. Time was of the essence. He knew how quickly a fire left unchecked could progress. He clicked his mask-mounted regulator in place, took a deep breath, held it for a moment, exhaled slowly, and waited for his crew. He repeated the breathing procedure as he watched and waited. He used this controlled breathing technique to slow his heart rate. Intuitively, he recognized that he must keep his emotions in check. A tiny snap of fear would give him an edge in this fight; too much would be counterproductive.
Breathe in, hold it, and let it out.
Although he couldn’t see the nozzleman before he sprinted up the stairs, Hakopian knew it would be only seconds before he would appear. Hakopian planned to recon the second floor while visibility was still good; the nozzleman would be right behind him with the hoseline to protect the search. Hakopian waited at the top stairs for what seemed to be an eternity; in reality, it was only seconds. The nozzleman entered the apartment through the front door. He saw Hakopian above him on the stairs motioning for him to pass the hoseline up the stairs.
He handed the line to Hakopian and withdrew to the first floor to put on his mask. Hakopian took the small-diameter rubber hose and nozzle and aimed it toward the ceiling that was awash with fire. Fire continued to flow like a molten torrent across the ceiling from the near bedroom and into the second bedroom. Crouching low, Hakopian dispensed water from the adjustable nozzle in short, controlled bursts on a narrow stream setting. With each quick blast from his nozzle, the fire recoiled deeper into the first bedroom.
Hakopian was careful not to open the nozzle to a wide fog pattern, as this would drive heat and fire gas downward, decreasing the possibility of survival for anyone who may be trapped. Conditions at floor level would for a time remain relatively cool in comparison to the blistering temperatures at the ceiling, offering a greater chance of survival. A firefighter skilled in the art of water application could keep it that way. Armed with this knowledge, Hakopian jabbed at the fire and drove it back into its corner.
Andy Fredericks said, “Fog streams have their place, but not during interior firefighting. The safety of both building occupants and firefighters rests on the success of the first handline. An adequate flow volume delivered in the form of a straight or solid stream is the best means of ensuring this success.”

FLOOR COLLAPSE

The heat and fire conditions permitted Hakopian to advance in a low squat as he pushed toward the first bedroom, penciling the fire as he advanced. As he entered the first bedroom, his feet were cut from beneath him. His left foot penetrated the floor first; his body weight caused more of the floor to fail. He instinctively spread out in an attempt to catch himself. He extended his arms and legs outward. In an instant, he fell through the floor up to his chest and was resting on his elbows. He concluded that he had two basic options: He could try to free himself by pushing up from the hole in the floor or, if the floor continued to crumble from beneath him, he could plunge the remaining four feet and land in a heap on the first floor.
(3) The hole created when Firefighter Hakopian fell through the floor.
(3) The hole created when Firefighter Hakopian fell through the floor.
“It all happened so quickly; as I braced myself with my arms, I could look down and see light coming from the first floor. That’s when I knew I needed some help,” Hakopian would later explain in an interview.
As chance would have it, he was in the right position when the small section of floor disintegrated beneath him. Had he been crawling head-first, instead of crouching, he would have fallen more than 10 feet on his head or back, which could have resulted in serious injury. He could see as he looked between his body and the floor joists light coming from the first floor. He realized something was wrong. He kicked his legs and pushed himself up with his arms. His feet found a first-floor wall. In seconds, he pushed and kicked himself free of the hole.
The nozzleman clicked his regulator in place and was at the threshold as Hakopian sprang from the hole. Hakopian shouted to him from inside the bedroom: “Watch out; I just went down.”
The nozzleman has no idea of what had just taken place. He was on the first floor putting on his mask when his partner crashed through the second floor. Hakopian was up and out of the hole before anyone could notice. The nozzleman was incredulous. He wasn’t sure whether Hakopian had simply fallen or was entangled in wires that had fallen from the ceiling.
“What happened?” he asked as he scanned the floor with the thermal imaging camera (TIC) and saw the outline of the hole in the floor between him and his partner. It was still burning. The floor joists and the floor materials were burning. He scanned the bedroom from the hallway. Beyond the hole, he saw Hakopian near the bed as he rummaged through the room, scouring it urgently for the little boy. He completed his tactile search of the room, satisfied that no one was inside. He exited the room and joined the nozzleman in the hallway.
A firefighter from Engine 12 joined them in the passageway. He nudged past them, blasting the fire that was now seething from the second bedroom with the 1¾-inch hoseline he was carrying and being careful not to interrupt the delicate thermal balance. Holding at the first doorway with the booster line and the TIC, the nozzleman monitored fire conditions and protected the search, ensuring that another firefighter did not go through the floor.
The fire in the second bedroom withdrew as the E-12 firefighter prodded it. Surprisingly, heat conditions in the hallway were tolerable—in a small space such as this, heat usually develops rapidly. The window had failed in the second bedroom, carrying the heat away from the firefighters and the little boy, Justin. The combination of the open front door and the shattered window allowed the heat to escape, contributing greatly to Justin’s chances of survival.

THE RESCUE

Hakopian shoved past the E-12 nozzleman, who turned the hoseline to the fire coming from the closet. He had only a moment to distinguish the room’s layout before the room would go black. The fire and water combination would produce a steam cloud that would rob the firefighters of their ability to see. A closet was to his right, a bed was in the center of the room, and a window was to his left. Hakopian crashed the right side of the room, sweeping the area of the floor closest to the fire looking for the child. Finding nothing on the floor, he turned his focus to the bed. He searched the top. It was empty. He made his way to the foot of the bed and searched on the bed’s left side, nearest the window. The smoke and steam lifted momentarily. He looked down. He saw the shape of a young child’s hand. The child was lying face down and motionless on the floor.
(4) Fire issued from this closet in the room where the child was discovered.
(4) Fire issued from this closet in the room where the child was discovered.
He scooped the boy into his arms, cradling him gently and pulling him close to his body in an effort to shield him from the heat. The little boy did not stir when he was picked up. Hakopian felt heat from the little boy through his thick firefighting gloves. Hakopian didn’t check for breathing or a pulse. He knew he had to get the boy to fresh air quickly. He was hot to the touch; he had been in there cooking for a while. The boy did not move.
(5) Hakopian located the child to the left of the bed underneath the window.
(5) Hakopian located the child to the left of the bed underneath the window.
Justin was discovered in the only place in the room where he could possibly have survived, between the bed and the window. The fire that raged from the closet on the opposite side of the bed caused the window to shatter. The natural ventilation carried the intense heat right over Justin. The bed acted as a shield, insulating him from the inferno. The toddler was overcome by smoke but was relatively unburned. Hakopian started for the front door with the child in his arms. As he exited the bedroom, he could hear the chain saw of Truck 11 on the roof.

OUTSIDE

Rescue 11 and Engine 9, assigned to the Medical Group, had their medical equipment and a gurney ready to accept the toddler. Hakopian handed Justin to a paramedic. She placed the child on the bed. She and her partner immediately began resuscitation efforts. As they were about to start cardiopulmonary resuscitation, she touched Justin’s chest. His heart was beating. The four firefighters from E-9 supported the resuscitation attempts. The medics followed a well-rehearsed script as they worked to bring the little boy back to life.
Hakopian stepped away and removed his helmet and mask, his hands shaking. He could hear the pounding of his heart in his ears; his heart rate soared. He inhaled profoundly as he tried to regain his breath and slow his heart rate. He watched for any sign of life from the little boy as the medics continued to treat the child according to protocol. The boy showed no signs of life. Hakopian’s heart felt heavy as he observed the medics administering treatment. He thought the boy would not make it.
Until now, Hakopian didn’t have time to think about the personal aspect of the situation. From the time of dispatch and throughout the rescue, he had simply responded to the situation at hand. He couldn’t develop emotional attachments to the situation as it evolved; emotion would cloud his judgments and possibly even cause him to hesitate at the moment of rescue. Until now, he had only thought about the rescue in detached terms—he was searching for a victim, not a little boy. He did what he had to do. That victim now had a face and the tiny features of a two-year-old child. Now, he sensed the emotion of the circumstances, and they began to weigh on him. The little boy was not responding to treatment.
The crowd gathered in the courtyard was kept at a distance by police officers. The crowd had watched the entire event unfold before their eyes; some had even tried to rescue Justin before the fire department arrived. They were emotionally involved. They knew the little boy who played in the courtyard. The group had looked on helplessly as the firefighters arrived and dashed inside. They watched as the window on the second floor shattered and a sheet of flame issued angrily.
Their emotions alternated from hope to despair and then hope again as a firefighter emerged from the burning building with little Justin. The little boy could not have looked worse. All vestiges of life had left him.
The group of firefighters and paramedics that surround the gurney started as one toward the rescue truck. The gurney was loaded in the back. With the medical personnel accompanying the boy, the rig set off for Long Beach Memorial Hospital. On the way to the hospital, the boy began to breathe again.
Justin’s mother was arrested that night and charged with felony child abuse and neglect. Justin suffered severe smoke inhalation and second-degree burns on his feet. Investigators said if he had been in the apartment any longer, he might not have survived. He was listed in critical condition on his arrival at the hospital. After a few days, he made what doctors called a “miraculous recovery.” Today, he is alive and well.

ANALYSIS

The successful outcome of this incident was contingent on many factors, including the thorough training of the responders.
The fire had been burning in a ceiling void above the stove, the result of a faulty kitchen exhaust fan. It burned undetected until it had grown to the point so that the apartment’s occupants (Justin’s mother among them) noticed it when they returned home around 1:20 a.m. Little Justin, alone, likely sought refuge in his mother’s room, hiding next to the bed until carbon monoxide caused him to lose consciousness.
The rapid arrival of the first crews and their decisive action at the right time, while the fire was still developing, were other critical factors. Had the fire progressed beyond the development stage to flashover, it would not have been possible to search. The booster line would have been no match for the heat produced by the fire, and Justin would have burned to death.
The fire, although it had burned concealed in a void for almost five hours, was in its development or incipient stage when the crew from Station 11 arrived, allowing Hakopian to perform a quick reconnaissance of the second floor while it was still safe to do so.
Through the years, there has been significant discussion regarding the tactical employment of fog streams for firefighting purposes. Fog nozzles have been around for almost 150 years. Today, the disagreement between fog and straight-stream supporters continues. In this case, a victim was in the fire compartment, the fire was still in its growth phase, it was relatively unobstructed, and it had self-ventilated; therefore, the short, controlled straight stream attack was the most suitable fire control method. The E-11 crew did not use a fog pattern when attacking the fire, which would have pushed the products of combustion down to the floor, eliminating Justin’s chances of survival.
Hakopian’s fall happened before the rapid intervention company (RIC) was on scene. It is significant to point out that the RIC was from a mutual-aid agency and may not have been entirely familiar with LBFD’s operational policies. If Hakopian had become entrapped to a greater level and was not able to free himself, valuable time and resources would have been consumed in an attempt to rescue him. Under these circumstances, Justin, in all likelihood, would not have survived. When things go wrong on the fireground, they happen quickly and can swiftly get away from you, sometimes permanently. You must be prepared for the unexpected.
Keep in mind that, frequently, firefighter emergencies are remedied by the firefighter experiencing the emergency or a nearby crew. A large percentage of fireground emergencies, nearly 85 percent, occur in the first 20 minutes of an incident and involve the first-in company. Hakopian noted later: “I couldn’t call a Mayday even if I wanted to. I couldn’t reach my radio. I knew that my nozzleman was right there. I could hear the clicking of his regulator. Luckily, I pulled myself out.”
The trouble is the disaster arc gradually builds and then abruptly spikes—growing out of control rapidly. The more trouble firefighters are in and the more they try to correct it, the more trouble they are likely to get into—expending energy and air, which decreases their chances of reaching safety. When the floor crumbled beneath Hakopian, he was able to free himself. His ability to resolve his own rescue dilemma was a pivotal moment in this scenario.
It is important for firefighters to promptly open ceilings and void spaces to check for hidden fire as they move into and through the building and that they survey the building for indications of structural weakness and then advise fellow firefighters and company officers of their findings.
Search demands a high level of training and a timely completion. Numerous fireground operations demand these attributes; however, having to conduct searches in foreign environments under hazardous conditions, and within critical time constraints, sets search apart from other fireground activities.
Rescuing a victim from a fire can happen in one of two ways: remove the victim from the fire or use active fire suppression to eradicate the fire. Many small fires have become infernos because of the delay in suppression in favor of search and rescue operations, adding greatly to the hazard of the interior search. If it is quickly determined that crews are confronted with a room-and-contents fire that has not extended into the structural members, customary vent-enter-search (VES) tactics are generally appropriate. As the late Tom Brennan noted: “Venting of peaked-roof private dwellings immediately on arrival is a waste of time. Instead of venting, we need to try to reach any victims from inside the structure and from an opening to every room in which a human can survive from the outside—by VES or whatever means possible.”
Time and again, the importance of managing emotions while operating on the fireground becomes apparent. Hakopian and crew arrived to an extremely emotionally charged scene. The natural reaction of responders with less training experiencing these same conditions likely would have been to charge into the apartment, blast the fire indiscriminately, bring the fire to full extinguishment, and have another crew to perform the primary search. The LBFD personnel employed discipline and expertise in their suppression techniques. Through a thorough reading of the environment, the crew recognized the fire situation and that the fire conditions allowed for potential victim survival. E-11 blended suppression theory and search techniques, maintaining the fragile thermal balance and ensuring the greatest opportunity for success.
“If I can take one thing from our training that is invaluable, it is that we are always told to think on our feet,” Hakopian says. “We always hear in our department, ‘We’re not going to train you to be a robot.’ ” Well-scripted and choreographed fireground operations do not happen on their own. Firefighters must train to the point that thinking is removed from basic operations—taking the thinking out of fighting. However you rehearse will be how you will perform under stress. Chaos is measured in minutes and seconds. The ability to think on your feet and immediately adapt to the situation encountered is crucial when seconds count. Skills that are to be performed under stress must be practiced well in advance of the emergency.
Ron Avery, a law enforcement trainer and a world-class competitive pistol shooter, pushes the envelope in terms of stress-related training. He calls the process “stress indoctrination.” It is based on the concept that prior successes under stressful circumstances acclimatize you to similar situations and promote future success. Avery 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.
Strong training practices employed by the LBFD and the crews on scene paid off for the Station 11 crews with life-saving dividends. Intense training practices are intended to develop emotional attachment to the situations encountered. These deep attachments to the basics must be developed early and reinforced often. Strong fireground performance is the combination of communication (both verbal and nonverbal), 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 how to anticipate future actions. Here was a moment of truth where correct action arose out of an almost ideal blending of the linear and the nonlinear. Crews must believe that each firefighter and every company is highly trained and that they belong to a solid, skilled, efficient organization that knows where it is going and what it has to do.

Bibliography

Clumpner, Mike. “Three Words That Can Save Lives—Vent-Enter-Search (VES).” Retrieved from 2004 article,www.tacticalventilation.com.
Grossman, Dave with Christensen, Loren W. On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and Peace, Third Edition. (2008). Warrior Science Publications.
Hakopian, Charles. Personal interviews, February and March 2011.
Malone, Dandridge M. (U.S. Army Ret.). Small Unit Leadership: A Commonsense Approach. (1983). Random House Publishing Group.
Manzer, Tracy. “Rescued Toddler’s Condition Improving,” Long Beach Press Telegram, December 8, 2010.
McGrail, David M. Firefighting Operations in High-Rise and Standpipe-Equipped Buildings. (2007). PennWell Corporation.
Mittendorf, John. “The Most Dangerous Fireground Activity,” August 2010. Los Angeles Firemen’s Relief Fund.
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.
Continue Reading