Prepare To Win

By Mark vonAppen

There is a way of doing things that spoils the ending for us every time.  It’s about having a standard of performance that is communicated and understood from the bottom of the organization to the top. 

It’s called preparing to win. 

We can’t just show up and say, “Hey, I think we’re going to win today.”

That’s not how it works. 

When we are preparing to win, we practice hard and set goals for each training session.  We don’t go out and simply go through the motions.  We don’t phone it in.  

We set our minds on winning, even on the drill ground.  Practice is where we develop good habits. We must train proactively for any situation.  We have to know how we will react given any circumstance—we can’t guess.  We must practice for every possible scenario so we don’t get surprised.  We train to the point where we can anticipate what is going to happen next.

If we are doing our jobs, we are preparing to win every day.

Photo by author

When we are preparing to win, we perform the basics until muscle memory kicks in, then we add a sense of urgency and turn up the degree of difficulty.  We have to fight fatigue.  When fatigue sets in, we become clumsy and inattentive.  Mastery of the basics means our minds are available to deal with each threat as it presents itself.  That is what reduces injuries.

If we are doing our jobs, we are preparing to win every day.  

When we are preparing to win, we are writing our own ending.  When it’s over we can honestly say, “That turned out exactly how we expected it to.”

We should never be surprised by the way things turn out.  We are either preparing to win, or we are preparing to lose.  Either way, we know what the result will be.  

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Books, Smarts

Craig Rose photo

By Mark vonAppen

Increased value is being placed on education in the fire service these days. Without question, education is important, but it is the ability to blend academics with the physical, emotional, and mental aspects of our craft that enables us to be effective.  Time and again we see it, books don’t translate directly to smarts.

I know plenty of people with a trail of paper behind them a mile long that can’t process information in a rapid fire fashion, which leads to poor decision making under pressure.  When you get them out of the classroom, they fall flat on their face.  I also know plenty of people who have an equally long paper trail who think extremely well on their feet.

We all know them. 

On the flip side, I know people who barely made it out of high school who are some of the smartest, and most functionally intelligent people I know.  It is the ability to have both street smarts and a solid base of education in applicable subject matter that makes the great ones great. 

It’s the ability to take what we learn and practically apply it to the correct situation that turns books into smarts.   

In terms of education, we have to stay abreast of the latest scientific studies.  Perhaps equally important, we must know, in no uncertain terms, what we are personally capable of in all situations. Without the ability to apply it to the correct situation it is just as well left in the book it was found in.  We must continually function at a high level in an area where discretionary time does not exist.  It’s a tremendous challenge.  

The answer is relentless training and contingency planning that involve stressful situations which are germane to those we will face outside of the cool, calm, confines of the classroom or simulator (I call it the “pretendulator”).  The great ones “what if” things to death, and never stop preparing.

It takes a lot of work.

Do I want smart people on my crew?  Of course, but they have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time while crossing the street during rush hour traffic.  We don’t operate in black and white.  We operate almost entirely in the grey.  Those who look only to books or procedure for all of  their answers are rigid, inflexible, and at times, dangerous.

Complacency is the enemy, and success never comes easily.  Education by itself doesn’t mean a whole lot to me.  Books can’t be judged by their covers.  We must judge people by the size of their hearts and on their ability to perform.  

It’s the ability to take what we learn and practically apply it to the correct situation that turns books into smarts.

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Get Smart

Craig Rose photo

By Mark vonAppen

There is an ongoing devaluing of the fire problem from within our industry which leads to a lack of education among firefighters.  We seek the easy fix, the next distraction, or the short answer because we don’t have the attention span to sit and read (I’ll keep this short, I promise), watch a video, or get out and train. We are losing the ability to walk and chew gum at the same time.

We have to take enormously complicated tasks and reduce them to simple concepts, apply them to the correct circumstance and do it all without forgetting the what and why.  All of this has to occur in a condensed time frame while our body fights our mind’s (I know they’re connected) ability to process information.  It’s a complex balancing act in an immediately unforgiving environment.  It’s a knife fight in a phone booth.  The timid and uneducated will fail there without question.

It’s a knife fight in a phone booth.  Get smart. Get tough. There is no place to hide.

Until we place a premium on education and create functionally intelligent (physically and mentally) firefighters and promote functionally intelligent chief officers who have a firm grasp of the technical and tactical aspects of the job we are doomed to continue to dumb down the importance and the danger of what we do.  Education makes you respect the job.  Ignorance breeds bravado.  Fatigue and ignorance make cowards of us all.

The target does move.  The game has changed.  We try to do more with less even though we know we can’t.  The more we try to do with fewer people, the better and smarter we all need to be.

Get smart.  Get tough.  There is no place to hide.

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By Mark vonAppen

True story…

A captain, chauffeur, and 3 firefighters are sitting in the office at the firehouse in front of the station computer when the chief walks in and says, “Hey boys, what’s doing?”

Though it has all the beginnings of a good one, this isn’t a joke, although a sharp-tongued comment is forthcoming, rest assured.

Peering over the men’s shoulders the chief sees the image of an apartment building with smoke billowing from it flickering across the screen.  At the sight of it the he scoffs and rolls his eyes, “Humph, size ups, huh?  Yeah, that’s good to know, but its only 1% of what we do.  99% of being an officer is administration.”

To this clearly out of touch, and off-base comment the quick-witted, and brazen chauffeur replies with a chuckle, “Yeah chief, but that 1% is 100% of what will kill you.  Don’t you have some papers that need pushing?”

The rest of the crew snickers and internalizes a brusque, “Aw, damn!”

The captain shoots the driver a dirty look in mock-disapproval, knowing his phone will be ringing later.  Inside he wishes he was as whip-smart-hilarious and fearless as the chauffeur, but in his position…

The ear-bending phone call he will get from the chief will be worth the laugh he and the crew enjoyed.

The chief checks his watch, puffs his now flushed cheeks and declares that he is late for a meeting and slinks from the station, forgoing adieus.  It’s hard to argue when something makes sense.

Sound familiar?

The sell-out comment regarding statistics from the chief is as much a statement of fear and insecurity as it is about minimizing the importance of preparing for emergency response.  In the dynamic realm of the fire service, the military, and even competitive athletics – rehearsal, sweat, and preparation are everything.

The truth of the matter is in any endeavor where the stakes are high – dynamic, low frequency, high-risk situations – the amount of front loading, training and rehearsing, prior to the incident is, and must be, in total disproportion to the amount of time actually spent solving the problem. It is the natural order of things, problem solving occurs well in advance of any incident.

Simply put, if we are doing things right, the better part of our time should be spent on the less than 1% of emergency incidents that pose a risk of serious injury or death to our crew.  We must practice most vigorously for those situations that will kill us if we don’t get it right.  We must train proactively.

Stop for a moment and consider how often we are actually called upon to perform the skill set that we put so much time, thought, and sweat equity into.  How much of our time is truly consumed by the act of battling fire and performing hair-raising, death defying acts of courage to save the public from the ravages of unrestrained fire?  

Not much time really.

For the majority of us, the truth is the time spent on the pipe at a job is limited if not finite.  The time spent beforehand determines our fate.  It is up to us to discover that fate and determine it for ourselves.  We must know our competition, but more importantly, we must know ourselves.

The time spent in rehearsal pays dividends when the curtain goes up and we’re called upon to perform.  It isn’t glamorous, it isn’t exciting, but it is what separates the great from the mediocre and it helps ensure that when called upon to perform the 1% of what is 100% important we will function as we are trained. We’re only as good as our last performance, and we’re only as good as the work we put in before we are to compete.

Break down the amount of time that a professional football player spends in preparing for battle on Sunday. For arguments sake, lets say a 60 hour work week boils down to 15 minutes (maybe) of actual hand to hand, kick-the guys-ass-in-front-of-you-combat on the gridiron. The culmination of a weeks worth of work, not to mention training camp (usually 5-6 weeks), ends up working out to around .41% of time spent on the end product, the game.
Is this a disproportionate amount of time spent practicing something that football players rarely in terms of time and effort actually do? 


For the athlete results are all that matter. In the end, a player’s livelihood depends on how they perform. They are judged in wins and losses and nothing more.  Great athletes know the value of hard work and preparation, and the successful ones never stop preparing.

If we are doing things right, the better part of our time should be spent on the 1% of incidents that pose a risk of serious injury or death to our crew. 

The SEAL team that recently took down Bin Laden in Pakistan trained relentlessly, running scenario after scenario in a full-sized mock up of the secret compound – for what was to be a 20-minute operation.  They rehearsed for plan A, plan B, and plan C assiduously so that when things weren’t going as planned, things rarely do, the team had a fallback plan, and another, and another.

Matt Daniels Photo
During the storied incursion, one helicopter crashed, and a myriad of other unforeseen events transpired, but through preparation and a deep commitment to the team, and the warrior way, the super-secret operation was a success. The target was neutralized, and the SEALs suffered no casualties.  The team rehearsed time and again because their lives and – more importantly, if you ask them – the lives of American citizens hinged on their ability to perform when the green light was given by the commander-in-chief.  Their job – like ours – is about vigilance, preparation, and little else.  There are no secrets to success.  Success is the result of training, sweat equity, and the ability to learn from mistakes. 100% of what we to do physically and mentally, must prepare us for the 1% of what we are expected to do.

Those who understand preparation know how much sweat and study goes into achieving an elite level of performance.

Elite performers in any endeavor, a warrior, a gladiator, or a firefighter relish the notion that they must be prepared for anything, welcoming challenges, constantly preparing for the next test.  They all flourish on the drill ground and in competition, it is where they find their peace, it is where they come to know themselves.

They know the challenge lies in staying sharp, in keeping the competitive edge, and it’s about winning all the time.  Top performers are always ready, they know that being prepared is all that matters. 

These driven few often toil alone or in small, tight-knit, misunderstood groups; lost in preparation, fussing over details, and slick from sweat. The proof – the truth – is offered by performance, not by idle speculation. They are doers, and they don’t talk much about it.  They know that there is no substitute for hard work and dedication to the way. The way is theirs to possess, yet they will gladly share their knowledge with whoever chooses to walk beside them.
In order to get there, training situations must replicate what they are going to face. Training must be for specific situations to make sure all participants know their role in any given situation. Stressful situations must be trained for; everyone has to have the opportunity take reps – and remain engaged by taking mental reps while others perform the skill – so that they have confidence to step into any role and they’re not afraid to step up when called to do so.  They must understand their responsibility and how it relates to other evolutions – so that chemistry and fireground flow is maintained.

Every success at the operational level is resultant of hours of trials and tribulations in the classroom and on the drill grounds.

The mechanism for successful training delivery is maintaining focus and high concentration levels at all times. The player, firefighter, or warrior must trust that all skills are important and keys to their ability to achieve their desired goal. They must believe that the drill instructor has the ability to take them to Plus Ultra, beyond where they thought they could go or what they ever thought possible.

The destination might be scoring every time the team is in the red zone, making the all-important kill shot, or achieving knock down and completing a primary search in a safe and timely manner. The point is, it’s the journey of training that gets us there.

Great performances are the result of working your ass off and never giving up. Top performers know that there is no better test of their resolve than adversity. Each defeat, each loss, each practice, is its own vessel to improving performance in the future. 

Top performers know that there is no shortcut to being the best, their religion is the craft. In their church they don’t pray for easy lives.  They are pilgrims who pray to become better performers and surpass even their own lofty standards.

There are those who believe that fighting fire and time spent on emergencies is extremely limited, therefore our time spent in preparation for emergency response and monies allocated for continued training is rightfully reduced when budgets are slashed. Those who believe this to be true couldn’t be more wrong.  The work that we put in before the incident determines the outcome.  We must be trained – proactively – so that we can anticipate what will happen next. 

If we are not putting forth the majority of our time, energies, and resources towards tactical readiness – for those situations where we don’t have time to think and must react at the unconscious competence level – we are not living up to the promise that we made when we took our oath to protect and serve, and we’re not upholding the commitment we made to each other.

The 1% of what we do, when we really hang ourselves out there, is 100% of what the public relies upon us to be able to do.  They expect perfection from us and we should demand it of ourselves in order to be true to our word.  Peace of mind is achieved through the self-gratification of knowing that you trained as hard as you could to be the best you could possibly be. 

I asked a family friend over beers at Christmas, a member of the SEALs who was getting ready to deploy to Afghanistan for the fourth time two weeks later, “How often do you train to do your job?” 

I already knew the answer.  I’ve read the books, and I’ve seen the documentaries, but I wanted to hear it from him.

His reply, “All we do is prepare.”
As should we.
As firefighters, if we lose our cool and can’t keep our heads we are no better than an untrained civilian.  Success is not about luck, but rather about preparing to win.

Consistent performance is directly linked to consistent preparation.  The top performers in any realm are the masters of skill and emotion, they are not enslaved by them. Fear doesn’t keep you safe, your training does.  

99% of the job is preparation, 1% is application. Get your percentages right. 

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By Mark vonAppen

Everyone loves to reach into a cabinet and find a sharp axe or a well tuned halligan bar, but what about our most important tools, our people?  Who bears the responsibility to keep them sharp; to knock the rust off of them from time to time?  

We all do. 

Make no mistake, there will be times when everyone on the fire ground will need to go to work.  I call it the “next man up” principle.  We never know when our time will come, only that it will so we must be ready at all times.    

Accountability comes from looking out for one another and through a belief that we must stay sharp in order to live up to our responsibility to each other and to the community that we serve. We need people who can walk and chew gum at the same time.  It is a constant process of grinding and polishing to maintain a sense of urgency and purpose.

The most important tools to keep sharp don’t come in a box or ride in a cabinet, they wear seat belts.

Without functionally intelligent, capable, flesh and blood tools on the fire ground, our tools of steel are rendered all but useless.  We must invest in the best tools that we have, our people. When you look back at all of the successful and edgy flesh and blood tools that you helped create, you can breathe a little easier knowing that you did your part to pay it forward.  

Push limits.  The war on complacency will be won by people, not by machines.  The most important tools to keep sharp don’t come in a box or ride in a cabinet, they wear seat belts.

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If you have the chance, check out FULLY INVOLVED on Firefighter Toolbox.  I had the opportunity to talk leadership on the show a few months ago.  Give it a listen…

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.

Stay hungry!

Listen to FULLY INVOLVED on Firefighter Toolbox

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Closing The Deal

By Mark vonAppen

When a leadership vacuum exists, bad things happen.  Good people can disappear into silos of self-pity and self-defense and sometimes, the wrong type of leader can gain influence.   People start to think more about themselves, less about the group, and in the process, they destroy the team.

When people feel unappreciated, they will begin to turn on each other, undermining one another’s success, and their efforts are stepped up only in an attempt to make someone else look bad.  It’s a vicious and destructive cycle.
When people lose trust in the organization everyone will slow down their efforts and do just enough to survive.  They’re usually smart enough to do it in a way that won’t get noticed at first, or get them in trouble, but it’s there, and everyone knows it.  These unhappy individuals look to spread their disease until more people come on board and perhaps, their subtle mutiny will cause a system-wide failure.  It’s a depressing thing to see.

Firefighters are uber-sensative to issues of trust.  We all worked hard to get the job,  we expected to reach a place where hard work is rewarded: play by the rules, eclipse the minimum standard, and it will all be okay.  Well, the world isn’t fair, and fire department politics are often more complicated to navigate than the office politics governing the 9-5 crowd.  Sometimes exceeding the minimum makes you a target.  When you become a target, you seek cover so you don’t get hit.

Trust is the key to keeping people from turning to the dark side.  Informal, destructive leaders, who seek to undo all that is right, are nonetheless leaders and they have to nudged, or shoved, in the right direction.  By issuing forth fair, reasonable expectations ambiguity and anxiety are alleviated.  Most of all though, expectations establish trust.  Trust is built slowly, one brick at a time.  It can all come tumbling down quickly though, if even one brick is removed. 

It is very easy to become selfish in a group setting.  People shrink from responsibility and ask, “What’s in it for me?”  When things are at their most difficult, we have to drop our guard and say, “This is me, this is who I am. This is what I give to you, and here is what I expect in return.”  It is the heart of the “10 for you, 10 for me” leadership pact that I use with my crew.

The team belongs to those who get the job done and no one else.  Trust is hard found, and easily lost.

Leadership is nothing more than the ability to create influence.  This blog is centered on the belief that anyone can lead from anywhere in any organization.  The most difficult thing to do when things get tough is to make yourself vulnerable and continue to sacrifice.  Trust is hard found, and easily lost.   

How do we overcome leadership voids and ensure that the wrong types of leaders don’t rise to power?  The answer is simple, decide on a common belief system that works for the good of all. We do it because we care about our brothers and sisters.  Take the initiative and say, “If no one else is going to step up, I will.  I will lead unselfishly.”

The deal that we strike, through a common value system (Excellence, The BIG4), creates investment.  We sign our names to the contract, wear the sticker on our helmet, and we put it out there for the world to see.  The deal that we make breaks down barriers, helps us shoulder our responsibilities, and creates a starting point from which all decisions are made.  Having common values eliminates resentment and gives us a clear path to follow.  Ultimately, being accountable gets rid of all scapegoats. Assessing blame becomes less important when we hold ourselves accountable.  Because we are invested, when things go wrong we have nowhere to point the finger but at ourselves.

At the heart of all of this is peer pressure. We monitor each other, look out for each other, and we do it for each other.  We know that talking about change does little to influence the future, actions do.  We create a safe work environment where people are heard and  doors are truly open. In doing so, we create our own success. The team belongs to those who get the job done and no one else.    The leader’s job, no matter their rank, is to amplify the talents of those around them. 

It’s time to lead up, push past hidden agendas, follow a path that is clear, unselfish, and in the best interest of everyone.  When we do, the chaos will drop away.

Either you’re in or you’re out.  If you are not invested, you have no right to complain because you are not an active participant in shaping the future.  Stop wishing and start doing.  Nobody is going to tap you on the shoulder and ask, “Hey, do you want to be great at this?”  It is a conscious decision.  Excellence is not someone else’s responsibility, it is yours and mine.  Nobody, no matter how hard they try, can take that commitment away from us.  When we believe in the deal that we make with each other there is no telling how far we can go.
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By Mark vonAppen

There is a difference you can find in those who stand apart from the crowd, those people of character who just get it.  The intangible quality that sets them apart is something completely tangible.  It’s called a work ethic, and it is the oft forgotten element on the journey to building, or rebuilding a culture.  You can feel it when you touch a book, when you pick up a tool, or when you wipe your brow when it is slick from sweat. 

Too many times we give accolades for simply showing up, keeping a seat warm, or holding down a spot.  Commendations are handed out like participation ribbons.  We talk change, talk about improved performance, but we go no further.  Changes are made by those who take action.  Activity should never be confused with achievement, and just because you exist doesn’t mean you deserve.  

The privilege of wearing the uniform and the gift of service is something that is earned, it’s not a right.  Ask yourself, “Who’s in there?” Do you remember what it took to get to where you are today?  Do you remember the promises that you made?  Do you remember who you said you’d always be?  Find that person again.  Remember how you used to measure yourself.
Do your job right, because you said you would.  You said you’d do it forever that way.  Actions speak louder than words.  Ask yourself, “Who’s in there?” If you don’t like the answer, take the first step toward change.

The uniform doesn’t give you power or credibility, your actions do.  Wearing tights and a cape doesn’t mean you’ve earned the right to be called a super hero.  You are what you repeatedly do.  If you believe that excellence is your responsibility, and strive for it day in and day out, then that is where you will go.  If you belly-ache and talk change, but are unable or unwilling to make the change in yourself, then you will stand still. 

I want to do what I’m meant to do. When my career is over I want to be remembered for the things that cannot be measured.

The right to be proud and confident is one that is earned over a career of hard work, dedication, of attempts and failures.  Excellence isn’t easily achieved.  In the same way, neither is confidence. Confidence is hard-won and fleeting.  We are perceived to be larger than life creations that defy natural laws and are the very image of all that is right.  The fact is, we’re human.  We are full of faults, shortcomings, and insecurities.   To overcome these we must be tireless in the pursuit of our ideals.  

The importance of holding one another accountable cannot be understated. Accountability is a discipline.  We do it for the person next to us.  We do it for each other.  We do it on our own together.

I want to do what I’m meant to do.  I want to do it with passion.  I want to do what makes people feel.  When my career is over I want to be remembered for the things that cannot be measured.

I want to look back and say, “I did my job.”

When everything else has faded away nobody will remember the metrics, they’ll remember the person inside the uniform. If you’re not living up to who you said you’d always be, you will just be at a costume party for 30 years and you’ll be quickly forgotten.  If that’s what you choose, you can walk away from your career with only your certificate of attendance.  

I’m not going out like that.

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