A Long History of Short Memories

By: Mark vonAppen



I don’t care much for fictional accounts of fires, so whenever I sit through an after action review it is interesting to me to hear what happened according to the stories that are told.  Most don’t sound anything like any fire I have ever gone to, yet all of them sound exactly the same.  I get angry at the thought about having my time wasted as the players indulge in half-truths, and out-right lies.  These outstanding learning opportunities are often lost to fear and ignorance.  I usually withdraw mentally and emotionally as lie piles on top of lie.  I retreat into my own reality I think, “Being honest makes you the biggest jerk in the room.”  

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?  Are our stories so divergent because our minds can only process a limited amount of information due to strain, or is it easier to explain than that? Do we lie about our experiences?
The fire service has institutional memory.  We learn by telling and retelling stories.  We learn something new and as a group we change.”
What is the cost of knowing the truth about our past?  Damaged egos and wounded pride?  A tarnished department image?  We have to 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.
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.  We engage in back-patting sessions that create a false-positive feedback loop in which poor performance and decision making is reinforced by a hearty slap on the back and a firm hand shake.  
Lies have an echo chamber effect in our culture, we are parochial by nature and we have our own belief system that is confirmed by our personal biases and ideology.  The fire service has institutional memory.  We learn by telling and retelling stories.  We learn something new and as a group we change.  We have to tell the truth, otherwise lies become our truth.  Honest dialogue, surrounding topics on which we disagree,  and telling the true accounts of what really happened can help us guard against nightmare feedback loops.  
How many brothers and sisters would be with us this day if we all shared the real 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.

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.  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.  

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 cannot be honest in revealing the facts surrounding accidents and line of duty deaths then we might as well not talk about them at all.

I’m not particularly religious, but I hear that lying is a sin.  So is killing.  The more we lie, the more we contribute to future accidents, injuries, and death.  The lies that we pimp as truth today, either in print or through oral history, are the seeds of tomorrow’s disaster. The more we cultivate them by perpetuating falsehoods the deeper the roots go.  It is very difficult to uncoil the roots of what we are led to believe.  They can grow into tumors knitted into the fabric of who we are.  

We have a long history of short memories.  The dead keep their secrets, and the living agree upon the story that is easiest to tell.  If you don’t believe that, then you’re lying to yourself.

  

  
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Positions

By Mark vonAppen


If I could sit down with myself as a new officer and talk  about what’s important to remember, here is what I’d say.  

This is an excerpt from a speech I wrote for a recent promotional ceremony:

As you prepare to move into a riding position that the organization recognizes as a leadership spot, try to keep a few things in mind.  There are shiny things that accompany this new riding position; namely, a badge, a bugle or two, and possibly a glimmer of respect.  Remember that you got to where you are in life because of who you are.  If you’ve been leading, they’ll follow, if you haven’t, then you have a lot of work to do.

If you’ve been leading, don’t change who you are because you changed riding positions on the rig. Respect is found in who you’ve always been, you earn it with your every interaction.  If you have given due respect to every position you have held, that glimmer of respect will shine a little brighter.

You are, and must remain, a functional member of the team.  Remember that you are always a rider.   The team is more important than any individual.  Don’t get distracted by the shiny objects that festoon your collar and chest, they are worthless if you try to be something that you are not.  If you’re not you, those shiny things are just decoration, and they won’t mean much. 

Be more concerned with who you are and not who people think you should be.  Be yourself.  If you do, you never have to remember to be somebody else.  When things get tough, your character is what needs to shine more than your bugles and badge.

“Be yourself.  If you do, you never have to remember to be somebody else.”

The craft is about people.  Retain a sense of humility.  Take the craft more seriously than you take yourself.  This job is more real than any book you will ever read.  If you’re honest, you will be humbled every day by the greatness of your peers, by how much there is yet to learn, and by how much responsibility you own.  Hubris is one of life’s poisons; don’t drink from that cup.  Remember to maintain the beginners mind, and never lose the sense of wonder. 
Listen more than you talk.  There is a big difference between time served, and time in the service of others.  This is but another step in the life-long journey to mastery.  It’s not about your time in your riding position, it’s about what you do with your time in that position.  

Say to yourself, “May I forever strive to master the craft.”  Do your job, treat people right, give all out effort, and have an all in attitude.

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