The Long Road

By Mark vonAppen


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.

We set about changing the world in our own way, one knot, one hose evolution, or one emergency reponse at a time.  For a while, we are buoyed almost exclusively by the novelty of the road, 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 ourselves that the world, widely rumored to be flat, is indeed 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.  We want to share what we learn out there, and show our love of the craft to anyone who will listen.  The problem is, we feel like nobody’s listening.

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.

In doing so, we become rogues, outcasts in our own land.  Warnings are issued about people like us as we travel between firehouses.  We are not-so-subtly reminded that firefighters don’t make policy, chiefs do.

Look out for these guys.  They’re rogues…

(Gasp!)

Then it’s on to the next skirmish.  In our wake, plumes of smoke issue forth from bridges ablaze from the negative 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, 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.

As rogues, 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.  Our passion is relegated to an angry smolder.  It becomes personal.  We retreat deeper into training and feel isolated and scorned.
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 stop trying? 

Some of us retreat into shells and shrink our sphere of influence – self, crew, station – in an attempt at self-preservation.  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 concede tomorrow’s battles for a lack of immediate and overwhelming victory today.  We will not allow what we cannot control interfere with what we can accomplish.  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.  

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 will not allow personal limits to be placed on us.  

Eventually we find our way.  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. 

How do you bring the rogues home and promote positive change?
  • Solicit input
  • Take accountability for your shortfalls and pass credit for success to your people
  • Be disciplined in your approach to the craft
  • Create structure – people want to know what to expect
  • Don’t keep knowledge to yourself, share what you know
  • Be a positive role model and encourage others who share a passion for the craft to become mentors too
  • Communicate your passion
  • Show humility
  • Have fun
Rogues can no more explain 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 the walls are sheer.  The rogue’s 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.  

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.


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