Gold Stars

What “meets department standard” really means.

By: Mark vonAppen

As I prepare to board a plane for Chicago to test my ability to learn, grow, and thrive – another vision quest of sorts – I did some digging around and found an old post that had been gathering dust in the queue, patiently waiting its turn to be unleashed. 



Come with me to the land of make-believe.  Once upon a time, I thought I was a pretty good firefighter.  I could pull pre-connected hose line, tie a few knots, and strap my SCBA to my body in well under one minute. I felt confident in my ability to perform any one of the myriad of tricks I had learned in the academy and during my 16-month probationary period.  Success was all but assured, or so it seemed.  

Throw my pack?  Gold star.

Stretch a line to the tower?  
Gold star.

Tie a bowline?  
Gold star. 

All of the boxes were checked.  Employee meets the minimum standard.  Check.  You really tried, and you’re a super-nice guy; you get another gold star.  And on, and on.  If I was a child, mommy and daddy’s refrigerator would be festooned with all of the gold starred-smiley faced-rubber stamped reports of august progress I had received.  The 10-page performance evaluation that my company officer spent 5 minutes preparing cemented my mediocrity.  Meets, meets, meets, meets, meets.

My boots shined, my uniform pressed, I knew exactly how little was expected of me and nothing more.  I was glad handed into thinking I was great, and I excelled (if that is possible) at the minimum standard, all I had ever been expected to achieve.  I had become the one-trick-pony poster child.  I knew one way to do things, and one way only.  I had unknowingly accepted the notion that meeting the minimum standard was acceptable.  I was wooed into the divine trance that the department would teach me everything I needed to know in order to succeed, a fallacy that we wrap ourselves in prior to being born-again-hard into the fire service.

“Employee meets the minimum standard” means you suck.

My excuse for not knowing how to do something was the popular, “Well, nobody showed me how to do it so it must not be that important.”  Like many in society, I shrugged off the magnitude of my responsibility and placed the blame squarely on the world for not preparing me to be great.  It is an ideal that I truly detest these days, the notion that success can be achieved by simply showing up.  I’m a firefighter, therefore I deserve greatness.   It should come to me whether I earn it or not.

Was I ready?  I thought so.  Was I really ready?  I would find out sooner or later.

Set your bar high.

My second coming in the fire service occurred as I began to venture outside the cozy confines of the city in which I work.  I learned that there was a fire argot that I did not understand,  how difficult (sometimes impossible) it can be to rescue our own, that air consumption rates are not what they teach in the academy, and most humbling of all, that I was ill-prepared to function in a real-deal-no-gold-star-for-showing-up-unforgiving-real-life-you-die-if-you-lose-scenario.

As I started the journey – when my eyes, mind, and heart opened – I felt that I had a lot to learn and that the job is more difficult physically and mentally than anything I had ever experienced.  I learned that what we are expected to do never fits in a box that can be checked, and that we do not always succeed.  It was a slap to the face of my complacency, all of it scared the hell out of me. 

We are doing our brothers and sisters, and ourselves, a disservice if we do not plan for contingency upon contingency.  Our job is a constant game of speed chess where we must continually ask, “What is the next move?”  In order to grow, you must push yourself and others beyond their established safety zones.  Commitment is rare these days.  It cannot be forced upon people, it can only be suggested.  They have to truly want, and commit to change for it to happen.  Don’t wait for change to come to you, be change.  Start with you.

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All Out, All In

By: Mark vonAppen

Leadership is a process that we can all put our own unique spin on.  Here at FULLY INVOLVED, I see it as a course: learn, coach, lead, ignite, that is continually repeated throughout our career if we wish to maintain, and pass on, the passion for our craft.

Do your job, treat people right, give all out effort, and have an all in attitude.

Nothing gives a coach, or teacher, greater satisfaction than seeing the people that they have worked with, standing behind them when they need support, and leading from the front when adversity arises, develop and eventually go on to do great things – watching them become leaders in their way – in the organization.  That is what gives me the greatest sense of accomplishment, seeing people grow and become better than they thought they could be.  Your leadership will defined by the people that come through your firehouse, and who they become as a result of your teachings.

Start here.

Growth and forward progress are not possible without a mutual understanding of what the team goals are and how to achieve them.  You must outline what your expectations are, you must establish a standard of performance, and hold yourself and others to that standard. 

The FULLY INVOLVED standard of performance: Do your job, treat people right, give all out effort, and have an all in attitude.

Start here.  Start now.


  

  

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Bouncing Back

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 bounce back.

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Words Build, Words Break

By: Mark vonAppen


Running threads throughout many of the posts I have had in this blog involve trust.  Faith in the leader, the team, the guy next to you, and ultimately yourself are what I feel are keystones of successful operations.  The words we choose and the style of teaching we employ can make or break learning sessions.
Getting people in your charge to trust themselves involves building them up, and teaching in a positive manner in order to get the most out of them.  Most learners, no matter their age, do not respond to negative reinforcement.
Even when all other means have failed I’m not a fan of belittling students or players – ever.
In my opinion, a bullying style never works for very long. Short-term results may be realized but the long-term yield will be a disenfranchised student base.  The way that we treat people in training can build unity in the team or it can drive the group away – far away.  Once they are driven away, good luck capturing their attention again.
Former 49ers head coach Mike Singletary ranted about his team’s performance after a loss, “Cannot play with them.  Cannot coach them.  Cannot do it.  I want winners!”

Don’t quit on your guys. Show them that you believe in them.
The coach is saying, “I quit. I can’t do anything with these people.”
Would you follow that guy?  The 49ers didn’t, they won 6 and lost 10 that year.  Talk like that is probably why the team wasn’t successful.  Remember the belief part?  Belief and trust are earned through mutual respect, and one cannot force-feed respect.
Standing over a trainee with your arms folded, shaking your head disapprovingly as they struggle to grasp a concept or skill, only proves that you hunger for others to fail so you can assert your knowledge and authority.  This in no uncertain terms is bullying, which leads to resentment and flies in the face of creating 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 at the first attempt, train them on the desired behavior.  Allow for the opportunity to perform the skill correctly as many times as is necessary.  In doing so, you open their eyes to a flaw in their game and by giving them the opportunity to correct it, they will be stronger performers.  The classroom and the drill grounds serve essentially the same purpose – they are for explanation, demonstration, correction, and repetition.  The training ground is the place for failure, and it is the place where we must conquer the fear of failure in order to succeed.
We cannot coach at people in the same way we do not talk at people.  To reach them we must coach to them, just as our efforts in teaching should speak to the pupil.  A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment.  Cultivating trust in the training environment is a must have if we seek an elite level of performance.
Trust in the instructor and faith in the training mission allows for trainees to stretch themselves- to go to places outside their established comfort zones.  The results are trainees who seek greater depths of knowledge because they feel comfortable trying new things.
Build trust by caring for the person as an individual – shower them with genuine interest.  Place people in positions where they have the best chance of success.  The student must feel that the mentor will not quit on them – even when they fail.  The deal breaker is when the trainee does not put forth effort, they have to want it too.  The obligation of the student is to make every effort to absorb the coaching and try to improve.  Each person must feel that the leader is speaking to them personally even as the leader is addressing the group.
How do you develop trust?
  • Communication
  • Establish plans together – students must be honest self-evaluators
  • Execute the plan
  • Mutual exchange – have expectations for the student and allow for the students to have expectations of you (See: What to expect from one another – One Team, One Fight)
  • Be patient
  • Work overtime: Hold some coaching in reserve – speak to people individually about specific areas of improvement after training sessions – this shows interest by spending time outside of the classroom or drill ground
  • Don’t single out individuals in the group setting – people know how they performed
  • Don’t set people up for failure
  • Allow for failure – use setbacks as a learning tool
  • Celebrate success
  • Have a sense of humor
The instructors who made the biggest impression on my life are the ones who displayed the greatest amount of patience and empathy for me as I struggled to comprehend what they were trying to drive home.  As a high schooler who was more concerned with athletics (and girls) than academics I struggled with algebra, geometry, and the like.  As far as math was concerned, 2 + 2 was 3rd and 6 to me (my math teachers didn’t find me amusing either).  My algebra teacher and track coach, Steve Filios, spent hours with me over the course of the year before school so I would have a better chance at success in the classroom.
He didn’t get paid more to work with me, he simply connected with a kid who needed help.  I didn’t always perform as I was trained but overall I got where I needed to go because both of us had a lot of time invested.  He believed in me and as a result, I didn’t want to let him down.  It’s easy to work with people who get things right the first time.  The true test of a great teacher is the ability to reach those who do not get things right the first time.
Mr. Filios would say to me, “Mark, I know you can do it.”
I’m somewhat of a dullard and I have never gotten good at anything by not doing it – a lot.  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 that can observe a skill once and believe they have mastered it.  I want to know their secret.  It might just be that they were coached the right way from the very beginning. 

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