San Jose Firefighter Update

    March 21, 2012 10:17 PM by Mark vonAppen

    Knowing how to remove heated turnout gear is essential to limiting injuries
    A San Jose firefighter who fell through a roof last week during vertical ventilation operations was injured more severely than initially reported.  Early  reports were that the firefighter received burns to his hands and would not require surgery. It was determined late last week that he will require skin grafts to repair the damage to his hands.  The firefighter also sustained burns to his abdomen.


    On Sunday two Modesto firefighters (members of The Firefighter’s Burn Institute) who survived of a roof collapse spent time with the injured firefighter at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. The Modesto firefighters were in the area for a presentation for local firefighters on the near-miss that they experienced while conducting top-side ventilation on a single family dwelling in January, 2010.  


    In addition to reviewing safety for top-side ventilation this incident illustrates the importance of knowing how to remove heated turnout gear from an injured firefighter.  Remember the following steps when attempting to remove super-heated structural turnout gear from an injured firefighter. This is just one method, the goal is careful removal of the turnout gear without compression or water application:
    1. Loosen SCBA shoulder straps and unbuckle the waist strap.
    2. Open the storm flap and unclasp hooks.
    3. Open the coat, rolling it and the SCBA over the shoulders and off the arms.
    4. Remove gloves and finish removing the coat.
    5. Unclasp the pants, remove the suspenders allowing the pants to fall.
    6. Roll the pants over the boots and assist in removal.
    * If the firefighter is unconscious the goal is the same, though it will be more difficult to perform the skill.  Practice methods for both conscious and unconscious firefighters. Be sure to practice this skill while wearing structure gloves as the injured firefighter's heated gear - especially metal clasps and buckles - can cause burn injuries to those trying to help. 


    We wish the injured San Jose firefighter a speedy recovery.


    See: Firefighter Burn Injuries - Fire Engineering; April, 2010





    San Jose Firefighter Survives Roof Collapse

    March 16, 2012 2:42 PM by Mark vonAppen

    Truck 14 firefighter pulls himself from the hole in the roof
    A San Jose Firefighter is undergoing treatment for burns to his hands and waist at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center today after falling through a hole in the roof while conducting topside ventilation at a 4th alarm fire in an occupied 2 story apartment complex on March 15th.


    The firefighter fell through the roof and hung up on the ceiling joists keeping him from falling all the way through to the apartment below.  A fellow firefighter was able to assist him safely from the roof.


    Take the time to discuss ventilation operations in light of this near miss. 


    Some things to ponder:


    Topside ventilation is one of the most dangerous operations on the fire ground.  There are a number of possible disadvantages of vertical ventilation:
    • Structural collapse, disorientation, and falls from the roof
    • Topside ventilation takes time to perform and is sometimes impractical based upon response capabilities - not everybody has a truck company in the barn with them 
    • Some roofs are difficult to breach
    • Vertical ventilation is personnel intensive
    • Topside ventilation must be carefully coordinated with fire suppression efforts 


    The injured firefighter is assisted to an aerial ladder by a fellow firefighter

    Prior to making any opening in a fire involved structure, the IC or firefighter must consider the following:
    • Burn time - be skeptical before going up - favor a longer burn time as opposed to shorter
    • What are we accomplishing by venting - do we need to vent here?
    • What is the location of the fire?
    • Where are the victims located?
    • Where are interior crews operating?


    Have pre-designated escape routes
    LCES for roof operations:
    • L - Lookouts
    • C - Communication
    • E - Escape routes
    • S - Safety zones


    Stay safe by staying informed.  Firefighting is an art that we are required to perform without adequate preparation or practice, and without being allowed the preliminary trials, failures, and botches, that are essential to training and developing our skill set.  The fate we discover is often dictated by our level of engagement and preparation.


    "It was truly a life threatening situation," San Jose Fire Battalion Chief Robert Sapien said.  He stated that crews who battled the blaze "feel very fortunate" that the firefighter was not more severely injured.


    Observe the present and learn from the past.  It all matters.






    Additional links:
    See garden style apartment fire considerations video from "A Firefighter's Own Worst Enemy."


    Fire Engineering podcast on light weight truss construction by John Mittendorf














    Ghost to the Post

    February 13, 2012 10:32 PM by Mark vonAppen
    Freddie Solomon passed away at the age of 59.
    It is with sadness that I report the passing of Freddie Solomon today.  He was a truly kind man who enriched the lives of everyone he touched.  A month ago I wrote a piece about "Fabulous Freddie" called "The Ghost" detailing the brief interactions I had with Freddie in my adolescence.

    Freddie Solomon served as a youth mentor for the last two decades.


    Freddie taught me many things that I did not fully realize until I took inventory of all the great people who have influenced me in a positive manner as I struggle to be a good father, husband, person, and leader.  We could all stand to learn a lot from this mighty man.  He devoted his life to helping at-risk youth in the Tampa, FL area after his retirement from the NFL.


    "Freddie Solomon was a dear friend and a great teammate," Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana said. "There was no one who gave more on and off the field than Freddie. The kindness he demonstrated was inspirational to all that knew him. The warmth of his smile will be forever embedded in my heart."


    King Solomon said,"Train up a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it."


    Thank you King Freddie.  You are already missed.





    Humility

    February 9, 2012 3:33 PM by Mark vonAppen
    humility [hjuːˈmɪlɪtɪ]
    the state or quality of being humble


    An undercurrent in many of the posts in Fully Involved has to do with the leader's role in being humble, and the importance of passing credit to the people who play a big part in accomplishing a goal.  While it is true that there is a lot that goes into the responsibility of being an officer (or a coach), a large part of the credit for the success of the team is due to the hard work of the masses.  
    Harbaugh displays a deep commitment to each member of the team.


    The people that fall in line with the leader's vision are those who shoulder the burden of implementing the plan. They are the ones who must execute the game plan successfully. When the goal is attained, they deserve a great deal - if not all - of the credit.

    Jim Harbaugh and the 2011 San Francisco 49ers have been an excellent example of the leader - the one with the vision who inspires his disciples - deferring credit to those who do the work in accomplishing a goal. Harbaugh took a rudderless organization and turned it around with an unwavering commitment to his men. Though the team did not win it all - they were defeated in the NFC Championship game by the eventual Super Bowl winners, the New York Giants - Harbaugh was named The Associated Press' (AP) Coach of the Year.  The award is typically given to the coach who orchestrates the greatest turn-around of an organization during the previous season. Bill Walsh was the last 49ers coach to receive the award. It is an esteemed award to say the least.

    When Harbaugh was notified that he would be a candidate for the award, he was so humble in his response to the honor that he dispatched his starting quarterback - Alex Smith - to accept on his behalf. Harbaugh did not want to accept credit for a season made possible by his players.


    "I did not want to take a deep bow for what the players had done," he said. "And what our players did was play their hearts out and had an incredible season. They are the ones that hold our fate in their hands."


    Harbaugh has inspired his men by demonstrating strong beliefs, values, and vision.  He has set the example and creates enthusiasm for his vision with a strong dedication to the team, and by giving the credit to those who accomplish the work.  Harbaugh knows that his players are smart enough to understand that words alone do not accomplish much of anything.  People respond more to what they see than what they hear. What his men see is a leader who supports their efforts from a position of humility.  


    He is very modest in the assessment of his own importance. "Winning as a team is better than anything. It's great to share success."


    Harbaugh (The Jackhammer) is at it again.  He is laying the ground work for next season and the clean up crews at Lucas Oil Stadium haven't even finished sweeping up the confetti from the Super Bowl. He continues to show that he believes in the team concept, and that he places the success of the team above self-gratification.
    Alex Smith accepts the AP Coach of the Year Award on behalf of his coach.


    All members of the team are with the program. "We are in lock-step as an organization," Harbaugh said. When celebrating success, it is better to lead from the rear and put your people out front. Your people will appreciate you as a leader if you take the lead when danger and adversity arise.  


    The picture of Alex Smith accepting the AP Coach's award on his leader's behalf tells the story. Harbaugh puts his players out in front - giving them much deserved credit - but the leader looms large in the background, ever watchful, and supportive of their efforts.


    Think about it.







    Complexity

    February 8, 2012 6:22 PM by Mark vonAppen
    Fireground decision making is a critical factor in the outcome of any incident.  Fireground accidents are most often the result of a series of small cascading failures - both tactical and strategic - that lead to a major accident.  Every error compounds the next - this is also known as the sand pile effect.  


    Many things can influence whatare often construed as errors in judgement.  Errors in judgement can beinfluenced by both internal (emotional) and external (distractions) factors.  With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to dissect the actions of others whocame before and form an opinion, deciding on a better solution to the problem.  It is even easier when you have the test group to learn from.  

    In retrospect,predictable certainly is preventable.

    Some theorists, such as Charles Perrow the author of "Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies," suggest that accidents are simply a part of the natural order of thingsand cannot be completely eliminated.  In his book he describes systems and theirinteractions. "A complex system exhibits complex interactions when it has:unfamiliar, unplanned, or unexpected sequences that are not visible or notimmediately comprehensible."  Perrow’s description of a complex system sounds anawful lot like the fireground.


    Perrow goes on to describe complex, tightly coupled systems.  "Acomplex system is tightly coupled when it has: time-dependent processes whichcannot wait.  Rigidly orderedprocesses (as in sequence B must follow A). There is only one path to asuccessful outcome. There is very little slack in the system- requiring precisequantities of specific resources for successful operation." By Perrow’sdefinition, the fire ground is a complex, tightly coupled system. Perrow’s "Normal Accident Theory" suggests that in complex, tightly coupledsystems accidents are inevitable.

    It's all about how we recover.

    Organizations cannot train forunimagined, highly dangerous, never before seen situations. Close call and Line of Duty Death (LODD) reports are definitive learning devices; weare foolish if we do not examine them. The message that our fallen comrades aresending us through the reports is, "Don’t do what we did. Learn from oursacrifice."  It’sbeen said that it is unfortunate that we only get to die once, for there are somany lessons to be learned in death.

    Aggressive fire companies do not make mistakes in theheat of battle- they make decisions. Decisions are based upon the bestperception of the environment at the time. This is why being acutely aware ofthe environment and possessing the ability to adapt to changing conditions are vital.
     Preparing is itself an activity and action is preparation.
    Keeping in mind that fire ground decision making isdone in seconds with an endless list of often unknown variables is essential tothe learning process- to honor the memories of our brothers and sisters whoprecede us in death we must study their every action to aid in preventing thesame catastrophe again. Failure to learn from tragedies in the fire servicemeans that we are destined to keep reliving these “unexpected” circumstances ina terrible reality production of ground hog's day.

    If wecontinually study accident reports and learn from them, the lesser thelikelihood of being surprised. Peter Leschak writes, "Infire and other emergency operations, you must not only tolerate uncertainty,you must savor it or you won’t last long. The most efficient preparation is ageneral mental, physical and professional readiness nurtured over years oftraining and experience. You live to live. Preparing is itself an activity andaction is preparation."
    Know what you can do and what you can't do.


    Training and repetition are keys toavoiding potential errors in judgement. Captain Chesley Sullenberger speaks ofthe value of preparation in his book "Highest Duty". Sullenberger writes, “You can’t be awishful thinker. You have to know what you know and what you don’t know- whatyou can do and what you can’t do. You have to know what (you and) your(equipment) can and can’t do in every possible situation."

    Sullenberger is saying that we must train and constantly plan. Procedure, training, and planning arecertainly important, but a rigid adherence to a plan that is not befitting thechanging conditions can be suicidal.  Those who survive in high-octaneenvironments are those who can anticipate changes in the environment and adaptaccordingly.  They are the ones who can think and function under pressure.

    Know the rules. Know yourself. Remember, the game is about vigilance and preparation.

    Think about it.

    Good Days, Bad Days

    January 30, 2012 9:19 AM by Mark vonAppen
    Bad days happen - we all have them now and then. It is acceptable to have a bad day, but it is unacceptable to let bad days become bad habits. It is unacceptable not to train and exercise all resources at your disposal in order to improve performance and ensure that a bad habit does not show itself at the moment of truth.


    Remember Matt Flynn (Staying in the Game)? Flynn (the back-up quarterback to Aaron Rogers) started his first game of the season and had a record setting day in a win - because he was prepared.
    QB Matt Flynn versus Detroit.


    We must develop good habits and continually put them into practice at every training exercise and on each response. You can start by initiating every response from an aggressive standpoint. Using the term aggressive may sour some readers - I’m not talking about the safety vs. attack culture clash that the fire service is experiencing these days. I believe that "aggressive" is a positive term - there is a difference between being aggressive and being ignorant. Just because we know how to do something doesn't mean we should do it.  We must match the training to the appropriate situation. 


    There is a great close call video on vententersearch.com - VES Size-up - check it out and think about our ability to process information when under extreme stress. Be careful in your judgements - if you know about tunnel vision and auditory exclusion you'll be more gentle in your assessment of the actions taken. We lose half our brain when the bell hits and the other half when we arrive at a working fire. All of us have done it. It's just a question of whether or not we get caught.


    Go or no go?

    • What is the situation?
    • What is the go / no go indicator?
    • Under what circumstances do we perform the skill and why?
    • What is your crew's responsibility in the scheme?
    • What are the consequences if the skill is misapplied?
    • What is the back-up plan (audible)?

    Can we be aggressively ignorant? Yup, that's when Mr. Murphy shows up and enforces his #1 law. I'd like to try to act on the informed side of aggression rather than the ignorant and timid side. I don't always get it right and it's a constant learning process - I learn something new everyday from someone.


    Train aggressively so when it's real, it's like training. Palo Alto Truck 6 at a live fire training session in Mountain View, CA in 2009.
    So, to get to the point - what I am referring to is aggressively employing tactics and strategy on every response- wearing appropriate PPE, speaking the language by using correct ICS or fire command terminology, and if you want to get really weird, perform a tool drop appropriate for the structure. We must aggressively assert our knowledge, skills, and abilities at every opportunity. We have to be ready, we have to keep our heads in the game.

    We should try taking ourselves seriously once in a while - it's a grown up game we play with grown up consequences. We owe it to each other and to the public.

    Call me crazy but I think it makes good sense.  Drop some canvas in the street every now and then. Try it, the advantages are two fold. Your crew will reap the benefits of increased hands on training, and the public gets to see us at work. It's a win - win.

    To keep bad days from becoming bad habits we must accomplish core skills repeatedly to reinforce the correct behavior when the bullets are flying for real.  We become the things we do. Your crew will not rise to the level of combat- they will sink to the level of their training. Aggressively seeking knowledge and asserting our training helps prepare us not only for the unknown but more importantly, it helps us be ready for the greater danger - the incomprehensible - those circumstances never before seen or able to be immediately understood.

    Think about it.

    Words Build, Words Break

    January 26, 2012 4:43 PM by Mark vonAppen
    Paul Combs' January editorial.
    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.
    Jim Harbaugh said this of Alex Smith (the 49ers starting quarterback), "Most guys would say 'to heck with that, I've had enough, time for a fresh start somewhere else.' I felt I could really work with that kid. That’s the thing that intrigued me most - his character. Character like that is somewhere between rare and extinct. Not just in football players but in anybody."
     Jim Harbaugh pledged his allegiance to his once beleaguered quarterback prior to the season.
    Whatever is going on in San Francisco the players are listening. The team finished the regular season with 13 wins and 3 losses. The coaching and team building are working.
    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. With words we build and with words we break.

    Think about it.


    "The Ghost"

    January 24, 2012 10:05 PM by Mark vonAppen

    " Get out Get out of my office! " Raucous shouts resonate through the concrete field house on the Sierra College campus. A football player shuffles through the door with his head down and starts for the showers. The disembodied voice booms again,  "Who's  n ext? "

    The next challenger enters the ring. The grayish-blue haze of cigarette smoke was the first thing to greet those who dared challenge "The Ghost" in a round of bones. Next came mocking shouts of good-natured ridicule. He was the king of the broom closet, he let everyone know it and would not be dethroned by anybody. Freddie Solomon would unceremoniously dispatch those foolish enough to enter his office - the janitors closet - and test him in a match of bones (dominoes). He sat atop a metal stool at the workbench, mops and brooms the members of his court, smoking a cigarette, clad only in his grass-stained football pants and his cut-off 49ers undershirt - his rule absolute, his authority unquestioned.

    The previous invader vanquished, he sought another victim. I would cower as I walked past the door carrying an arm load of soiled jerseys to the laundry room. I knew anyone who walked by the open door with the smoke wafting from it would be subject to the king's ire. "Hey, little vonAppen! You want some too?" I didn't want to challenge the king in his court so I would smile, wave, and go about the business of cleaning up the dirty laundry. I offered deference in the presence of royalty.

    "That's what I thought!"

    As a youth I spent 6 weeks with my father in the blistering heat of Rocklin, California at Sierra Community College as a ball boy at 49ers training camp. My father and I shared a tiny dorm room on the campus during the summer starting when I was in the 6th grade and continuing through high school. I made $100 cash per week - huge money for a kid at the time. My father was an assistant coach for the 49ers from 1983 - 1989 and I had the privilege of being a part of something that most kids can only dream of.

    The days at training camp were long for everybody, most of all for the players and coaches. Luckily, I possessed the boundless energy of adolescence and was up by 6 am and off to breakfast at the cafeteria, then to the field house to get ready for the morning practice - the long days didn't phase me much. I reported to the field house and helped distribute the clean laundry from the night before, hanging the players freshly washed and often still warm jerseys on their lockers before practice.

    I then set off on foot (or sometimes on a "borrowed" golf cart) to the 3 practice fields beyond the locker room and placed cones in neat rows every 5 yards along the boundaries of the fields. Next, I headed to the baseball dugout to grab tackling dummies and horsed them to strategic locations across the various fields in preparation for the morning drills. By now my feet were completely soaked from the heavy dew on the grass and I sloshed in my shoes back to the field house to pack a bag of footballs for the players who were now about to hit the field.

    When I was 12, I was awkward, ungainly, and I couldn't catch a football - at all. My job as a ball boy involved a lot of catching and throwing. It was painfully embarrassing for me when a player, like let's say, Joe Montana would throw me a ball and I would bat it around as if he had just tossed me a hand grenade with the pin pulled.

    Number 88, "The Ghost," was always out on the field before everyone else. Freddie was a wide receiver for the team back then and he took an interest in me. He could sense my panic and consternation as a ball zipped in my direction bounced off my hands as I awkwardly tried to grab it.

    "Hey, little vonAppen. Come over here. We have some work to do."

    I trotted over and off to the side of the field we'd play catch. Or more to the point, he would throw me the ball and I would try not to bludgeon it to death with the baseball bats I called hands. Fast Freddie played soft-toss with me to build up my confidence. He worked with me before practice in the wet grass, after practice in the gathering heat of late morning, and stayed late after practice again in the withering incandescence of the afternoon sun to help me learn how to catch the ball. Freddie loved to teach, and he especially loved helping kids in any way he could even if it was as simple as teaching them how to catch a football.

    "Little vonAppen, listen up, turn your hands this way when the ball comes at you like this," he would patiently demonstrate the correct method for plucking the ball from the air. "Thumbs together - like this. Pinkies together - like that."

    Frustrated, I dropped the ball time and again and he'd say, "That's alright. Stick with it. We'll get there. Don't quit."

    I didn't always want to stay after practice but Freddie wouldn't let me quit. I had to get better or else he wouldn't let me off the field. It wasn't about playing catch. It was an exercise in kindness, interest, and patience.

    Freddie took time when he was hot and tired and spent it with me so I wouldn't look like a fool when I was on the field with the team. In his way, he left his mark on me forever. For the years he was with the 49ers and throughout my football playing days I always thought of him as I caught the ball, looked it all the way in to the crook of my arm, and tucked it tightly to my body to ensure I wouldn't fumble. Freddie didn't just teach me how to catch a ball, he taught me about patience - not just in teaching but, how to find patience in myself. I learned that this little big man always had time for kids and gave of it freely even amidst the stresses of an NFL training camp.

    Since his retirement from the NFL Freddie has been serving as a mentor for at-risk youth in the Tampa, Florida area which he has called home since he hung up his helmet for the last time. He has been a community coordinator for the Hillsborough County Sheriffs Department since 1991 and the department recently dedicated the sheriffs annex in his name.

    The inscription on the plaque with a life-size image of Freddie Solomon with children in football uniforms says:

    FREDDIE SOLOMON

    "COACH"

    "AS I KNEELED BEFORE THE THRONE OF SOLOMON, THE KING OF KINGS SAID UNTO ME, 'THERE IS MORE WORK TO BE DONE.'"

    -Freddie Solomon

    Freddie was diagnosed with colon cancer that spread to his liver last year. He has been battling the disease and enduring brutal bouts of chemotherapy. His spirits remain high. In his address to the public at the dedication of the annex that now bears his name and likeness he said, "It takes a family. It takes a team to make it work. I'm only as good as the people around me."

    In a small way I was witness to Freddie Solomon's charity and for a fleeting moment in time I was touched by his kindness. He has built a life of making things better for other people. Only now, as he battles cancer am I aware of the impact the small token of teaching had on me. The night I found out that Freddie Solomon had cancer I lay awake and stared at the ceiling pondering how small gestures from big personalities leave lasting imprints on lives. I thought of what a fierce competitor Freddie is and how kind he was to me as a kid. When we're young, we think those people, be they loved ones or sports heroes, will always be there - forever. In our fallible memory, they're suspended in time, always the way they were years ago.

    Sometimes, these treasured memories are our favorite places to visit.

    I am thankful to have crossed paths with such a great human being. For me, there is more work to be done. Much more. Freddie has taught many people, young and old, that we must pay forward the virtues instilled in us by those we call dear. He taught those whose lives he has touched that humility is about patience, and unearthing the best in others.

    King Solomon said, "Your own soul is nourished when you are kind."

    Thank you King Freddie. Your soul most certainly is well nourished.

    God Bless.

















    Alchemy in San Francisco

    January 16, 2012 12:19 PM by Mark vonAppen
    Last week I posted a piece about Jim Harbaugh and the power of belief in a cause. The week prior to that, a post about Matt Flynn, preparation, and keeping your head in the game.


    Smith and the 49ers have a leader they believe in.
    I realize that this is a Fire Engineering blog, and not a sports blog, but bearing witness to the transformation of the San Francisco 49ers - and in particular Alex Smith (the starting quarterback) - makes one marvel at how for nearly 10 years an organization got it so wrong in terms of leadership and direction and why now they seem to be getting it right.

    Where were the 49ers going wrong and how did they turn it around? They continue to pull things together - pulling out an improbable win in the waning seconds of the divisional playoffs - by rallying around one another. The 49ers and Alex Smith have a leader that believes in them - and a leader that they believe in as a team - this synergy is where the turnaround starts and maybe where it ends.

    Can it really be that simple? Sometimes it is.

    Quality Coaching

    Much of Alex Smith's success this season can be attributed to quality coaching. Smith has shown flashes of brilliance in his career; but overall, due to lack of a solid coaching foundation, he has not been able to perform week-in and week-out with consistency. The pieces were there - the sports pundits could be heard saying that the 49ers were one of the most talented teams in the league - the most talented team that wasn't winning.

    In any endeavor, results are based on high standards and the ability to achieve those standards consistently. Previous years had seen 49ers players subjected to many changes in leadership styles, and they had continually had the carpet pulled from beneath their feet. The only consistency in the organization was inconsistency - and nothing was working.

    The previous two head coaches - Mike Nolan, and Mike Singletary - could easily have been described as impatient, irritable, vague, ruthless, egomaniacal bullies. At every opportunity they would publicly chastise players, and routinely threw Smith under the bus, questioning his toughness and his leadership skills.

    So much for praising in public and criticizing in private.

    The books say leadership is not a mysterious and innate quality that certain individuals are born into. True, some have a tendency toward leadership traits, such as a stalwart personality - but a strong personality on its own does not guarantee that a person will be successful in a leadership role. Sometimes the opposite is true.

    Nolan and Singletary both possessed strong leadership characteristics, but couldn't get their men to respond.

    What doesn't work as a leader:
    • Being ruthless
    • Being a loner
    • Being uncooperative
    • Being ambiguous
    • Being a dictator
    Strong personalities, when left unchecked, can lead to a despotic form of leadership. Those who choose to lead by oppression and absolute power are not paying forward positive leadership traits, and often cause those who must follow this positional leader to detach from the organization in order to survive.

    Which brings us to the current coaching staff. Harbaugh preaches the team concept and will not disparage his men at any time. Harbaugh has built a solid support system around his quarterback - pledging his allegiance to him even before the season started. 

    There has been no ambiguity. Harbaugh saw something in the kid who had been the scapegoat for all of the team's ills, and knew he could reach him. He has placed people around Smith who touch him in different ways. Smith has lacked quality coaching in the past - now that he has unwavering support and quality instruction there is no telling how far he and his team can go. A group of men once adrift in a sea of uncertainty are now one win away from the Super Bowl.

    How many times over the last year have you read articles in fire service publications about the vacuum that exists in our realm as a result of the massive exodus of veterans? We have to constantly move forward and look to the past for guidance.

    The key is that we must always move forward.

    Many times, all people need to be successful is for someone to believe in them. There are many great brothers and sisters in the fire service today who are working towards leading the profession forward with forethought and insight as great as that of anyone of any generation, past or present.

    Like Smith, these “doers” gain confidence if people in leadership positions recognize their drive and support their efforts. If their attempts at positive change are continually cast off or snubbed, their talent will wither and die.
    Alex Smith has the right people leading him.

    It happens all the time.

    Frank Gore (the 49ers starting running back) said this of his quarterback, "(Smith) deserves all this. He has had some tough times. We have the right people leading us. And he's got the right people leading him."

    Egos Checked at the Door

    Harbaugh has instilled trust in his men - he motivates them with an unflinching commitment to the team. He does this by defending them from outsiders and constantly supporting their efforts. He is honest with them - but most of all he is a team builder. Harbaugh is a great communicator who relates to his guys as a man who has been there before. He has credibility because he says what he means and means what he says.

    Harbaugh knows what it means to be the underdog. Harbaugh was himself an NFL quarterback who was never the most gifted athletically and played with a chip on his shoulder the size of an aircraft carrier. He excelled because of a relentless pursuit of perfection and by getting his teammates to believe in him. He coaches the same way. Our job as leaders is to believe in our people and give them the opportunity to go wherever they want to go.


    Give them the credit when they have earned it.
    • Be trustworthy
    • Make decisions
    • Have foresight
    • Encourage the team concept

    Harbaugh has cultivated the same strong leadership qualities that he possesses in his contemporary, Alex Smith. In all likelihood, if Harbaugh had not landed the head job in San Francisco, Smith might have bounced around the league for a few more years and not amounted to much. This would not have been for lack of talent, but rather, due to the fact that he had been so beaten down by the previous coaching staffs and the national media.

    After a while, when people say enough bad things about you, you start to believe it.

    Harbaugh gives all the credit to his guys. He once told the media, "Don't talk to me, talk to the guys. They're the ones that won the game."

    You have nothing to lose and everything to gain when your people succeed. Everybody wins because you got there together. Their growth and success is your legacy. If you can look down the line at all of the people who came through your firehouse that went on to be successful, charismatic, and understanding leaders, then you can be proud of the rich heritage that you helped to create.

    It doesn’t just come from you - we are compilation pieces - collages made from everyone we have ever known. Pieces of our every contact mold us into who we are today. Today’s interactions change what we will be tomorrow. We are the result of a lifetime’s worth of input from all the leadership we have observed, be it positive or negative. Take in everything you are witness to. If we are keen observers of those around us, the learning never stops.

    The 49ers and their coaching staff in particular are true alchemists. They have taken largely unappreciated talent and transformed it into something extraordinary. There isn’t a whole lot that can take place without first believing.

    Outstanding coaches are often great simplifiers who can cut through nonsense and doubt to create a solution that everyone can rally around.



















    The Jackhammer

    January 12, 2012 9:01 AM by Mark vonAppen
    Harbaugh is an inspirer of men.
    With the divisional playoffs fast approaching and the local team - the 49ers - hosting their first playoff game since 2003, one cannot bear witness to the turn around in the Bay Area and not ponder how it came to be.


    The power of belief in a cause, in a person, and in each other cannot be overstated when you look at what coach Jim Harbaugh has brought to every coaching post he has held since becoming a head coach at the University of San Diego (USD) in 2004.

    An enthusiasm unknown to mankind

    Harbaugh has brought a winning angle with him wherever he has traveled. From a small school with no scholarships - USD, to a PAC 12 school with lofty academic standards - Stanford - that makes winning difficult year in and year out, to a moribund franchise in the NFL that had lost its way almost entirely - the 49ers - foundering in search of an identity in the shadow of what once was.
    Jim Harbaugh (center) at Stanford

    "What Jim Harbaugh has done with the 49ers is really remarkable, because people didn't think this was a good team. He has a quarterback who people have written off as a bust. Jim Harbaugh has gotten everything he can out of Alex Smith (the 49ers starting quarterback). He's a very smart coach, and a very good inspirer of men."
    -NPR

    Harbaugh has a personality that some would call difficult. Acerbic by some standards he says of himself, "I know, I'm moody and complicated." Stubborn and persistent, he is not one to mince words or indulge in undue pleasantries.  Jim Harbaugh is not going to change who he is for anybody - cowards do that.

    "We ask no quarter. We give no quarter."

    Harbaugh isn't afraid to lead.  Sometimes being a leader means making other people angry.
    Harbaugh goes further, "I don't take vacations, I don't get sick. I don't observe major holidays. I'm a jackhammer." All you have to do is look back at the footage of Harbaugh and coach Jim Schwartz (Detroit Lions) at the mid-field stripe after the 49ers last minute win at Detroit on October 16, 2011 and you'll see it, the exuberance of a wild man, and a passion for his craft that inspires an almost religious devotion from those in his charge.

    Who has it better than us? Nobody.

    By all accounts there isn't some complicated formula that Harbaugh and his staff have come up with to almost instantly turn around their work place wherever they go - its not Theory X, Y, or Z of leadership. It's simple really - be a stand up guy, say what you mean, and mean what you say. All decisions are based on what is in the best interest of the collective, not the individual. If you want to be an individual you need to find someplace else to work.

    People only ask a few things of a leader - and it's not too much to ask:
    • Be forthright
    • Have vision
    • Give clear direction
    • Have a game plan that works
    Harbaugh's commitment to his team and his way - the concept of one team working together toward the ultimate goal are uncompromising. That's what his guys love about him - that's why they would follow him anywhere and through anything. This belief - this collective soul - that Harbaugh inspires in his men wherever he goes is what drives his success. The belief in the team concept is so strong and in turn the players belief in the leader so fervent, that success - while not assured - is made much more possible. Harbaugh's players go hard for him because he believes in them.

    Harbaugh makes people believe.
    Harbaugh's leadership is effective because it is relentless. He works his craft and his guys hard. If people don't like him he doesn't seem to care.


    He's real. "I'm not going to apologize for being fired up. Apologies always sound like excuses to me. If it offends you or anybody else then so be it."

    Harbaugh doesn't need to be a media darling. He is not about saying the right thing or being liked - his leadership will be defined by his results and how much his players revere him - not by how he is judged by outsiders. Jim Harbaugh has that something - that God given talent that transcendent leaders have - he makes people believe.









    Trouble Maker? Don't Be So Sure

    January 9, 2012 10:04 PM by Mark vonAppen

    What makes a good probationary firefighter? You might answer any of a number of things. Words like diligent, considerate, quiet, and obedient come to mind. Certainly these are some desirable attributes for a new firefighter to possess but it begs the question. Are the traits that we romanticize in the ideal probationary firefighter stifling critical thinking and stunting the development of the individual and in turn the growth of the organization?

    Are these the traits of a leader?

    New firefighters must be provided with psychological safety in order to exercise their ability to think for themselves and solve problems. If they are allowed this individual sanctuary from sharp- shooters they will become stronger contributors to the company, the organization, and perhaps the fire service as a whole.

    Be seen and not heard

    Cultural mores in the fire service often dictate that new firefighters follow orders and established traditions without question. The (flawed) theory is that the new firefighter lacks any experience base to draw from and is totally reliant on the officer and other crew- members to achieve the goal- whatever it may be.

    Respect for the officer, senior members of the department and for the scalar organization within the fire service is important so that the machine runs efficiently. This piece is not meant to confront the fire service org chart but rather to challenge the way that new employees are sometimes treated.

    Do we teach our new firefighters to be irrationally acquiescent?

    The parochial nature of our profession sometimes passes on toxic traditions.

    A distinct problem potentially arises in the fire service when firefighters experience a lack of psychological safety and a marked fear of authority. This fear of authority can manifest itself either from the formal leader- the officer- or the informal leader- the station bully.

    Stand still and look pretty.

    Heard it before?

    How about this one?

    You’ve got two ears and one mouth so you can listen twice as much as you talk.

    Almost anyone would describe a good new firefighter as one that is seen and not heard, who obediently follows orders, and doesn’t ask a lot of questions. Everybody loves the new firefighter who performs his/ her duties without question. They’re easy to deal with.

    Are these firefighters always your strongest fire ground performers? Are they innovators? Are there times where it is appropriate to question how and why things are done?

    Certainly.

    Everyone is a safety officer, right? Irreverent statements such as, “Probies should be seen and not heard,” are completely contrary to telling everyone to be a safety officer.

    If you see something important speak up.

    Followed soon after by, “Don’t speak your mind until you’ve been here at least ten years.”

    In other words, “If I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.”

    Hmmm. What to do?

    If a new firefighter is constantly told that their opinion is not valued at any time they will be less likely to speak up at a critical moment on the fire ground.

    Research in the airline industry has shown that new co-pilots have failed to take assertive action when the pilot has become incapacitated either in simulations or during in-flight emergencies.These co-pilots failed to act because on some level they feared that they would upset their boss by speaking up or attempting to take control of a situation.

    Deference shown at the wrong time can have catastrophic results. In 1979, a commuter jet crashed, in whole or in part, because the co-pilot (still on probation) failed to take over for the captain (known for his abrasive style) who became incapacitated.

    Who’s calling the MAYDAY when the middle- aged (and grossly overweight) captain has a heart attack 100 feet in on the hose line? It could be the nozzle firefighter- perhaps a probie at their first fire- they had better be up to the task and know when to speak up. We need to teach our new people to be part of a team while at the same time teaching them to be self- assured, inquisitive, free- thinking problem solvers.

    Questions affect learning

    It is interesting- to me, anyway- that in IFSTA Company Officer, Fourth Edition, Ch 2- Leadership, the curriculum identifies the traits that differentiate managers from leaders. In short, managers maintain while leaders push the envelope. Here are some examples:

    • Managers ask how and when; leaders ask what and why.
    • Managers accept the status quo; leaders challenge the status quo.
    • Managers are classic good soldiers; leaders are their own people.

    Supplant the word manager for firefighter and take a moment to consider how new firefighters are sometimes treated. We often tell our firefighters to accept the status quo, to be good soldiers, to be drones. “That’s how it is done here. We’ve always done it that way.”

    Be a "yes" man and you'll go far my son. Challenge the conventional and you're in for a bumpy ride. Fasten your seat-belt.

    In so many words, “Don’t challenge the establishment. Everything is fine the way it is.”

    Now go back and look at what the traits of a leader are. If you have a firefighter, company officer, or chief who asks a lot of questions, who challenges accepted practice by bringing in fresh ideas, stands out from the crowd, and is their own person, what label are they given?

    Remember, these are considered leadership traits.

    Would you call them noisy complainers (a euphemism for big pain in the ass)?

    I’ll bet in most organizations anywhere in the world the answer is yes, they are considered huge pains in the ass. Once again fire service literature and traditions are a study in contradiction.

    As a whole we encourage new people to maintain, not innovate.

    Psychological safety for these individuals who exhibit critical thinking is crucial in developing self- reliance in new firefighters. Firefighters who are noisy complainers and considered troublemakers are often the ones who inspire the greatest learning. They are the ones who talk about their mistakes and the mistakes of others in the interest of furthering knowledge. They are the ones who constantly question what and why to seek better solutions than what is simply accepted practice. These types of questioners sometimes annoy managers and their peers but are welcomed by those who seek to lead the fire service forward.

    These questions cause others to be introspective- and sometimes reflecting on past practices is painful.

    We must not crush an individual’s will to learn and innovate. The ability to trust in the leader to allow for mistakes and even failure in training situations is central to cultivating the spirit of learning and innovation.

    Question your answers

    Creation of a safe work environment where people have the confidence to act without fear of reprimand or mockery is key to building trust, the most important part of getting the most out of people.

    A safe work environment involves the following:

    • Suspending judgement
    • Aiming high
    • Avoiding cynicism
    • Encouraging others

    Firefighters are especially vulnerable to making mistakes when things appear to be progressing according to routine. When we don’t notice things are amiss we mindlessly apply SOG’s and go along with the program and may miss menacing warning signs from the environment. All firefighters must be able to think beyond the linear- the logical- and think with anticipation.

    To guard against complacency we must constantly ask, “What’s up?” We must be wary of success and suspicious of quiet periods. We must teach and encourage firefighters to act with anticipation, to guard against complacency. Teach firefighters to ask questions and plan for potential problems no matter how normal things appear. When a nuisance fire alarm is received- in a building that you have been to a number of times without incident- you must be doubly cautious (see "Tragedy in a Residential High Rise, Memphis, Tennessee," Fire Engineering March 1995).

    Remember- pride makes us fake- being humble keeps us real. We must maintain a beginner’s attitude in order to keep learning and maintain awareness. Beginners question everything- they should- in doing so their minds remain open to new information. As soon as we think we have figured out the situation it changes.

    If we have our minds made up that there is only one right way to do something, new information will not be able to dislodge the notion. We must allow new information to reshape our mental models. Hence, maintaining an open mind has us constantly curious about our circumstances so we continually reassess our situation.

    We must allow new firefighters to ask questions.

    Some of our best ideas and plans come from listening to others. Take advantage of all the training available to you and ask a lot of questions of the veterans- they are a plentiful source of knowledge- all you have to do is ask.

    Listen a little more

    Cooperation is central to the function of a team. We must cooperate on all levels with our coworkers. If you want to be heard as a boss you have to listen. We must be interested in finding the best way of delivering service. The best way might not always be the old way.

    It is all too easy to crush a new persons spirit. Nothing takes away initiative like not being heard.To continually engage those we work with we must listen to what people have to say. It takes courage for young people to stand up and speak. Likewise, it takes courage to listen to your subordinates.

    There is a firefighter in my department who started an Internet sales company in his dorm room in college. He and some of his classmates- a euphemism for drinking buddies- at The University of California, Berkeley thought it would be cool to start an on-line shoe company; it’s called Zappos (you may have heard of it). He grew tired of the dotcom life and put himself through paramedic school so he could become a firefighter, his life- long dream. I’m sure the fire service could benefit from listening to a guy like that. He’s smart, innovative, and he brings a wealth of customer service and business savvy to the department.

    When he was the new guy do you think anyone listened to him about his areas of expertise? Developing business models that work and the selection of quality employees might be something the fire service should explore.

    I've got just the guy for the job.

    It is a travesty that for years his ideas and enthusiasm were largely ignored. We run the risk of having much of our young talent die on the vine if their efforts a consistently disregarded.

    Times have changed immeasurably in recent years. The fire service can no longer afford to have all ideas come from a central point at the top of the organization. We must regain the spirit of innovation that has propelled the fire service forward in days past and buoyed it in difficult times.

    Don’t be so quick to silence those who raise questions. Are they really trouble- makers? Don’t be so sure.

    Good listeners are not only popular everywhere but eventually they learn something. The next great idea could come from your firehouse, it might be trapped inside of the timid new firefighter who has been told to keep their mouth shut and mop the floor.

    Think about it.

    MARK vonAPPEN, a member of the Palo Alto (CA) Fire Department since 1998, is assigned to the suppression division where he holds the rank of 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, the South Bay Regional Fire Academy, a recruit Instructor for Palo Alto Fire, and a member of the “Nobody Gets Left Behind” training group.

    Bibliography:

    Sutton, Robert I., “Good Boss, Bad Boss” 2010 Business Plus

    Allyn, Dr. Kimberly, “Rising to Real Leadership” 2011 Fire Presentations

    IFSTA Company Officer 4th Edition

    Trouble Maker

    January 9, 2012 10:04 PM by Mark vonAppen

    What makes a good probationary firefighter? You might answer any of a number of things. Words like diligent, considerate, quiet, and obedient come to mind. Certainly these are some desirable attributes for a new firefighter to possess but it begs the question. Are the traits that we romanticize in the ideal probationary firefighter stifling critical thinking and stunting the development of the individual and in turn the growth of the organization?

    Are these the traits of a leader?

    New firefighters must be provided with psychological safety in order to exercise their ability to think for themselves and solve problems. If they are allowed this individual sanctuary from sharp- shooters they will become stronger contributors to the company, the organization, and perhaps the fire service as a whole.

    Be seen and not heard

    Cultural mores in the fire service often dictate that new firefighters follow orders and established traditions without question. The (flawed) theory is that the new firefighter lacks any experience base to draw from and is totally reliant on the officer and other crew- members to achieve the goal- whatever it may be.

    Respect for the officer, senior members of the department and for the scalar organization within the fire service is important so that the machine runs efficiently. This piece is not meant to confront the fire service org chart but rather to challenge the way that new employees are sometimes treated.

    Do we teach our new firefighters to be irrationally acquiescent?

    The parochial nature of our profession sometimes passes on toxic traditions.

    A distinct problem potentially arises in the fire service when firefighters experience a lack of psychological safety and a marked fear of authority. This fear of authority can manifest itself either from the formal leader- the officer- or the informal leader- the station bully.

    Stand still and look pretty.

    Heard it before?

    How about this one?

    You’ve got two ears and one mouth so you can listen twice as much as you talk. Right - now stand there and look stupid.

    Almost anyone would describe a good new firefighter as one that is seen and not heard, who obediently follows orders, and doesn’t ask a lot of questions. Everybody loves the new firefighter who performs his/ her duties without question. They’re easy to deal with.

    Are these firefighters always your strongest fire ground performers? Are they innovators? Are there times where it is appropriate to question how and why things are done?

    Certainly.

    Everyone is a safety officer, right? Irreverent statements such as, “Probies should be seen and not heard,” are completely contrary to telling everyone to be a safety officer.

    If you see something important speak up.

    Followed soon after by, “Don’t speak your mind until you’ve been here at least ten years.”

    In other words, “If I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.”

    Hmmm. What to do?

    If a new firefighter is constantly told that their opinion is not valued at any time they will be less likely to speak up at a critical moment on the fire ground.

    Research in the airline industry has shown that new co-pilots have failed to take assertive action when the pilot has become incapacitated either in simulations or during in-flight emergencies.These co-pilots failed to act because on some level they feared that they would upset their boss by speaking up or attempting to take control of a situation.

    Deference shown at the wrong time can have catastrophic results. In 1979, a commuter jet crashed, in whole or in part, because the co-pilot (still on probation) failed to take over for the captain (known for his abrasive style) who became incapacitated.

    Who’s calling the MAYDAY when the middle- aged (and grossly overweight) captain has a heart attack 100 feet in on the hose line? It could be the nozzle firefighter- perhaps a probie at their first fire- they had better be up to the task and know when to speak up. We need to teach our new people to be part of a team while at the same time teaching them to be self- assured, inquisitive, free- thinking problem solvers.

    Questions affect learning

    It is interesting- to me, anyway- that in IFSTA Company Officer, Fourth Edition, Ch 2- Leadership, the curriculum identifies the traits that differentiate managers from leaders. In short, managers maintain while leaders push the envelope. Here are some examples:

    • Managers ask how and when; leaders ask what and why.
    • Managers accept the status quo; leaders challenge the status quo.
    • Managers are classic good soldiers; leaders are their own people.

    Supplant the word manager for firefighter and take a moment to consider how new firefighters are sometimes treated. We often tell our firefighters to accept the status quo, to be good soldiers, to be drones. “That’s how it is done here. We’ve always done it that way.”

    Be a "yes" man and you'll go far my son. Challenge the conventional and you're in for a bumpy ride. Fasten your seat-belt.

    In so many words, “Don’t challenge the establishment. Everything is fine the way it is.”

    Now go back and look at what the traits of a leader are. If you have a firefighter, company officer, or chief who asks a lot of questions, who challenges accepted practice by bringing in fresh ideas, stands out from the crowd, and is their own person, what label are they given?

    Remember, these are considered leadership traits.

    Would you call them noisy complainers (a euphemism for big pain in the ass)?

    I’ll bet in most organizations anywhere in the world the answer is yes, they are considered huge pains in the ass. Once again fire service literature and traditions are a study in contradiction.

    As a whole we encourage new people to maintain, not innovate.

    Psychological safety for these individuals who exhibit critical thinking is crucial in developing self- reliance in new firefighters. Firefighters who are noisy complainers and considered troublemakers are often the ones who inspire the greatest learning. They are the ones who talk about their mistakes and the mistakes of others in the interest of furthering knowledge. They are the ones who constantly question what and why to seek better solutions than what is simply accepted practice. These types of questioners sometimes annoy managers and their peers but are welcomed by those who seek to lead the fire service forward.

    These questions cause others to be introspective- and sometimes reflecting on past practices is painful.

    We must not crush an individual’s will to learn and innovate. The ability to trust in the leader to allow for mistakes and even failure in training situations is central to cultivating the spirit of learning and innovation.

    Question your answers

    Creation of a safe work environment where people have the confidence to act without fear of reprimand or mockery is key to building trust, the most important part of getting the most out of people.

    A safe work environment involves the following:

    • Suspending judgement
    • Aiming high
    • Avoiding cynicism
    • Encouraging others

    Firefighters are especially vulnerable to making mistakes when things appear to be progressing according to routine. When we don’t notice things are amiss we mindlessly apply SOG’s and go along with the program and may miss menacing warning signs from the environment. All firefighters must be able to think beyond the linear- the logical- and think with anticipation.

    To guard against complacency we must constantly ask, “What’s up?” We must be wary of success and suspicious of quiet periods. We must teach and encourage firefighters to act with anticipation, to guard against complacency. Teach firefighters to ask questions and plan for potential problems no matter how normal things appear. When a nuisance fire alarm is received- in a building that you have been to a number of times without incident- you must be doubly cautious (see "Tragedy in a Residential High Rise, Memphis, Tennessee," Fire Engineering March 1995).

    Remember- pride makes us fake- being humble keeps us real. We must maintain a beginner’s attitude in order to keep learning and maintain awareness. Beginners question everything- they should- in doing so their minds remain open to new information. As soon as we think we have figured out the situation it changes.

    If we have our minds made up that there is only one right way to do something, new information will not be able to dislodge the notion. We must allow new information to reshape our mental models. Hence, maintaining an open mind has us constantly curious about our circumstances so we continually reassess our situation.

    We must allow new firefighters to ask questions.

    Some of our best ideas and plans come from listening to others. Take advantage of all the training available to you and ask a lot of questions of the veterans- they are a plentiful source of knowledge- all you have to do is ask.

    Listen a little more

    Cooperation is central to the function of a team. We must cooperate on all levels with our coworkers. If you want to be heard as a boss you have to listen. We must be interested in finding the best way of delivering service. The best way might not always be the old way.

    It is all too easy to crush a new persons spirit. Nothing takes away initiative like not being heard.To continually engage those we work with we must listen to what people have to say. It takes courage for young people to stand up and speak. Likewise, it takes courage to listen to your subordinates.

    There is a firefighter in my department who started an Internet sales company in his dorm room in college. He and some of his classmates- a euphemism for drinking buddies- at The University of California, Berkeley thought it would be cool to start an on-line shoe company; it’s called Zappos (you may have heard of it). He grew tired of the dotcom life and put himself through paramedic school so he could become a firefighter, his life- long dream. I’m sure the fire service could benefit from listening to a guy like that. He’s smart, innovative, and he brings a wealth of customer service and business savvy to the department.

    When he was the new guy do you think anyone listened to him about his areas of expertise? Developing business models that work and the selection of quality employees might be something the fire service should explore.

    I've got just the guy for the job.

    It is a travesty that for years his ideas and enthusiasm were largely ignored. We run the risk of having much of our young talent die on the vine if their efforts a consistently disregarded.

    Times have changed immeasurably in recent years. The fire service can no longer afford to have all ideas come from a central point at the top of the organization. We must regain the spirit of innovation that has propelled the fire service forward in days past and buoyed it in difficult times.

    Don’t be so quick to silence those who raise questions. Are they really trouble- makers? Don’t be so sure.

    Good listeners are not only popular everywhere but eventually they learn something. The next great idea could come from your firehouse, it might be trapped inside of the timid new firefighter who has been told to keep their mouth shut and mop the floor.

    Think about it.

    MARK vonAPPEN, a member of the Palo Alto (CA) Fire Department since 1998, is assigned to the suppression division where he holds the rank of 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, the South Bay Regional Fire Academy, a recruit Instructor for Palo Alto Fire, and a member of the “Nobody Gets Left Behind” training group.

    Bibliography:

    Sutton, Robert I., “Good Boss, Bad Boss” 2010 Business Plus

    Allyn, Dr. Kimberly, “Rising to Real Leadership” 2011 Fire Presentations

    IFSTA Company Officer 4th Edition

    Staying in the Game

    January 5, 2012 2:07 PM by Mark vonAppen

    Keeping team members engaged during training is paramount to achieving high performance levels when they are called upon to act. How do we accomplish this in training when our fires continue to decline, when our training budgets are being slashed- when our firefighters have to continually come off the bench and perform at elite levels on skills not practiced for weeks or even months? How do we keep our heads in the game?

    We do it by taking mental reps and staying engaged all the time. Easier said than done you say?

    Hear me out.

    January 1, 2012

    Green Bay, Wisconsin—With Aaron Rodgers (the Packers starting quarterback) resting for the playoffs, Matt Flynn (the second string quarterback) knew he had to be ready to run the Green Bay Packers offense.

    Was he ready?

    You bet ya.

    Rodgers was bundled up on the sidelines in cold and blustery conditions at Lambeau Field, and Flynn had a career day with 480 yards passing and 6 touchdown passes - the final coming with 1:10 left in the final stanza, giving the Packers a 45-41 victory over the Detroit Lions (a playoff team) in an improbable regular season finale.

    “It’s very humbling when you think about all the great quarterbacks who have played here. I couldn’t have done it by myself- obviously.”

    Flynn is right- he couldn’t have done it without his teammates. He couldn’t have done it if his coaching hadn’t prepared him. His team would not have been able to win if Flynn wasn’t prepared to perform. Flynn’s performance was the result of what was largely mental preparation for a record setting day for he and the Packers.

    Did this guy come out of nowhere to set these records?

    Nope.

    His performance on New Years Day 2012 was the product of a lot of reps- some of them physical but most of them mental.

    Matt Flynn has been with the Packers all year- he has been the patient understudy to Aaron Rodgers waiting in the wings, studying his lines, knowing his part so that when the lead actor goes down, he can step in and play the lead in Hamlet without the audience having a clue- each soliloquy must be expertly delivered if the show is to go on. He has had his head in the game all season, in every snap of every practice, in every film session, and in every play of every game as he stood on the sideline wearing a baseball cap and carrying a clipboard.

    Coming off the bench every day

    How does a football player perform at such a high level against a quality foe after seeing so little playing time throughout a sixteen game crusade? The parallel we are drawing may seem- on the surface at least- to trivialize our profession by making comparisons to a game played for entertainment value on a weekly basis.

    Much of what we are expected to excel in as rescue professionals equates to coming off the bench cold, without adequate time or training, and the public (our fans) demands that we perform at an expert level every time. The diversity of our profession, with our fires becoming few and far between, makes it nearly impossible to be experts in everything we are thrown into.

    But we have to be- so we’d better find a way.

    When we fumble the ball- in a manner of speaking- the results are real and often irreversible.We may live and die with our favorite sports team on a superficial or emotional level on Sundays in the stands or on the couch but we could literally live or die based upon our depth of knowledge and preparation for combat on any given day in the fire service. We have to be ready to go no matter what we are confronted with.

    Time out! We weren't ready for this one. I'm stumped coach, got any ideas?

    Hot, dark, and smoky with people trapped is not the time to hesitate and consult the playbook. There are no time outs to confer with the head coach while the house is ablaze. Through proper training- whether it is physical or vicarious- we can be prepared come what may. We, like Matt Flynn on that windy, snowy, January Sunday at Lambeau Field have to be ready for whatever the opponents– Lions, Tigers, Bears, or fires- throw our way.

    The consequences on the gridiron are nowhere near comparison to those of the fireground, but the level of preparation in the arena of sport is much higher on the whole than what exists in our theater of operation. With so much potentially at stake this cannot be so. We can learn a lot from the sense of urgency in preparation that successful athletes and coaches employ when preparing to face an opponent.

    Eyes and ears required

    When we are called upon, the eyes of our brothers and sisters, the eyes of the community, and now, sometimes the eyes of the world are upon us. We had better be ready. We had better be the guy who has had his head in the game- preparing mentally and physically so that when the starter goes down, and we are faced with adverse conditions- we can hit the field and lead the team or arrive at the incident and play a supporting role towards solving the problem without the team missing a beat.

    We can go out and practice- but practice alone does not necessarily improve performance. Training sessions must be germane to the situation to which the drill is designed to replicate. Drills must be as realistic as possible to recreate the stressful situations under which we must thrive. To truly maximize time spent in training everyone must engage in the drills while they are performed- not just the firefighter performing the task. Those not actively involved in performing the task must observe intently to get the vicarious experience of performing the skill. Each skill builds on the previous skill- the knowledge compounds as the training session progresses.

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

    The destination might be scoring every time the team is in the red zone 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.

    All training has value in some form- it is equally important to you and your teammates. The reason for this is if you’re not actively engaged in every training evolution- either physically or vicariously- then you run the risk of making the same mistake as the person who performed the skill before you. This might be because you were looking up at the clouds, or thinking about lunch as the teaching and training was taking place- wasting the short amount of time we are afforded during the day. This cannot be allowed to happen.

    We must have the trainees eyes and ears- their undivided attention- at all times.

    Thrust into action

    During training sessions keep those not actively involved in the physical aspect of the drill mentally engaged by asking those waiting their turn some questions. This is done to get a reading on whether or not they’re paying attention.

    Keep people involved vicariously:

    • What is the situation?
    • Under what circumstances do we perform the skill and why?
    • What is your responsibility in the scheme/ evolution?
    • What are the consequences if the skill is misapplied?
    • What is the back up plan (audible) if this doesn't work?

    Even if a trainee is not actively involved in a training evolution they should observe those who are to see how they perform the skill. If you’re not the starter, lack experience, or if there are long intervals between high RPM incidents, and you only get a small amount of practice you have to be involved in 100% of the training evolutions. You must always be mentally engaged- in order to receive the benefit of the vicarious experience. If we are unable to get every trainee the physical reps to create the neuromuscular pathways to ensure muscle memory then we must get them mental reps.

    Our business is serious- this we can say without hesitation. We have to engage our members in training and they have to get the message in order to perform at a high level. The way to truly achieve this is to ask yourself some questions.

    • How do we coach our people in the most effective manner?
    • What is the best form of delivery for the subject matter?
    • Are we maximizing participation and repetition in the time allotted?

    Safe, efficient, and effective operations take time and energy to pull off. Nothing much can be accomplished by individual means. Successful campaigns are symbolic of the hard work and dedication of everyone involved- if any one person fails to do their job the whole plan potentially unravels.

    We all know that there is no substitute for high repetition hands on training. We also know that this type of training is simply not always a realistic option given the premium placed on our time. Not everyone is assured the same amount of practical, hands on experience. This is our reality.

    Training must have an impact on our people every time we set foot on the drill ground. The reason that training must be impactful and done right every time is because if we can’t afford the time to do it right- when will we have time to correct the scars created by inadequate or improper training?

    The job is about vigilance and preparation.

    You only get the ring if you win.

    Generations

    December 20, 2011 3:38 PM by Mark vonAppen

    When you begin to doubt the nobility of your mission or the sanctity of your profession because your heart is heavy, or you feel anger, disillusionment, disenfranchisement, betrayed, or confused- stop and listen to their voices.

    A picture taken outside a recent promotional ceremony for our department got me thinking. The image is of two firefighters at opposite ends of the professional spectrum. One has only weeks or days left in a storied career and the other has decades left in this great calling.

    The economic tumult that is gripping the nation has the American fire service at a crossroads. Much wisdom, talent, and drive has transitioned into life outside the firehouse. Thousands of years of firefighting experience will be gone forever.

    Suddenly, the future isn't what it used to be.

    Those leaders, mentors, and friends will for eternity be a part of the collective consciousness that is the fire service going forward. They live on as we perform our daily duties in the manner in which they taught us.

    They will be immortalized in our firehouses in the spoken tradition that is story time at the dinner table. There are stories of comedy, drama, and heartbreak as we experienced personal and professional triumph or tragedy - always together as a crew.

    I’ve got your back.

    The personalities and exploits grow more colorful with the passing of time. The fires get bigger. The rescues become more harrowing.

    We stand to lose much in the coming months in many different ways. What compels us to perform our duties when called upon stretches far beyond the work schedule and a paycheck. What we are losing out on most of all is time. Time with our brothers and sisters forced into retirement before they were ready- we are losing fire service life- experience.

    We are losing our human infrastructure.

    The kids that we were when we entered the fire service always had these mentors - these “knights”, champions of brotherhood and upholders of principle - standing along side of us to keep us straight when we were unsure of where to go or what to do.

    The old guys aren’t going to be there anymore when we turn to them on scene or in the firehouse. Sure, we can reach out to them by phone or by email, but when there isn’t discretionary time available - what are you going to do? The fire ground won’t wait for us to make a decision. We must pick up the sabre and lead the charge. One who wishes to blend in with the landscape cannot lead the assault on the future.

    We are the ones that the next age group will look to when they are anxious and unsure. We must be alert, think quickly, and act decisively based upon our experience and what our predecessors advocated. As strange as it sounds, we are the old guys now. It’s time to move on to the next chapter. We must be out front and lead. It is our duty to develop the next generation leaders. As new leaders ourselves, we should not take the assignment lightly.

    Look to those in your life and career who have inspired you to do the right thing. It’s a tough choice sometimes between what’s right and what’s easy. We must do right so that the new generation has a clear view of the correct path. It is our time to invest in the importance of our profession. This investment will not yield wealth in the monetary sense, but rather it will pay dividends in the form of a rich legacy.

    We are the modern guardians of the fire service. We owe it to the citizens of the communities in which we serve, the next generation of firefighters, those who came before us, and to each other to get it right. We are the champions of a proud fire service legacy that is rich in history and steeped in tradition.

    The knights of old are mythical, but the new knights are real and are embodying the spirit of the ancient model of the knight paladin, dedicated to righteousness and justice.

    The credit for future success goes to those who came before us and showed us the right way. We will eternally hold them in the highest esteem and seek to carry on the expectations, traditions, and standards they established for us to maintain and perhaps someday surpass.

    We have a lot of hard work and organizational soul searching ahead.

    There are only two options when it comes commitment - either you’re in or you’re out. There's no such thing as a life in-between. To exist stuck between is merely to be. If we seek to truly live we must commit passionately to that which we hold dear. Anything less is a life wasted. Do you live the days you go through?

    From the IAFF code of ethics:

    The badge of my office is a symbol of public faith, and I accept it as a public trust to be held so long as I am true to the ethics of the fire service. I will constantly strive to achieve the objectives and ideals, dedicating myself to my chosen profession–saving of life, fire prevention, and fire suppression.

    Big changes aren’t on the horizon - they are here today. And more changes have been promised.As the fire service goes through its book of changes, our resilient spirit will see us through this period of uncertainty. We will find our way like we always do.

    It is in the darkest of times that honor and service shine most brightly. So let us make a pledge together - you and I, that we shall always hold true to our way.

    Our pledge to the citizens we serve and to each other - we will do it right.


    So I am Ready

    December 2, 2011 4:06 PM by Mark vonAppen

    This is how it starts.

    I wake up at 5am, rub the sleep from my eyes and drive to the local coffee shop to get a cup of coffee.

    It helps me get ready.

    I drive 25 miles to the firehouse. I get to work at 5:45- put on my running shoes and run the streets of the district I protect for an hour- to learn the streets and hydrants better as I exercise.

    This I do prior to each shift.

    So I am ready.

    I get back to the station at and work my body hard in the weight room for another 30 minutes- then I stretch. I shower and put on my uniform.

    So I am ready.

    I call my family and make sure that my kids hear my voice before they are off to school. I tell them I love them.

    So I am ready.

    My shift officially starts and I meet with my exhausted, off-going counterpart. We talk about the busy shift the day before. I put my gear on the engine and set it up so I can don it quickly if the bells strike. I put my radio in its case and set it to the proper channel.

    So I am ready.

    I put my breathing apparatus on. I meditate on being lost, trapped, or injured in a fire. I recite my emergency radio transmission. I practice breathing techniques to slow my heart rate and keep myself calm. I check every piece of equipment on the engine with an attention to detail as though I am packing my own parachute.

    In a way I am.

    I do it the same way every time.

    So I am ready.

    I sit at the kitchen table and meet with the crew. We review a Line of Duty Death Report from somewhere far away. A firefighter dies in the line of duty on average every three days. We commit the manner in which death stalked them to memory.

    So we are ready.

    We leave the station on the engine and go to a secluded parking lot to practice our craft. We pull hose from the engine, training on rote skills in anticipation of the next fire. We do it time and again- each time we fold the hose precisely in the bed.

    We sweat and ache as we train.

    So we are ready.

    We prepare for the unimaginable. We plot and scheme about ways to confront things most people couldn't dream up in their worst night terror. We work on our every weakness in anticipation of the moment of truth. We plan- creating memories of a future we hope will never come to pass.

    So we are ready.

    We accept that everything we were taught growing up is a boldfaced lie. It is not always going to be okay.

    We are dealers in hope. We are the ones who stand in front and say, “Stand behind me. We are here to help.”

    So we are ready.

    We study our enemy with a lust for knowledge that only one who probes a lethal adversary can fathom. We know the chemistry of what fuels fire- a thing alive that moves with the swiftness and absolute fury of a maelstrom.

    We devise ways to defeat it with overwhelming force or with subtlety and finesse.

    So we are ready.

    We go to an elementary school. We teach smiling, bright- eyed children about fire safety, meeting places, and smoke detectors. We show them how to stop, drop, and roll- telling them not to play with matches.

    So they are ready.

    We are in the classroom. We run through CPR, rescue breathing, and trauma assessment- practicing for hours.

    So we are ready.

    We perform life safety inspections of local businesses. We walk every inch of the buildings- from the roof to the basement. We learn the buildings- their contents, traps, and hazards.

    How is this place designed to kill us?

    So we are ready.

    We battle fire. We dodge cars on the freeway. We attempt to save someone who's heart has stopped beating, we cut someone out of a mangled car, or help someone back to bed who is too old and weak to pick themselves up from the floor when they fall. We deliver a baby or comfort someone in death. These experiences we file in memory- to be retrieved in the future so we perform at a higher level on the next run.

    We care.

    So we are ready.

    I write a letter to my family. I tell them how much I love them and that if for some reason I never come home- that the last thought that blossomed across my mind was of them. I put it in an envelope and tape it to the inside of my locker.

    I love you always.

    So they are ready.

    I call my family and tuck them to bed by phone. I pray a fleeting prayer to God- a god I’ve never seen and I'm not sure exists based upon what I know- to give me strength. I hope He is with me.

    So I am ready.

    Mark S. vonAppen


    One Team, One Fight

    November 28, 2011 6:05 PM by Mark vonAppen

    Have you ever watched a really efficient fire company in action and wondered how a crew can move almost effortlessly through an evolution with little apparent communication and few breaks in the routine? A group of 2 to 5 people acting as one, accomplishing all assigned tasks at maximum efficiency. Well- scripted and choreographed fire ground operations do not happen on their own. Strong fire ground performance is the combination of communication, 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 anticipate future actions.

    In the fire service, leadership is essential. Strong leadership inspires confidence in the individual, the team, the organization, and most importantly in the officer who is to lead. If the mission of the fire department is to be carried out successfully, faith in the organization and mission must be instilled. If confidence in the leader or organization is lost, it may never be regained.

    In these times of uncertain budgets, fluctuation in staffing levels on a daily basis and a large turnover of personnel, communicating expectations for conduct inside the fire house and on the tactical level is critical. Expectations play a vital role in establishing a firm foundation, faith in the organization, and in company level operations.

    Raised on the ball field

    There is the Army brat- the kid who has to pack up and move to a different state or country every time a military dad or mom is promoted or reassigned- and there is the football brat. They are the same thing really- all you have to do is supplant the word Army for football- I was a football brat. I grew up the son of a football coach. We moved to various locations around the country at least 5 times before I was 12 years old as my dad climbed the coaching ladder from college to the professional ranks.

    Coaching dominated the household in which I grew up. My father was a career coach- a cranky defensive line (D-line) coach for a Super Bowl Champion football team. The football life is a grind- during the season he was up and off to work before I woke up- and I got up around 6am. He was usually home around 9pm. He spent 35 years developing his craft.

    From grade school through high school I would spend six weeks every summer at training camp working as a ball boy with my father and the team. Bear with me- I’m not painting some Norman Rockwell image here- I promise this is going somewhere.

    I was witness to some of the greatest coaches of all time. Bill Walsh, George Siefert, Mike Holmgren, Ray Rhodes, Bobb McKitrick, and my father, Fred vonAppen. These men were at the top of their profession and each in their own way was a great motivator, teacher, and most of all, leader.

    My dad was the drill sergeant type- he marched around the football field with his baseball cap turned backwards, his whistle in one corner of his mouth and a big wad of long-cut tobacco in the other. A big man with a personality that matches his size, he good- naturedly barked at his players with a gravelly voice that boomed across the football field. He worked his guys hard- they respected him for his forthrightness and his commitment to them.

    The men who worked for Walsh- my dad included- didn’t motivate by intimidation, but through a mutual respect that created an atmosphere in which the players would run collectively head- first through a brick wall for their position coach, their belief in the leadership so strong.

    Coach Walsh had an uncanny ability to spot coaching talent, vision, and temperament. He had an aptitude for selecting assistant coaches who augmented his coaching style- men with quick minds, big hearts and strong personalities.

    Just like stretching a line, or swinging an axe, countless hours were spent perfecting game plans. Everything seemed to come down to basics- the first step toward your opponent, hand placement, reacting appropriately to the situation before you. It always came down to your preparation- how well you finished the play, how much you believed in the leadership.

    Everything with Walsh was calculated- laid out in advance. He would script the first 20 plays for each game- the depth of his preparation so great that the team rarely was held without a score on their opening possession. The players knew exactly what to expect.

    Coach Walsh would even forecast his rants- informing his coaches, “I’m going to get you today.” Meaning he would lash out at position coaches during practice to try to inspire better performance from the players- they would play harder for their wounded coach. Coaches often knew a tongue- lashing was forthcoming so they weren’t surprised by it.

    The staff believed in routine and as a result the players did too. Every aspect of the campaign was broken down to routine and expectations. Meetings, drills, practices, even going to bed at night was outlined- each activity ritual. Practices started and ended the same way, as did meetings. Everything was done to inspire automatic reactions in the players. Thus, you were prepared to function when anxious, confused, or fatigued.

    During practices it was impressed upon the players that there was only a finite amount of time together on the field. Players were expected to have a sense of urgency and work as professionals in that time. To achieve the maximum benefit, coaches made sure that every drill was meaningful, and that everyone participated- no time wasted.

    “I need your eyes and ears right now,” my father would say. The expectation was to focus and work as hard as you could when it was time to work and then have fun when the task was completed.

    The result of years of hard work and discipline was that my father and the rest of the staff were a part of 2 world championships (some would go on to win 2 more for a total of 5 Super Bowls, including the 1981 championship, but my dad went back to his first love- college football- in 1989).

    Success at any level- in any occupation- does not come if you champion mediocrity. Even outstanding performance was evaluated in order to achieve a higher standard. Everyone in the organization was on the same page- if someone wasn’t pulling their weight their teammates and coaches let them know about it. Never satisfied- everyone worked tirelessly toward the ultimate goal- one team, one fight.

    Championships started with expectations.

    From the field house to the fire house

    So- that was my childhood and adolescence- fast forward to my mid twenties and my career in the fire service as I breathlessly showed up for my first day of work. I was ready to have my socks knocked off by the prime example of leadership I was about to witness. Who could blame me? It was all I had ever known.

    I sat in my car in the parking lot- my mind a whirlwind of thought.

    Do I go in now?

    Should I bring in my turnouts first? Or should I bring in the donuts?

    Donuts first.

    What if we get a call?

    Turnouts first it is.

    What if they think I didn’t bring a box of donuts on my first day?

    Both the donuts and my turnouts at the same time- that’s how I’ll do it.

    I horsed my turnout gear along in one arm and carried the pink donut box in the other.

    How do I open the door?

    I was about to meet my first captain- I was sure the guy could turn water into wine or part the sea or something divine like that.

    Tell me something great. Lay it on me.

    Probationary firefighter: “Excuse me, captain? What do you need me to do if we catch a fire?”

    Officer: “Settle down kid. We’ll figure it out when we get there. Don’t worry about it. Get started on the house- work. Quit asking so many questions.”

    He then pushed back in his recliner to embark on his morning nap. I stood in the doorway dumbfounded.

    “Yes sir,” I say.

    Huh?

    Gee, that was inspiring.

    This is a joke right?

    Deflated and puzzled- I grabbed my toilet brush and set about the death- defying task of cleaning the heads.

    That conversation is similar to a few I had with officers while I was a relief fire fighter early in my career. Once, on the way to a fire and I got the “We’ll figure it out when we get there. Don’t worry about it,” treatment.

    I was detailed out to a different house every time I came to work for my first few years. Nothing gave me more anxiety than this conversation. More than the conversation it was the apathetic answer I sometimes received that was most concerning.

    Believe me, I worried about it. I expected more. I wanted more- needed more. I was continually underwhelmed by what I viewed as a schism in the fire service- a split between real leadership and the ordinary company officer.

    Even as a rookie I recognized that on the way to a fire- with the siren wailing and the rookie (me) hyperventilating- was no time to sort out who was doing what. It was a bad idea then and it is to this day- I will argue the point with anybody.

    Better to sort it out prior to getting the bell- in a controlled setting- much like what we would call a “chalk talk” in sports. The coach (officer) goes over basic tactics and strategy and other expectations before a situation arises. We are in the fix- it- now- fix- it- right business. We should know better than to make it up when we get there. We owe it to our new firefighters to show them the way.

    Nothing is more disappointing in the fire service than an officer who fails to lead their crew, battalion, or department.

    You might say, “Common sense- right?”

    If it were so common I wouldn’t be writing this- and you wouldn’t be reading it.

    Mediocrity makes an appearance

    When I was in the fire academy my first close encounter with public service mediocrity went something like this, “I wasn’t prepared to teach this subject today. The guy who was supposed to teach it called in sick. So I apologize in advance.”

    This ought to be good.

    Way to lead brother. You just told me to prepare to have the next 8 hours of my life wasted as you drone on and on about a subject that you care very little about and that I in turn will learn even less about.

    The officer at the front of the class who delivered that riveting opening statement was wearing a wrinkled class ‘B’ uniform, his day boots were unzipped, and he had the disheveled appearance of someone who had spent the previous night sleeping in their car.

    Our recruit class sat tombstone still in thunderstruck silence- backs and neck ties arrow straight, feet flat on the floor, hands folded on the tables- unsure of how to react to this guy.

    What?

    Hold me back- I can hardly contain my enthusiasm.

    I had worked to get this job for five years. Five years. I took every test I possibly could between California and Texas- working at night and going to school during the day. I had a naive expectation that everyone involved in this profession was a superstar.

    What a letdown.

    The fire academy I was privileged to attend was- and still is- home to many great instructors, I learned a lot there. I have had the honor of returning as an instructor- I hope those words never come out of my mouth. There were a few instructors who did not take their job as a leader seriously during my formative years in the fire service- I’m not even sure they realized they were failing to stand up and lead- they were few and very far between- but they stood apart.

    Why spell it out?

    The fire service has become an all-risk entity in which we are the ones people call for help when there is no one left to call. In an effort to meet the all-risk model, recruit academies are forced to pack a lot of information into a short time period. Recruit fire fighters are subjected to weeks of specialized training to meet the changing face of threats in the world today. Thirty years of mission creep has left the fire service with a distinct identity crisis that is being passed along from generation to generation of new firefighters.

    Firefighters of yesterday were not required to perform the wide variety of skills that firefighters of today are expected to be experts in. Fires in the 21st Century develop much more rapidly and are far more dangerous than fires of just 20 years ago. The fire ground has evolved, and we must adapt to the changes.

    A United States Fire Administration study contained the following conclusion. “Approximately half of all line of duty deaths (LODDs) from 2000- 2005 are attributable to factors that are under the direct control of the individual firefighter or Chief Officers.” Knowing that a great number of fire ground tragedies are under the direct control of firefighting personnel at the scene means that we need to communicate effectively ahead of the emergency in order to meet our number one incident priority, life safety.

    The broad- spectrum approach to fire ground preparation is turning out firefighters that are not particularly skilled in the areas that are critical to basic personal fire ground safety and overall incident mitigation. Recruits often receive exotic, specialized training at the expense of foundation skills. The end result is a recruit who has received a lot of training that looks good on paper but has little practical application. They require a lot of direction initially.

    The shotgun approach to training illustrates the need for a narrowed focus once the recruit firefighter arrives at a station. The officer must give the new firefighter clear direction on mission critical tasks.

    It takes the recruit some time to figure out where they fit into the equation. When the new recruit or the veteran who hasn’t worked with your crew arrives the officer has an obligation to address operational issues- to administer base expectations. Everyone potentially pays if expectations are not set forth.

    So, I made the rounds for a few months and I figured it out after a while. The company officer that sat me down and told me what their expectations were on the fire ground had a plan, and it involved all of us working together safely and efficiently- they were leaders. Not everybody liked them- but they were leaders- and they were respected for it.

    As I progressed through my first few years a trend emerged. Those few who avoided the talk had no plan for what was to come- they were something else- coward may be too strong a word- or maybe its not. They did lack the courage to be out front and they certainly missed an opportunity to lead.

    The lack of leadership usually infected the other station personnel- training was often non-existent, and I rattled around these stations trying to find ways to train myself- quietly- so I didn’t wake anybody up.

    “This should be interesting if we get something,” I would ponder to myself as I deftly wielded my trusty toilet brush- the tool of choice- and made blue water in the toilet bowl. “I guess I’ll make something up- throw something against the wall and see what sticks.”

    Sounded good to me. I had a plan.

    I was informally granted the opportunity to light my own rocket once the maxi brake popped to announce our arrival at the fire scene. If my officer wasn’t going to tell me what to do I was going to find my way into some trouble with or without them. It was a jail break- every man for himself- and it was a mess.

    I later learned from a leader that the correct term for lighting your own rocket is “freelancing.” The leader would not allow for me to take liberties at their emergency scene. I was amazed by how much trouble I could get into even with the best intentions when I lit my own rocket.

    Rockets are exciting but sometimes they blow up in your face.

    Chief Allan Brunacini said it, “Firefighters can freelance themselves into almost any situation. The problem is that they rarely possess the skills necessary to get themselves out of the trouble they get themselves into.”

    I didn’t have the skills to get out of trouble yet- only into it. I could clean porcelain until it glistened like snow but I had a lot to learn about fighting fire. And who is this Brunacini guy? He sounds smart. He should write a book or something.

    “Hey kid, don’t get any delusions of grandeur. NO FREELANCING- understood?”

    “Yes sir,” I say.

    I always looked up to the officer who told me what their expectations were. It gave me a point of reference and a leader to follow.

    A sample of what a tactical expectations list for engine company operations might look like (Courtesy of Captain Bob Leonard- San Jose Fire Department).

    ENG26INE

    C SHIFT

    EMS:

    Wear gloves and eye protection- N95 with you. Have your EMS coat available.

    RESCUE RESPONSE:

    Full turnouts, including helmet, vest and radio.

    Engine should spot 50’ behind the accident blocking traffic.

    Engineer- stays at the pump panel: for a non-rescue assist with patient care.

    Paramedic Firefighter- investigates with Captain and is responsible for patient triage.

    Firefighter- will be in full turnouts with SCBA and responsible for the foam line

    STRUCTURE FIRES: If the words “smoke” or “fire” are in the dispatch- turnout

    FIRST DUE

    Engineer- spot either past or hold short of the fire-building, attempt to give the officer three sides.

    Nozzle- is responsible for the attack hose line.

    Back up- will stage the hand tools (pike pole and irons) near the entrance being used for fire attack, and assist with the line. Also carry the TIC.

    SECOND DUE

    Back up- will assist with moving the first attack hose line at the door as “two out”.

    FORWARD LAY:

    Engineer- will spot out of the way, don SCBA and assist first the in (pumping) Engineer.

    Nozzle- will catch the hydrant, supply the pumping engine and then meet up with E26’s Captain and complete the “2 out”

    REVERSE LAY:

    Nozzle- is the primary “2 out”.

    Enginee-r secures a water supply, don your SCBA, and assist first in (pumping) Engineer.

    ALLEY DROP:

    Back up- drops the 5” hose at the entrance to a driveway, alley, or cul de sac for the water supply company. As you come up to the engine move the hose to the left side of the road so other apparatus may pass.

    SET BACK OPERATION:

    Captain brings the hand tools.

    Nozzle- shoulder load the pre-connected 1 ¾” hose and proceed with the Captain.

    Back up- shoulder load a 100’ of 2 ½” hose from the rear and then pulls an additional 100’ of 2 ½”/3” hose towards the fire.

    Engineer- brake the 1 ¾” at the lead line and then move to the rear and disconnect the 3” hose and connect it to a discharge.

    ALARMS: Full PPE

    Back up- will investigate with the Captain.

    One officer- a leader- said to me, “Don’t talk to me for the first 30 seconds when we get there. I’m going to be very busy. Remember what I told you to do when we went over our crew expectations. If we’re going to do something different, I’ll tell you.”

    Another leader told me, “Take 5 seconds while you are putting on your air pack and (size up the incident) for yourself. Think about what you are seeing and anticipate what I’m going to need you to do.” These profundities have stayed with me. It said that they trusted my ability to follow directions and complete tasks.

    If I had been given no direction on scene because my supervisor was busy, I could feel comfortable getting to work based on what my officer told me when I reported for duty. I knew based upon expectations that my actions in most circumstances would reflect the orders that my officer would give if they were standing right next to me. I also knew with certainty that if I lit my own rocket- for any reason- another conversation would take place. It was a conversation that I wanted no part of.

    Knowing my officers expectations afforded me a certain amount of autonomy, but there were always limits. I knew exactly how long the leash was. I was reminded that my officer does not have time to deal with a person assigned to them who does not understand their job responsibilities or couldn’t follow orders- babysitting wasn’t part of their incident size- up. Bigger things need to be dealt with and there is no time for an incompetent team member. We had a pact- I was now a functional member of the team.

    The leader told me to trade in my tool of choice- the toilet brush- for a set of married irons. It was time to go to work.

    I had achieved fire department nirvana.

    The leader would discuss with me what their responsibilities were at the scene, as well as the engineer, and what they both expected of me. This mentoring was invaluable- I learned how my actions or lack of action would influence their ability to accomplish their goals.

    The engineer would also lead in their role and tutor me- telling me what their thoughts and concerns were- how they saw things at an emergency scene. Many times the engineer provided leadership and direction- affording a much- needed buffer between the captain and rookie. The engineer would offer guidance and advice to the kid on tricks of the trade and how to avoid trouble.

    I tried to absorb as much of this information as I could. My hand ached as I tried to keep pace with a pen and paper.

    Little time would have to be wasted on communicating routine tasks because everyone shared the same values in terms of accomplishing the goal. Sharing every detail of each person's job would only create a great deal of “noise” to sort through to get needed information. The lead officer doesn’t have time for that.

    Radio time is always at a premium at an emergency scene. The ability to communicate non verbally- by establishing expectations- frees up valuable radio time for priority transmissions such as, “Persons trapped, all clear, MAYDAY, vacate,” or other pertinent information.

    Sometimes at shift change, the kitchen table would fill up with a number of like-minded team members all concerned with maximizing performance, passing job knowledge forward, and making sure we were all safe. Various emergency responses were addressed.

    Some of these leaders came off as a little crazy but I’d follow them anywhere.

    It’s not blind faith in the mission. Open dialogue means that you must have the courage in yourself to respectfully decline an assignment that isn’t safe. When the IC’s courage is writing checks your crew can’t cash we were told to have the guts to speak up.

    “I’d do anything for you,” is a two way street. It means listening to each other- it means you have a pact to keep everyone safe.

    My father- the cranky old D-line coach- also had a pact with his players. He would sit down with players on an individual basis to discuss what he expected of them and what they could expect from him. A channel of communication opened. If my dad wasn’t holding up his end the players were invited to tell him about it. He and the players each had an investment, they each had to hold up their end of the bargain or the whole thing wouldn’t work.

    He has lectured on his leadership philosophy to football coaches at clinics across the country as well as business professionals.

    It is only now that he is reflecting on his career and discussing the fire service with me that the light bulb went on- the old man might have been on to something all along. If his list of expectations could carry him through a 35- year career which saw him reach what many deem to be pinnacle of the profession- a Super Bowl championship- then it must certainly be able to cross over into the fire service. His list of expectations- the pact- when adapted to the fire service looks like this:

    What to expect from one another

    Officers (You can expect this from me as an officer):

    1. Consistency
    2. Sense of urgency
    3. Seek continuous improvement
    4. Leadership and direction
    5. Forthrightness
    6. Open dialogue
    7. Accountability
    8. Technical command
    9. Respect
    10. Sense of humor

    Firefighters and engineers (What I expect from you)

    1. Sense of urgency
    2. Concentration
    3. Full compliance
    4. Will to prepare
    5. Accountability
    6. Commitment
    7. Willingness to play a role
    8. Officers lead- you follow
    9. Finish
    10. Standard of performance

    You can’t lead from the rear

    Leadership is the process of influencing others to accomplish a goal by providing purpose, direction, and motivation.

    Purpose gives people a reason why they should do difficult things under dangerous, stressful conditions. You must establish priorities- explain the importance of the mission and focus firefighters on the task for them to be effective, efficient, and disciplined.

    Direction gives firefighters an orientation of tasks to be accomplished based on established priorities. The standards you establish and enforce will give your crew order; training will give them confidence in themselves, their leaders and each other.

    Motivation gives firefighters the will to do everything they are capable of doing. It causes us to use initiative when we see the need for action. Motivate your crew by caring for them, challenging them with training, developing a cohesive team and giving them all the responsibility they can handle.

    Simply talking about responsibilities is not sufficient. Crews must train together rigorously and often so that they get a ‘feel’ for how they work with each other. Each member has a sub-goal that interrelates with the other team members to support the achievement of the overall goal. The definition of a team spells it out. A team is not just any group of individuals; rather a team has defining characteristics.

    ‘A distinguishable set of two or more people who interact dynamically, interdependently and adaptively toward a common and valued goal/objective/mission, who have each been assigned specific roles or functions to perform.’

    If any team member is unable to complete or carry out tasks relating to their sub-goal, the overall team goal may suffer or may not get accomplished at all. A smoothly operating crew knows through training what one another’s strengths and weaknesses are. They are able to tailor their evolutions and play to the others strengths. In order to work at maximum efficiency, crews must not only discuss emergency operations but plan for them- believe in the leader and abide by the pact.

    Execution as a team is critical to efficient operations. To execute the plan, crews must rehearse the timing of fire ground operations through frequent training. Through manipulative training each team member will see how their role contributes to success or lack of success, in actual or simulated emergencies. This extends beyond the company level. The company is effectively a single team member in an alarm assignment. A group of individual companies comprises the team. Each company’s actions build upon and support the actions of the others. All companies must share the same understanding of what the big picture is in order to mitigate an emergency.

    When setting up company level training remember to communicate a few things. Communicate that drills are not conducted to waste anyone’s time- a lot of time is spent preparing for training- arriving crews must respect this and show up for drill prepared to learn. Make the drills fun, interesting, and have a crisp tempo to drills to involve everyone present. Have a distinct start and finish to every drill.

    Standard Operating Procedures are leadership intensive. Leadership is the most essential element of the system. Leading effectively is not a mystery and can be learned through self-study, education, training, and experience. Good leaders prepare by training and leading as they intend to fight.

    The ten commandments of team building

    • Help each other to be right, not wrong
    • Look for ways to make new ideas work, not for reasons they won't
    • If in doubt, check it out. Don't make assumptions about each other
    • Speak positively about each other and the department at every opportunity
    • Maintain a positive mental attitude no matter what
    • Act with initiative and courage, as if it all depends on you
    • Do everything with enthusiasm
    • Don't lose faith, never give up
    • Involve everyone in the organization
    • Have fun

    I’ve been pursuing competency in my craft since 1998 and I’m nowhere near satisfaction- I certainly don’t know it all but I have learned a few things about leadership throughout my life. I have taken more classes than I can remember and learned much from a lot of very talented people from both inside and outside of my organization. I have turned to writing about the fire service in an effort to spread some of what I have learned through publications such as this. Ours is truly a never-ending path to mastery.

    Once, an officer I worked for said to me, “You know, writing about fire fighting doesn’t make you a better firefighter.”

    Way to lead brother.

    My reply, “I hope it does something for somebody.”

    He’s sort of right I guess.

    I hope writing about it makes others more interested in the craft, maybe adding an extra rabbit to their bag of tricks, and hopefully make them better firefighters and leaders. We don’t do it for ourselves- we do it in an effort to perpetuate leadership, safety, and competence- and maybe we can all reach greatness someday.

    I learned a lot growing up watching the best that my father’s profession had to offer. Likewise, I have been witness to many exceptional leaders in this great profession. We often witness outstanding things on a daily basis without even knowing it. I learned a lot from my father, his peers, and my mentors in the fire service.

    Dwight Eisenhower had this to say in regards to leadership, “Pull the string and it will follow wherever you wish. Push it, and it will go nowhere at all.”

    What are the two most important words a leader can say?

    “Follow me.”

    MARK vonAPPEN, a member of the Palo Alto (CA) Fire Department since 1998, is assigned to the Suppression Division where he holds the rank of 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.

    Mark can be reached at: markvonappen@yahoo.com

    Trouble Maker

    November 28, 2011 5:20 PM by Mark vonAppen

    Don't be so sure-

    What makes a good probationary firefighter? You might answer any of a number of things. Words like diligent, considerate, quiet, and obedient come to mind. Certainly these are some desirable attributes for a new firefighter to possess but it begs the question. Are the traits that we romanticize in the ideal probationary firefighter stifling critical thinking and stunting the development of the individual and in turn the growth of the organization?

    Are these the traits of a survivor?

    New firefighters must be provided with psychological safety in order to exercise their ability to think for themselves and solve problems. If they are allowed this individual sanctuary from sharp- shooters they will become stronger contributors to the company, the organization, and perhaps the fire service as a whole.

    Be seen and not heard

    Cultural mores in the fire service often dictate that new firefighters follow orders and established traditions without question. The (flawed) theory is that the new firefighter lacks any experience base to draw from and is totally reliant on the officer and other crew- members to achieve the goal- whatever it may be.

    Respect for the officer, senior members of the department and for the scalar organization within the fire service is important so that the machine runs efficiently. This piece is not meant to confront the fire service org chart but rather to challenge the way that new employees are sometimes treated.

    Do we teach our new firefighters to be irrationally acquiescent?

    The parochial nature of our profession sometimes passes on toxic traditions.

    A distinct problem potentially arises in the fire service when firefighters experience a lack of psychological safety and a marked fear of authority. This fear of authority can manifest itself either from the formal leader- the officer- or the informal leader- the station bully.

    Stand still and look pretty.

    Heard it before?

    How about this one?

    You’ve got two ears and one mouth so you can listen twice as much as you talk.

    Almost anyone would describe a good new firefighter as one that is seen and not heard, who obediently follows orders, and doesn’t ask a lot of questions. Everybody loves the new firefighter who performs his/ her duties without question. They’re easy to deal with.

    Are these firefighters always your strongest fire ground performers? Are they innovators? Are there times where it is appropriate to question how and why things are done?

    Certainly.

    Everyone is a safety officer, right? Irreverent statements such as, “Probies should be seen and not heard,” are completely contrary to telling everyone to be a safety officer.

    If you see something important speak up.

    Followed soon after by, “Don’t speak your mind until you’ve been here at least ten years.”

    In other words, “If I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.”

    Hmmm. What to do?

    If a new firefighter is constantly told that their opinion is not valued at any time they will be less likely to speak up at a critical moment on the fire ground.

    Research in the airline industry has shown that new co-pilots have failed to take assertive action when the pilot has become incapacitated either in simulations or during in-flight emergencies. These co-pilots failed to act because on some level they feared that they would upset their boss by speaking up or attempting to take control of a situation.

    Dysfunctional docility can have catastrophic results. In 1979, a commuter jet crashed, in whole or in part, because the co-pilot (still on probation) failed to take over for the captain (known for his abrasive style) who became incapacitated.

    Who’s calling the MAYDAY when the middle- aged (and grossly overweight) captain has a heart attack 100 feet in on the hose line? It could be the nozzle firefighter- perhaps a probie at their first fire- they had better be up to the task and know when to speak up. We need to teach our new people to be part of a team while at the same time teaching them to be self- assured, inquisitive, free- thinking problem solvers.

    Questions affect learning

    It is interesting- to me, anyway- that in IFSTA Company Officer, Fourth Edition, Ch 2- Leadership, the curriculum identifies the traits that differentiate managers from leaders. In short, managers maintain while leaders push the envelope. Here are some examples:

    • Managers ask how and when; leaders ask what and why.
    • Managers accept the status quo; leaders challenge the status quo.
    • Managers are classic good soldiers; leaders are their own people.

    Supplant the word manager for firefighter and take a moment to consider how new firefighters are sometimes treated. We often tell our firefighters to accept the status quo, to be good soldiers, to be drones. “That’s how it is done here. We’ve always done it that way.”

    Be a "yes" man and you'll go far my son. Challenge the conventional and you're in for a bumpy ride. Fasten your seat-belt.

    In so many words, “Don’t challenge the establishment. Everything is fine the way it is.”

    Now go back and look at what the traits of a leader are. If you have a firefighter, company officer, or chief who asks a lot of questions, who challenges accepted practice by bringing in fresh ideas, stands out from the crowd, and is their own person, what label are they given?

    Remember, these are considered leadership traits.

    Would you call them noisy complainers (a euphemism for big pain in the ass)?

    I’ll bet in most organizations anywhere in the world the answer is yes, they are considered huge pains in the ass. Once again fire service literature and traditions are a study in contradiction.

    As a whole we encourage new people to maintain, not innovate.

    Psychological safety for these individuals who exhibit critical thinking is crucial in developing self- reliance in new firefighters. Firefighters who are noisy complainers and considered troublemakers are often the ones who inspire the greatest learning. They are the ones who talk about their mistakes and the mistakes of others in the interest of furthering knowledge. They are the ones who constantly question what and why to seek better solutions than what is simply accepted practice. These types of questioners sometimes annoy managers and their peers but are welcomed by those who seek to lead the fire service forward.

    These questions cause others to be introspective- and sometimes reflecting on past practices is painful.

    We must not crush an individual’s will to learn and innovate. The ability to trust in the leader to allow for mistakes and even failure in training situations is central to cultivating the spirit of learning and innovation.

    Question your answers

    Creation of a safe work environment where people have the confidence to act without fear of reprimand or mockery is key to building trust, the most important part of getting the most out of people.

    A safe work environment involves the following:

    • Suspending judgement
    • Aiming high
    • Avoiding cynicism
    • Encouraging others

    Firefighters are especially vulnerable to making mistakes when things appear to be progressing according to routine. When we don’t notice things are amiss we mindlessly apply SOG’s and go along with the program and may miss menacing warning signs from the environment. All firefighters must be able to think beyond the linear- the logical- and think with anticipation.

    To guard against complacency we must constantly ask, “What’s up?” We must be wary of success and suspicious of quiet periods. We must teach and encourage firefighters to act with anticipation, to guard against complacency. Teach firefighters to ask questions and plan for potential problems no matter how normal things appear. When a nuisance fire alarm is received- in a building that you have been to a number of times without incident- you must be doubly careful (see “Tragedy in a residential high- rise, Memphis, Tennessee”, Fire Engineering March 1995).

    Remember- pride makes us fake- being humble keeps us real. We must maintain a beginner’s attitude in order to keep learning and maintain awareness. Beginners question everything- they should- in doing so their minds remain open to new information. As soon as we think we have figured out the situation it changes.

    If we have our minds made up that there is only one right way to do something, new information will not be able to dislodge the notion. We must allow new information to reshape our mental models. Hence, maintaining an open mind has us constantly curious about our circumstances so we continually reassess our situation.

    We must allow new firefighters to ask questions.

    Some of our best ideas and plans come from listening to others. Take advantage of all the training available to you and ask a lot of questions of the veterans- they are a plentiful source of knowledge- all you have to do is ask.

    Listen a little more

    Cooperation is central to the function of a team. We must cooperate on all levels with our coworkers. If you want to be heard as a boss you have to listen. We must be interested in finding the best way of delivering service. The best way might not always be the old way.

    It is all too easy to crush a new persons spirit. Nothing takes away initiative like not being heard. To continually engage those we work with we must listen to what people have to say. It takes courage for young people to stand up and speak. Likewise, it takes courage to listen to your subordinates.

    There is a firefighter in my department who started an Internet sales company in his dorm room in college. He and his drinking buddies at The University of California, Berkeley thought it would be cool to start an on-line shoe company; it’s called Zappos (you may have heard of it). He grew tired of the dotcom life and put himself through paramedic school so he could become a firefighter, his life- long dream. I’m sure the fire service could benefit from listening to a guy like that. He’s smart, innovative, and he brings a wealth of customer service and business savvy to the department.

    When he was the new guy do you think anyone listened to him about his areas of expertise? Developing business models that work and the selection of quality employees might be something the fire service should explore.

    I've got just the guy for the job.

    It is a travesty that for years his ideas and enthusiasm were largely ignored. We run the risk of having much of our young talent die on the vine if their efforts a consistently disregarded.

    Times have changed immeasurably in recent years. The fire service can no longer afford to have all ideas come from a central point at the top of the organization. We must regain the spirit of innovation that has propelled the fire service forward in days past and buoyed it in difficult times.

    Don’t be so quick to silence those who raise questions. Are they really trouble- makers? Don’t be so sure.

    Good listeners are not only popular everywhere but eventually they learn something. The next great idea could come from your firehouse, it might be trapped inside of the timid new firefighter who has been told to keep their mouth shut and mop the floor.

    Think about it.

    MARK vonAPPEN, a member of the Palo Alto (CA) Fire Department since 1998, is assigned to the suppression division where he holds the rank of 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, the South Bay Regional Fire Academy, a recruit Instructor for Palo Alto Fire, and a member of the “Nobody Gets Left Behind” training group.

    Bibliography:

    Sutton, Robert I., “Good Boss, Bad Boss” 2010 Business Plus

    Allyn, Dr. Kimberly, “Rising to Real Leadership” 2011 Fire Presentations

    IFSTA Company Officer 4th Edition

    Surprise and the Fireground

    November 20, 2011 1:06 PM by Mark vonAppen

    Ignorance is bold- knowledge is reserved.

    -Thucydides

    We participate in an endeavor that is at times high stress, high risk, and for some of our brothers and sisters, inevitably lethal. It is how we prepare ourselves for the possibility of these combat situations that leads to a greater possibility of success. Some of our brothers and sisters are going to die, and they’re going to do it on a fairly regular schedule. When they do, we owe it to their memory to study in detail each action or lack of action that led to tragedy. There is a big difference between going forth boldly, and going forth blindly. Our dilemma is to strike a balance between dedication to the mission and initiating action with informed caution.

    Panic and confusion should be reserved for the citizens who call us on the worst day of their lives. Our job is to bring order to disorder- it starts by understanding what our response will be under extreme stress. Without understanding of how we will react to “unexpected” stressors we will be unable to function effectively when high RPM events occur.

    Surprise! Now you’re scared out of your mind.

    There is a saying in military aviation, “You lose half your IQ when you walk across the tarmac to your aircraft.” The same can be said of firefighters when we’re kicked out on a working fire. Our heart- rate soars into the 140’s or 150’s and we experience a physiological reaction to stress. Our forebrain- the part that makes us human- shuts down and yields to the midbrain- the part of our brain that is impossible to differentiate from that of an animal.

    Our vision narrows (tunnel vision) to focus on threat, and our hearing becomes selective (auditory exclusion) as we channel our attention on danger. This physiological reaction is compounded when we are faced with truly dire circumstances. We are literally scared to the point where we are incapable of rational thought. We must know what our emotional reaction will be in response to strain because sometimes, no matter what we do, bad things just happen- we cannot be surprised by our natural reaction.

    We must have a firm bail out plan once external stressors attack our ability to think logically.

    Correct experiences in training= correct reaction when it counts

    Experience is knowledge or skill acquired over time either through training or by practical application of learned skills in the real world.

    But…

    Experienced sometimes means that someone has gotten away with doing the wrong thing more often than you have.

    Right?

    Taking short cuts on the fire ground over time will catch up with us. Short cuts bite an unfortunately high number of our bothers and sisters every year- causing injury, death and an untold number of near hits. Pride often leads us to sequester close call incidents- all but ensuring that a similar misstep will befall another brother or sister somewhere, sometime in the future. NIOSH is kind enough to publish the findings of their investigations so we can learn from the dead.

    There are four poisons of the mind according some martial arts practitioners. In the art of Kendo these poisons said to be: surprise, fear, confusion, and hesitation. The panacea for these poisons is correct experiences prior to a hostile event. Only through repeated stressful training, or experience in advance of these ambushes can we stand a chance of making the right decision.

    The difference between the average soldier and elite special- forces teams in the military is how well they perform the basics. “Operators” as they are known in Delta Force, perform the basics of their intense training well all the time on their own. This sets them apart as elite military performers.

    Training to the point of muscle memory- or auto pilot- should be our goal for vital survival skills.

    The keys to avoiding the poisons of the mind are to train, plan, to know your stuff, commune with the dead, and remain humble.

    Train

    Is anyone else tired of hearing us say, “The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in battle?'

    I am. But it's true...

    Its simple- train hard, stay abreast of current industrial trends and you’re better suited for the dynamic nature of the profession- truer words have never been said. Controlling surprise, fear, confusion, and hesitation are directly related to how well our training prepares us for adverse situations.

    Believe it or not, if you put on a drill that is thought provoking, and challenging, but not ridiculous, people will be inspired and want to show up.

    I was once told that not every drill has to be a great drill. I would argue vociferously to the contrary. Every drill must have a purpose. If students can’t figure out the reasoning behind a drill, explain the relevance to them. They might not agree with the reasoning or methodology but at the very least they will know why they are doing it.

    Perfunctory training does not inspire people. There is value in performing rote skills to the point of wanting to scream. Basic skills must be practiced until they become as common as speaking. We don't have to think about speaking, we just do it. Be certain those you train learn the value of drilling on the basics. It isn't fun but it is necessary. We are afforded precious little training time. Make sure students are engaged in the short time they are on the drill grounds. Make it fun. Do it right. Make sure that everyone present participates and walks away having learned something useful.

    If you don’t have time to deliver quality training to your people the first time, when will you find time to do it over?

    RECEO/ VS for the classroom and drill grounds:

    R= Respect the learning environment

    E= Engage all present

    C= Communicate the desired behavior

    E= Educate tirelessly until the student understands the concept

    O= Observe the results- Are we reaching the student?

    V= Vital- make it realistic, interesting, and fun

    S= Satisfy the training needs of the organization and individual

    Realistic, stressful, scenario- based training is a must to establish the emotional bookmarks necessary for complete buy in from personnel.

    Plan

    Your plan for survival is formulated by a lifetime and career of experiences that either prepare you to survive or be crushed by the situations you are faced with. John Dryden said, “No one can possibly know what is about to happen; it is happening each time for the first time and the last time.” The inherent dangers of the fire environment cannot be fully calculated away.

    Start by believing the worst.

    Information flow on the fire ground is extremely fast and makes for an incredibly stressful environment. This rush of information envelops us in a very short period of time and results in sensory overload. During extremely stressful situations, sensory overload can cause us to become fixated on a particular aspect of the incident resulting in “tactical fixation”.

    Firefighters who experience this type of fixation have very vivid memories of the task they were involved in during a hostile event. Fixation is due to “perceptual narrowing” where the senses collapse into a central point of focus as stress ramps up. This can lead to a situation where only visual cues are processed and important and sometimes powerful cues from the environment go unprocessed by our brains.

    If a leader does not have a firm foundation that includes a plan for how things should progress then the entire system breaks down. The old adage applies, “As the first line goes, so goes the fire.”

    It is important that fire ground leaders have the ability to supervise- to carry out the plan- and not be intimately involved at the tactical level. The more fixated we become with a task, the less we are able to maintain the global awareness necessary to maintain safety.

    Strategies and expectations must be communicated in advance of an emergency for success to be possible. We are in the fix- it- now- fix- it- right business. We are often afforded only one chance to get it right. We should know better than to make it up when we get there.

    General George S. Patton said this about planning:

    A good plan executed now is far better than a perfect plan executed too late.

    Plan for the event and then execute the plan. Don’t fall in love with the plan though, be open to an ever- changing environment, let go of the plan when necessary and be ready to adapt. As the environment and the plan undergo their changes- they always do- you’ll be ready to do the next correct thing.

    Know your stuff

    Knowing your stuff involves having intimate knowledge of policy and procedure, your equipment, and yourself. Having depth of knowledge in these areas affords a certain amount of emotional security. If we posses this meta- knowledge we have fall- back procedures in the index of our mind when things aren’t going as we imagined. Being highly trained under stress in certain areas allows us to function with greater effectiveness when subjected to stressors in other areas.

    Forces of nature are more powerful and can progress with a swiftness that our minds cannot comprehend- this is true of any outdoor endeavor, white water rafting, mountain climbing, or hiking.

    The fire ground is no different. Our training practices cannot replicate the speed at which fire progresses. National standards limit how far we can go when setting fires in training. NFPA (1403) standards for live fire training are no doubt instrumental in restraining the occasional over zealous or ignorant ignition officer. These rules keep us safe but we are only getting a small piece of the picture when we observe fire behavior in this manner.

    When was the last time you entered a structure fire where the fire load in the building was made up entirely of hay and palettes?

    Never?

    Me neither.

    We must be able to blend the linear- standard operating guidelines- with the non linear- the chaos of the fire ground, our emotions, our knowledge skills and abilities- in order to affect the best possible outcome.

    Following the accomplishment of putting a fire out, we are especially vulnerable. We experience an explosive burst of activity and an accompanying emotional rush. After this rush we experience an emotional dump (parasympathetic backlash) where our guard drops- this is because we cannot maintain these high emotional output levels for prolonged periods- the body must recover. We are emotionally and physically depleted, leaving us inattentive, and accident- prone.

    Survival situations are a ticking clock. You only have so much energy and air- every time you exert yourself you are using them up. Know your physical limits and the performance standards of your gear.

    Now might be a good time to do that air consumption rate test you’ve been avoiding.

    Know thyself.

    Commune with the dead

    Many things can influence what are often construed as errors in judgement. Errors in judgement can be influenced by both internal (emotional) and external (distractions) factors. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to slice up the actions of others who came before and form an opinion, deciding on a better solution to the puzzle. It is even easier when you have the test group to learn from.

    We must always bear in mind that fire ground decision- making happens in seconds and entails processing incredibly high information flow with limitless variables. Add fear to the equation- shutting down our fore brain- and you can see how the error chain gets started. Removing just one link in the chain may get us out of a situation safely.

    LODD reports are definitive learning tools; we are foolish if we do not examine them. The message that our fallen comrades are sending us through the reports is, “Don’t do what we did. Learn from our sacrifice, don’t do it again.”

    It’s been said that it is unfortunate that we only get to die once, for there are so many lessons to be learned in death. Voyeurism such as that afforded by LODD reports is invaluable.

    We must respectfully Monday morning quarterback LODDs- using what we know about our ability to process information when under extreme stress can aid us in reviewing LODD reports objectively. We can look at them from the outside with cool detachment because we are not emotionally involved. As always, learning from the past, training, and repetition are the keys to avoiding errors in judgement.

    Be humble

    We know fire as a thing alive- if you turn your back on it for even a moment it will seize the opportunity and consume you. Fire punishes those who underestimate its might with swiftness only those who are taken by it can comprehend. The ill- fated few that witness its energy and velocity up close usually do not survive to tell anyone about it.

    We need to appreciate the power of the forces we are up against.

    Hubristic statements such as, “We don’t go to fires that often any more so why do we need to train?” always make me bristle. If you’ve ever read anything I’ve written before you know I have to practice like a fiend in order to get a skill right.

    So, let me make sure I’ve got this right. We rarely see it, it’s really dangerous, and we’re not going to train you adequately to perform your job when you get shot at? How do you think the military would respond to that line of thinking?

    Ultra- dangerous + seldom experienced circumstances= greater need for quality training!

    Fewer fires means we need to put more hose on the ground. It is counter- intuitive to say we don’t fight fire that often any more therefore we should train less.

    Remain humble- pride makes us a fake- being humble makes us real. We must maintain a beginner’s mind in order to keep learning and maintain awareness. As soon as we think we have figured out the situation it changes. Be humble enough to say you don’t know exactly what is going on, pay attention to the cues the fire ground is sending you and formulate a plan of action based upon a true reading of the environment.

    If we have our minds made up that there is only one right way to do something, new information will not be able to dislodge the notion. We must allow new information to reshape out mental models. Hence, maintaining an open mind has us constantly curious about our circumstances so we continually reassess our situation.

    Remember that some of our best ideas and plans come from listening to others. Take advantage of all the training available to you.

    Peter Leschak, the author of “Ghosts of the Fire Ground” says this about the fire ground and his connection to it.

    There is a core of mystery and faith that has guided not only my career but also, my life. To me, the fire ground is a sacred locale, a place of power that is rich not only in tradition and history, but also in sources of emotion, and meditations that I can only describe in terms of reverence and awe.”

    Sit down and listen to a veteran tell you a story about their most memorable fire. Be humble and listen more than you talk. The old guys have a lot to pass on- and they’ll do it happily- all you have to do is ask.

    Rainy Day SCBA Drill

    November 18, 2011 11:23 AM by Mark vonAppen












    This drill is a quick and easy way to increase familiarity with SCBA when performing emergency profile meanuvers:
    1. Place SCBA in somewhere in the station or training tower
    2. Tighten straps down or twist them up
    3. Set off PASS device
    4. Have student in full PPE with face piece covered located in another part of building
    5. Student must follow the sound of the PASS and locate the SCBA
    6. Once student locates SCBA utilizing right or left hand search have them lay flat on their belly, silence the PASS, and disentangle the straps (with structure gloves on)
    7. Student will then don SCBA while on knees- adjusting and tightening all straps appropriately
    8. Have student recount MAYDAY parameters (FACT) and call a MAYDAY (NUCAN) (Parameters: F=Fall, A=Air Emergency, C= Caught/Collapse, T= Trapped) (Report: NUCAN Report N= Name, U= Unit/ Assignment, C= Conditions, A= Actions, N= Needs)
    9. Students must locate key personal equipment:
    • Radio
    • Flashlight
    • Wire cutters
    • Pressure gauge
    • Main line valve
    • By pass valve
    • PASS (Activation, Silence)

    Floor Collapse: A Survivor's Story

    November 15, 2011 3:25 PM by Mark vonAppen

    On July 25, 2010, Captain Michael Long, a member of the Camp Taylor (KY) Fire Protection District, was plunged into the burning basement of a single- family dwelling during a four-alarm fire. As he struggled to survive against the fire, his brother-in-law, Deputy Chief Steve Adkins, helped to coordinate his rescue. Long’s wife Jeri, an EMT with Louisville Metro EMS, had just departed the fire scene with another injured firefighter en route to University of Louisville Trauma Center when her husband’s Mayday was reported.

    THE INCIDENT

    Long put on his mask and crawled inside the house, following the hoseline. He traveled about eight or nine feet when he ran into the backside of a firefighter. The firefighter sensed Long’s presence and turned toward him, extending an arm blindly into the smoke in Long’s direction.

    “You guys need to back out,” Long said. He slapped the firefighter twice on the shoulder as he spoke. Just inside the door, the visibility was only inches—if you did not touch the person you were talking to, the message did not get delivered. You might as well be talking to yourself.

    Long asked, “OK?”

    The faceless firefighter answered in the affirmative and passed the message up the line to the other two firefighters who were indistinguishable in the smoke. Long reemerged from the smoke and awaited the exit of the three firefighters. They exited one at a time on their hands and knees and stood up slowly as they reclaimed their vision from the blinding smoke.

    Long and his crew performed a final check of their equipment and readied themselves for entry. Long took the hoseline; crouching, he slammed his ax down on the floor (made of conventional or “legacy” wood members) to determine its ability to support his weight and disappeared, crawling through the front door into the smoke alone.

    When Long and his crew arrived, firefighters at the scene were battling an advanced, stubborn basement fire that exhibited no sign of slowing, and they had been going at it awhile. The fire had been burning for almost an hour; it was getting progressively stronger as the firefighters tried in vain to combat it. Complicating matters further was that it was reported that the stairs to the basement had been destroyed by flames (after the fire was extinguished, the stairs were discovered to be intact), so the firefighters could not apply water directly to the fire. The fire had spread through the exterior walls and was starting to get into the attic space. It was slowly attacking the house’s structural integrity from within. Outwardly, there was no forewarning of collapse.

    Weather conditions were not helping either. It isn’t unusual for summer evening temperatures in Kentucky to be in the mid-90s with equal or greater humidity. This night, the heat was particularly oppressive; the heat index was 110°F. The air was syrupy, and there was no reprieve from the wet heat that hung heavily on the body. Such weather conditions add an additional level of strain to firefighters battling a fire in bulky structural firefighting gear; they can be deadly, causing heart attacks, heat exhaustion, and stroke. In such conditions, everything is more difficult; firefighters become inattentive, clumsy, and mistake prone. Muscle movements are unsteady and unreliable; fatigue quickly arrives, and accidents often aren’t far behind.

    The plan was for Long to lead the crew in with a 1¾-inch hoseline for protection, cut a hole in the floor, drop a 2½-inch hoseline with a cellar nozzle in the hole, and put out the fire. Plans are a trick of the mind—an attempt to control the future. They are formed in the same part of the brain as memories, blurring the boundary between reality and fantasy. Accidents occur near the boundary of reality and our projections of the future—like floor collapses. The problem occurs when reality doesn’t play along with the story you create for yourself.

    Long convinced himself that this was the best plan and that it would work. He had been in situations worse than this, and everything worked out just fine. Throughout their careers, Adkins and Long had normalized risk. There was no reason to believe that the plan would not work.

    He continued across the fire-weakened floor with the hoseline in one hand and his ax in the other.

    A gnawing doubt persisted inside him. He continued to pound the floor with his ax. The floor felt stable. Long knew as soon as he felt it in his gut that something was terribly wrong. The floor he was crawling on, blindly, settled suddenly. The floor is collapsing, he realized.

    He thought he would have enough time, maybe two to three seconds, to retreat the six feet following the 1¾-inch hoseline to the protection of the front porch. In reality, he had much less time than that. The floor bowed beneath him, dropping slightly, perhaps only inches, enough for Long, now the only one inside the house, to perceive it. In an instant, the floor below him, in fact the entire first floor, buckled. There was no sound, no warning.

    A moment of weightlessness followed, similar to the time when you were a child hanging from a tree branch that snapped. You seemed to hang there weightless until gravity took effect and then came the sensation of falling. The body’s natural reaction when falling is to reach out in an attempt to stop the motion. It is instinct. The attempt to reach out and stop the downward plunge caused Long to lose his grip on the hoseline. He disappeared into the basement that was fully engulfed in flame.

    In the Basement

    He hit the ground feet first and fell forward to his knees. Immediately, he was met by the sense that thousands of bees were stinging him over his whole body. Then it got worse. It is like placing your hand in the center of the red-hot embers of an uncontrolled bonfire—only it is your entire body. Instinct dictates that you immediately withdraw from the painful stimulus. When you touch something extremely hot, instinct commands that you instantly let go of whatever it is. But Long could not remove his hand from the coals. He was the hand, and the embers were the fire that surrounded. There is no sanctuary to draw back to. It’s a pain you’ve never felt. You’re burning alive.

    His body reacted violently to the agonizing stimulus. Long thrashed wildly as he tried to break away from this unbearable, ultra-hostile environment. His natural reaction only made things worse. The more he flailed about, the more air he used, and the more air he used, the more his fear grew. Long exceeded the output capacity of the regulator on his self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), which could not match the rate at which his panicked body was using air. The lack of adequate air flow caused a vacuum in his mask, causing it to pull inward toward his face with each deep, frantic gasp. Long was outbreathing his mask. As he did so, his panic compounded.

    Time slowed as Long became acutely aware of his surroundings.

    There is a lot of fire around me, he thought. At this time of intense struggle, Long was able to see the wonder of his environment, accept his dire situation, and begin to plan. I need to find the stairs, but then he remembered that the stairs were burned out.

    If I wander too far from where I am, they’ll never be able to find me, he reasoned.

    Long decided to stay where he was and wait it out. He could hear anxious voices above him, but he could not understand what they were saying. The firefighters’ voices were distorted by their masks; they sounded as though they were speaking into tin cans connected by strings. The sound of frantic voices above him offered a tiny bit of reassurance: His crew was above him and was doing everything in their ability to retrieve him.

    Long willed himself to stay where he was even though he was burning alive. It was his last best option, his best chance of survival. Long began to realize how insignificant his life had become in this strange, new world. His existence had been reduced to a few square feet of hell.

    OUTSIDE: DEPUTY CHIEF STEVE ADKINS

    Long had just disappeared into the smoke when the collapse happened. The snap of timbers was the first sound Adkins heard. It was followed quickly by a rumble as the first floor and its contents spilled into the basement. Garbage trucks make a comparable sound at the moment the trash container they are lifting with their powerful hydraulic arms tips its load, sending it cascading downward—the sound of a fully burdened trash container and all of its various contents rolling into the collection bin in the back of the truck. It was an instant of cacophony followed by the almost passive crackling of timbers as the flames drew moisture from within the wood. The thick smoke that extended from the sill to the top of the front door and rose lazily from the eaves above them was sucked rapidly inward as if the basement fire were drawing in a massive breath of air. It was.

    The smoke drew backward momentarily and then was at once belched outward. Pressurized smoke, burning embers, and ash burst forth furiously from the narrow opening. The pressure buildup from 3,500 square feet of explosively blazing materials was seeking the path of least resistance—now a 36- × 90-inch opening, the front door through which Long had entered. From his position on the front stoop, Adkins was out of the smoke and out of visual contact with Long. The muddy-brown turbulent smoke swirled about and occasionally gave way to flames.

    With smoke and fire conditions as they were, there was no way to immediately determine what had fallen or how catastrophic the collapse was. The smoke cleared momentarily, and Adkins could see the undulation of flames where once the floor had been. It took some time for his mind to make sense of what his eyes were seeing, as it sometimes does when we see something that is incomprehensible.

    Adkins and the remaining members of Quint 5051 quickly pulled the 1¾-inch hoseline back toward them in an effort to reel Long in from the danger. The nozzle at the forward end of the hose marked the end of the line. Long wasn’t there. The first floor was gone, and Long with it.

    Hold on, Long! Adkins shouted into the doorway. The thick smoke and fingers of flame within seemed to deaden the sound. It seemed to go nowhere. Adkins lurched forward, sprawling on his belly, so he would not get dragged in, too. He extended an arm into the flames, groping desperately for Long. As he peered into the vortex before him, he could at times make out some familiar sights—an arm would appear, the common shape of an SCBA cylinder, a helmet.

    Occasionally, he saw the reflective trim on Long’s helmet and turnout gear. Long appeared to rise up through the flames and then disappear again as if dropping into the troughs between waves of smoke and fire. Long surged upward through the flames and then faltered. Moments later, there would be another upward surge, followed by another—each time, the heave was weaker and the interval greater. Adkins could reach in only for seconds at a time; his protective gear could insulate his body only for so long before he finally became saturated with heat. Adkins reluctantly withdrew his arm each time the bees began to sting. Long’s helmet flashed through the flames one last time and then disappeared. Adkins could not reach him, and he was only precious feet away. Adkins reached in again and called out to his fallen brother, “Long…!”

    Adkins grimaced and recoiled his arm in pain. He rubbed his left arm with a gloved hand in an attempt to brush away the stinging sensation. The arm of his turnout coat was smoking; its yellow reflective trim had wrinkled and was now brown from the heat. One of the other firefighters nudged past Adkins and directed the hoseline into the fire in an attempt to protect Long. He, too, sprawled on his belly; he frantically spun the nozzle around in a circular motion to provide a safe haven for his captain. The intensity of the fire turned most of the water to steam, doing little as far as cooling was concerned. His efforts were only somewhat helpful.

    Adkins rolled to his back and looked desperately for a way to hoist Long from the hellhole. The rapid intervention team (RIT) members hustled up to the door with their gear, donning their masks, preparing to launch a rescue attempt. Seven firefighters now crowded near the front door, urgently trying to help.

    Adkins stood up and stepped away from the melee at the front door. The RIT would take far too long. Long didn’t have that much time. There was way too much fire down there. Adkins surveyed the chaos around him and knew that he needed to bring things to order in a hurry if there was going to be any chance for rescue. His eyes fell on a ladder that was lying unused scant feet away on the front lawn. He pushed through the horde of firefighters and picked up the ladder.

    “Move!” Adkins shouted as he positioned the ladder near the door. The mob before him parted, as Adkins plunged the ladder into the fiery abyss.

    “Long! Grab the ladder!” Adkins shouted.

    In the Basement: Long

    Long was exhausted. He slumped to the floor against the front wall—at last, too tired to make another attempt to clamber out.

    So this is how it happens, he was thinking. As he lay there on the basement floor, other thoughts came to mind. Long began to reason that his sacrifice had actually saved three others. Three firefighters were inside only minutes before he fell. Long had ordered them out. He alone was inside when the floor fell out from beneath him. If anything encouraging was to come from his death, it would be that one firefighter—not three firefighters—died in the basement.

    Stay here, he reminded himself. The muffled shouts above him were growing distant. What were they saying?

    The air he was breathing through his mask was becoming hotter, making each breath an effort, and the rubber of his face piece was getting all too malleable. Long knew the temperature of his immediate world was rising beyond the tolerance of his protective gear and that his face piece was the weakest part of all—perhaps a cruel flaw in the design of his protective ensemble, or maybe a merciful design. If his mask failed first, exposing his fragile airway, death would come promptly.

    A speedy demise would certainly be a welcome reprieve from the all-out assault on his every superficial nerve.This is it. I am going to die here. He was going to die in the basement of this house, a house that was beyond saving. How did it come to this?

    The clanking sound of a metallic object striking the fiberglass-wrapped air bottle on his back only marginally peaked his interest. Is more debris falling?The pain was beginning to subside.

    Then, there was an instant of clarity. He distinctly heard the word “Ladder!” shouted from above. The ladder had Long pinned between it and the wall. Long reached behind him with a free hand and could feel the familiar vertical beams and horizontal rungs of the ladder. It was definitely a ladder. He had to find the strength to move out from under the ladder and then to climb it. The fire had taken a tremendous physical toll on him; he had little fight left.

    He slid his hands up the beams and then to the rungs. He made it up on one knee and pulled himself to his feet. Wilting against the ladder, he managed to get a foot up on the bottom rung. It seemed to take forever. He pulled himself up again; his foot was on the second rung.

    Keep going. Breathe. He lifted his foot again in an effort to gain the third rung. He managed to get only the tip of his boot on the rung. His foot slipped as he put weight on the foot. He fell face first onto the ladder and then tumbled backward to the basement floor, again into the fire.

    This is it. I am dead for sure now. It was all I could do to climb three rungs. Now, I am right back where I started.And still, he burned.

    It would be too easy to lie there and die. Long could not subject his family to this. His survival was no longer about himself. It was about his family. He couldn’t leave them—not now, not this way. Long endeavored again to stave off death. I will climb the ladder again. This time, I will not be denied. I will live to see my family again.

    Long thought of Jeri, his wife, and their three boys. He again thought of Adkins, his brother-in-law, who was above him watching as he struggled for life against the inferno. Adkins was going to watch as he died. Adkins would have to tell his little sister that he watched as her husband, father of her three beloved boys, burned to death. This defied Long’s imagination. How would he explain it to Jeri? How would the boys take it?

    Long attempted to climb the ladder again. He stumbled over the first hurdle. He gathered strength and resolve once again and began to climb. This time is much more difficult than the first, if that is possible. Long’s mask continued to cave inward as he gasped for air. The air he so desperately needed was now becoming unbearably hot, causing him to choke on each breath as his body protested the inspiration of heated air.

    Long reached the fourth rung and felt gloved hands pawing at him. Two firefighters grasped the shoulder straps of his SCBA and pulled him violently from the pit of fire. Long was quickly dragged down the front steps of the house and onto the front lawn. He couldn’t see anything even though he was free from the smoke. His mask had been rendered completely opaque with carbon and soot. He was too exhausted to move. He felt as though he were being yanked back and forth in a tug of war where he was the rope as his rescuers removed his damaged gear from his body.

    Long’s gear was so hot that the firefighters had to wear gloves as they removed each piece of equipment. Parts of his gear were actually on fire and had to be extinguished with a garden hose before he could be treated for his injuries.

    Long sustained second- and third-degree burns to his hands and legs and was transported to the University of Louisville Trauma Center for treatment of his injuries.

    LESSONS LEARNED AND REINFORCED

    (In the words of Captain Long)

    • Train as if it is real. Train, train, train, and then train some more. Take advantage of every opportunity to train. The better we are trained, the less our chance of injury. The training must be physically and mentally. Crews must focus on more hands-on scenario-based training that allows for problem solving. If crews are taught that the outcome to every scenario is static, they are not being encouraged to think. Every run is different; no single solution applies to every situation. Adaptations or decisions that are not in step with changing conditions can actually be disadvantageous. We must make the right decisions based on the correct interpretation of the environment and blend those observations with our knowledge, skills, and abilities to map a course of action that will lead us to a successful outcome. Read reality and come up with the best possible plan. In my situation, quick thinking and adapting to the problem that presented itself saved my life.
    • Mutual-aid training is a must. We must train more with our neighboring departments to improve operations. It is occasionally difficult to work in situations where you do not really know with whom you will be working or where the command structure and tactics differ from those of your department. We all learn from the same book; however, the interpretations and tactics differ from person to person and department to department. I am not saying anyone is right or wrong in the way they do things—we all just need to do a better job of understanding that there is more than one way to get the job done.
      We cannot know exactly how everyone on an emergency scene will perform because each person has a different interpretation of his surroundings and role in the system. Standard operating guidelines (SOGs) can assist in this area, but SOGs rely on perceptions and interpretations by individuals to be implemented as intended. Accidents often happen because everyone has a unique perspective on the environment, and each makes different decisions based on their perception.
      We must perceive the environment correctly to ensure we make the right move. If these actions are not communicated and coordinated in the intricate system that is the fireground, accidents will be the inevitable and regrettable results. Training and frequent reviewing of SOGs are vital to our safety.
    • Risk assessment. Sounding the floor prior to entry is not always a good indicator of the floor’s stability. Less than two minutes before I made entry, there were three other firefighters, at least the same weight as I, in the same area where the collapse occurred. Everything changed in a very short time. There was no warning. Adkins told me at the hospital that all he heard was a “whoosh” sound when the floor collapsed. Then I disappeared. Within two minutes, the floor assembly went from being able to sustain a live load of at least 900 pounds in that area (accounting for gear, equipment, SCBA, and so on) to collapsing with about a 300-pound load, and I was close to a load-bearing wall. A good way to evaluate risk vs. gain is to get the most accurate report on burn time as possible to help determine structural integrity.
    • Rapid intervention. RIT is a critical fireground benchmark and is very important for safety, but it would have been ineffective in this situation. Had my crew not reacted the way they did immediately, I would not have been able to last long enough to wait for the RIT. In the time it would have taken for the RIT to gear up, come up with a plan, and enter, I would have died. The stars aligned in my favor that night. The person calling the Mayday or a nearby crew often mitigates personnel emergencies. My crew was able to act decisively at the correct time, and I am alive because of it. It is important to remember that a large percentage of Maydays are mitigated by the crew to which the lost firefighter is assigned or a nearby crew. RIT deployments account for a small number of rescues; we must always be alert and ready for the “incident within the incident.”
    • Manage your emotional response. From a personal standpoint, you must rely on your training and try not to panic. Know your equipment and procedures well. I did panic, but I was still able to keep myself together enough to know not to leave the area since I had been told that the stairs had burned away. Keeping my SCBA on, resisting the emotional reaction to remove my mask because of claustrophobia, was a huge factor in my survival. If I had tried to find another way out, my crew could not have gotten to me with the ladder. Had I removed my mask, the story would have ended quite differently. When I teach, I try to train as if it is the real thing. Never take a run for granted. Always expect the worst; you will be better prepared to deal with the unexpected.
      If we continually study accident reports and learn from them, the likelihood of being surprised will be diminished. Peter Leschak writes in Ghosts of the Fireground: ”In fire and other emergency operations, you must not only tolerate uncertainty; you must savor it, or you won’t last long. The most efficient preparation is a general mental, physical, and professional readiness nurtured over years of training and experience. You live to live. Preparing is itself an activity, and action is preparation.”
    • Talk about it. Critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) is important for ensuring that personnel from all departments on scene are taken care of emotionally. CISD needs to extend beyond just one or two briefings. Personnel involved in a highly emotional event must be given the opportunity to speak to a trained CISD team member early and be given as much time as is needed to work through their issue. Some firefighters have a macho attitude and try to deal with their emotions on their own, or maybe they don’t deal with them at all. Others self-medicate with alcohol or, worse, these difficult emotional events are allowed to fester with no relief. People should be accepting of those who deal with issues up front and tell their stories. Telling these stories makes us better and helps to keep us safe. This reduces the possibility of “snapping” because you have too much pent-up emotion.
      My fellow firefighters are still affected by this event, even those who were not there. Department personnel must be open-minded and receptive to the fact that emotional events will affect your performance and your personal life and that it is acceptable to be open and deal with them. When difficult emotional situations present themselves, members should attempt to deal with them as soon as possible.
    • Know what is possible and what is not. Know the experience level of your crew. Going into a bad situation with a crew that may not have exposure to a lot of different situations or that you aren’t that familiar with could make operations more difficult. I had everything from a 30-year veteran to a one-year recruit, so the experience level was all across the board. I knew that the situation we were going into was getting worse and required quick action, so I took the lead to ensure that the operation would be completed as quickly as possible. I knew my deputy chief would be watching us to ensure things were proceeding safely. I knew my crew could get the job done; however, this was an operation that is not often practiced and I wanted to make sure it was done correctly. I will not send my crew into an area that I am not comfortable going into. The more you train and the more people you can train with, the better you will understand your capabilities.
      Another survivor, Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger III, the U.S. Airways pilot who made an emergency landing in the Hudson River in New York City in January 2009, says the following about knowing your limitations: “You can’t be a wishful thinker. You have to know what you know and what you don’t know, what you can do and what you can’t do. You have to know (what you and your crew) can and can’t do in every possible situation.”

    THE COMEBACK

    The near hit that occurred at Minuteman Court in Kentucky on July 25, 2010, was just the beginning of an extensive journey for Long. What followed were extensive and painful surgeries to repair the damage to the skin of his legs, physical therapy, and a difficult emotional journey back from his near-death experience.

    These traumatic events often leave those who experience them with deep emotional scars and lingering doubts about their ability to perform their jobs capably. They can alter your life in dreadful and irrevocable ways.

    Jeff Helvin, a captain from Sacramento, California, who was trapped by a flashover in 2008, says this about his emotional road back to the firehouse: “That fire ruined me. For a time, it ruined my confidence and shook me up about my ability to do my job. The road to emotional recovery was long and difficult. I speak about my experience with others often. As time has passed, it has gotten easier to deal with. Talking about it helps a lot.” (See “Sacramento Near Miss of Four Firefighters,” Fire Engineering, April 2010.)

    Long and Helvin endured the same type of emotional passage on their comeback to the firehouse. Long’s second shift back was on Thanksgiving Day, 2010. The firehouse was overflowing with family, friends, and his fellow firefighters. Long had many reasons to be thankful that day. “Every day brings new challenges as I have come back to work. My family at home and my fire service family have been instrumental in my recovery both physically and emotionally. I couldn’t have done it without them. I am blessed to have been given a second chance.”

    MARK von APPEN is a firefighter for the Palo Alto (CA) Fire Department, where he is assigned to the Training Division and the ladder company. 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 academy instructor for the Santa Clara County Joint Fire Academy, a recruit instructor for Palo Alto Fire, an instructor at the South Bay Regional Fire Academy, and a member of the “Nobody Gets Left Behind” training group.

    Trapped by Flashover

    November 15, 2011 3:14 PM by Mark vonAppen

    The harrowing story of four Sacramento, California, firefighters who were trapped by flashover in a two-story residential structure is one in which a number of seemingly trivial events added up and almost cost the lives of a captain and three firefighters. The accounts of this fire and the circumstances surrounding it have been well documented. To the credit of all involved, the story of Stilt Court was an open book as soon as all the facts were assembled. The Sacramento City (CA) Fire Department (SFD) has approached the incident from the standpoint of sharing the lessons learned so that others may live. Moreover, this incident shows that the present fire survival training of our firefighters needs to be supplemented with training in how to overcome and manage emotions when in circumstances that pose serious injury or death. In this article, the behavior and actions of Captain Jeff Helvin, who was caught in a flashover, are analyzed from the perspective of how he overcame his emotions and saved his life, using a process that is similar to that of working through grief. [For a personal account, see “Sacramento Near Miss of Four Firefighters” by Jeff Helvin (What We Learned, April 2010, 199-202).]

    THE OFFICIAL INVESTIGATION

    The following information is taken from the official investigation of the Stilt Court residential fire. Some language has been added for clarity.

    On October 7, 2008, Sacramento Regional Fire Emergency Communications Center (SRFECC) received multiple 911 calls for a building fire at 17 Stilt Court. The callers stated smoke was coming from the second floor of the house.

    At 0929 hours, SRFECC dispatched a residential structure fire assignment. The SFD dispatched three engines, two ladder trucks, two battalion chiefs, and one paramedic unit (Engines 15, 18, and 30; Trucks 2 and 5; Battalion Chiefs 3 and 4; and Medic 30).

    Engine 15 (E15) arrived first on scene, within 6 minutes and 7 seconds of the initial dispatch, and reported heavy dark smoke from the second floor. E15 was to initiate fire attack and requested the second-due engine (E18) take command, establish a water supply, and pull a backup hoseline to assist E15 with fire attack. The E15 crew—consisting of the captain, the nozzle firefighter, and a backup firefighter—stretched a 1¾-inch hoseline through the front door and proceeded to the second floor to search for fire.

    E18 arrived 35 seconds after E15 with only three crew members—a firefighter who was working for a few hours as an acting captain while his captain was at a meeting, the nozzle firefighter, and the engineer. E18’s acting captain established “Stilt Command” and directed his nozzle firefighter to pull a backup hoseline. It should be noted that SFD typically staffs equipment with four firefighters and at the time of this incident did not have standard operating procedures (SOPs) for emergency responses when companies are at decreased strength.

    Command (E18’s acting captain) was able to perform a 360° lap of the building to get a look at all four sides of the house. During the walk-around, he opened a sliding glass door on the Bravo side [Alpha (A) = address side, Bravo (B) = left side, Charlie (C) = back side, Delta (D) = right side] and noticed two windows opened on the B side on the second floor. Command went back to the A side of the building and noticed the E18 nozzle firefighter assisting with the advance of the initial hoseline from E15 through the front door. Command ordered E18’s nozzle firefighter to assist E15 with advancing the hoseline upstairs. Command did not advise E15’s captain that an additional firefighter had been assigned to E15. Command then advised the third-arriving engine (E30) to staff the hoseline that had been pulled to the front door to back up fire attack. A water supply was established; E18 was connected to the hydrant feeding water to E15.

    E15’s captain advised Command that they were not able to locate the fire on the second floor and that they needed positive-pressure ventilation (PPV). (PPV is performed by placing a gas-powered fan at the front door to remove smoke and fire gases through an exhaust opening in a building. The exhaust point is created by breaking windows or by cutting a hole in the roof. PPV is typically assigned to truck companies.) Command advised the E15 captain that there was no truck company at the scene to perform PPV. Command advised E15’s captain that a sliding door had been opened on the first floor to try to clear out some of the smoke. At about the same time, E15 captain had opened three windows on the second floor—one window at the top of the stairs and two windows in the master bedroom.

    E30 and Medic 30 (M30) arrived on scene 3 minutes and 42 seconds after E15. E30’s nozzle and backup firefighters began donning their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) on the front lawn, preparing to staff the backup hoseline. E30’s engineer placed a 24-foot extension ladder to the B/A corner of the building, and M30’s firefighter placed a 14-foot roof ladder to the A side of the building.

    The M30 firefighter went to the D side of the building and noticed fire coming out of a window. He used a 2 × 4 to clear the window of glass in an effort to remove smoke from the building. Prior to breaking the window glass, he noted that the window was cracked; he then broke out the sliding glass door and removed the screen on the C side. He did not announce his intent to break out windows on the first floor prior to taking action.

    After the M30 firefighter evaluated the B side of the building, he went back to the A side and advised the E30 captain that the fire was on the first floor in the C/D corner. The discovery of fire on the first floor was not communicated to the E15 captain, who was searching for fire with his crew on the second floor. The E30 engineer had opened up the main door on the D side and the roll-up garage door on the A side. When the E30 engineer opened the interior door to the kitchen and discovered heavy fire conditions, the E30 engineer closed the door. The E30 engineer immediately advised the E30 captain that the first floor was fully involved with fire. The detection of fire in the kitchen by E30’s engineer was not communicated to Command or E15’s captain. It is at this point that flashover occurred on the first floor.

    Conditions quickly deteriorated on the second floor, followed by the hoseline’s going flat. All crew members immediately realized that they needed to exit the building. The E18 nozzle firefighter and E15 backup firefighter escaped down the stairway, exiting through the A side by the front door. The E15 nozzle firefighter descended the stairs halfway and then exited a window at the top of the stairs and onto the roof of the garage. E15’s captain retreated to the master bedroom, searching for the windows he had opened earlier. Unable to locate the windows, the captain decided to follow the hoseline down the staircase.

    As firefighters from E15 and E18 were exiting the building, Stilt Command discovered that the E15 captain was unaccounted for and initiated a Mayday. Shortly after the Mayday, the E15 captain was in the backyard on the C side of the building. By his own account, he came down the stairs, dived over the railing, and crawled out a sliding glass door on the B side.

    Truck 2 (T2), with four firefighters, and Truck 5 (T5), with four firefighters, arrived simultaneously approximately 4 minutes and 23 seconds after E15. T2 began exterior operations by setting up the truck-mounted 100-foot aerial ladder and ground ladders on the A side as T5 prepared to enter the building for a search of the house’s interior.

    Battalion Chief (BC) 4 arrived 9 minutes and 18 seconds after E15. He requested a transfer of Command and asked for a report on conditions, including the status of the Mayday. BC4 assumed Command and acknowledged the priority radio traffic. Command ordered all personnel to vacate the building and attempted to account for all members from E15. Command assigned medic units to prepare to treat and transport injured firefighters from the scene. He then conducted a personnel accountability report (PAR) to gain control of the resources at the scene. T2’s captain, advising Command that a medic unit was also needed at the C side of the building for an injured firefighter, broadcast “Emergency traffic.”

    BC3 proceeded to the C side of the building and was assigned as the safety officer. Safety assisted Command with a PAR of crews operating on scene. All members from E15 and E18 were accounted for and were placed into paramedic units. M30 transported the captain from E15, who was the most severely burned, to University of California—Davis (UCD) Medical Center. The three firefighters were moved into M17 and also were transported to UCD.

    INJURIES/DAMAGES

    E15’s captain suffered serious second-degree burns on the hands, neck, and left ear. E15’s nozzle firefighter and backup firefighter suffered moderate second-degree burns to the ears and hands. E18’s nozzle firefighter suffered second-degree burns to the ears, neck, hands, and leg.

    SAFETY ISSUES

    The following safety issues were reviewed in connection with this incident:

    • There is a need for secondary hoselines to protect the stairwell and floors in multiple-story buildings.
    • Incoming companies must have appropriate staffing levels to perform the necessary fire operations. Prioritize needs for the fire scene.
    • Ventilation techniques must be performed in coordination with fire attack.
    • Specific actions or conditions (the location of the fire, ventilation activities performed, and so on) must be radioed to crews.
    • All members operating on the fire scene must wear proper personal protective equipment.
    • All members must comply with the SFD firefighter accountability tracking system.

    SKILL TRAINING NOT ENOUGH

    There is much more to the story of Stilt Court than can be explained in an official investigative document. The stark account of what transpired contained within the SFD report does not reveal the personal struggle of a man who nearly died while attempting to protect life and property. Official reports are not intended to convey emotion but to simply report the facts. The report is accurate and detailed; more than 300 hours went into researching the sequence of events.

    Many attempts have been made over the years to engrain procedure into the consciousness of firefighters in an effort to improve performance in survival situations. The National Fire Academy (NFA) program “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday” is based on military fighter jet training and is heavily reliant on recognition prime decision making (RPD). Much research went into creating the NFA Mayday program; it is the underpinning of many firefighter survival programs nationwide. Mayday training gives firefighters a process for calling for help when they encounter immediately life-threatening situations. So, why do our training practices in the fire service sometimes fall short? The answer lies in our subconscious. Frequently overlooked in the fire service is the power of emotion and how it can influence our actions when our lives are in jeopardy.

    THE POWER OF EMOTIONS

    The flashover at Stilt Court is a harbinger of what can happen if our culture and training practices do not evolve with the changing fires we face in this modern era. E15’s captain is not a nameless, faceless character in a close-call report. He has had more than two decades of experience in the fire service and 18 months of experience as a captain. He has seen his share of fire over the years. His name is Jeff Helvin, and he has a wife and two children. His story is not just one of an officer trapped inside a fire structure, facing what he was sure would be his own death and the deaths of three others in his charge. His is a tale of survival when faced with truly overwhelming circumstances.

    Helvin’s experience while trapped above a fire and the torment he endured, physically and emotionally, produced a range of emotional responses that almost all who survive extraordinary circumstances say they experienced. Emotions can produce overwhelming physical reactions. Those who survive make the correct decisions by overcoming their emotional response to their environment.

    SURVIVOR RESPONSES SIMILAR TO STAGES OF GRIEF

    The range of emotional responses Helvin and other survivors experienced can be likened to the stages of grief described by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. The stages of grief are as follows:

    In his book Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales describes a survivor’s journey as he works through the survival process. Survivors, he explains, undergo the following stages:

    The stages of grief or survival do not always occur in a specific order, and some may not occur at all. When Helvin presents his account of what transpired on that day, he talks about denying his situation, fear, accepting that he was about to meet his fate, thoughts of his family, and finally anger. All of these emotional responses were happening within just a few minutes. Anger compelled him to take action, ultimately leading him to safety outside the burning structure. Although burned, he survived, as did the other two members of his crew and a third firefighter who had been assigned to Helvin’s crew without Helvin’s knowledge. Gonzales notes that survivors are not immune to fear: “Survivors know exactly what is going on around them, and it scares the (hell) out of them,” he explains. “It is all a question of what they do next.”

    During the search for fire on the second floor, things simply were not adding up. E15’s crew was searching calmly for the seat of the fire in zero visibility, without success. The second floor was being searched systematically, room by room, but the fire was nowhere to be found. There was no discernable increase in heat as E15 moved between rooms, and the thermal imaging camera (TIC) was of little assistance in locating a source of heat. The first floor had appeared clear; Helvin had perfect visibility from the front door, through the house, to the backyard. He recalls being able to see patio furniture in the backyard; there was nothing to indicate there was any threat to the crew’s safety on the first floor. He had seen heavy smoke from three windows on the second floor and reported it in his size-up. E15’s response route gave Helvin a view of the three sides of the house. He developed a plan and decided on a course of action based on his prior experiences and his observations.

    The fire had to be upstairs—22 years of firefighting experience made Helvin sure of it. In his mind, he had been to this fire before. His RPD experience had led him to the quick decision that the fire was in a bedroom on the second floor. “I’ve got this,” Helvin thought confidently. His experience of successful fire operations throughout his career that had presented in a manner similar to this fire all but set him up. A major problem with RPD training is that it is prone to serious and often devastating failure in unusual or misidentified circumstances. Gonzales writes, “Successful training practices can work against us, giving us an emotional certainty that it will work. We’ve felt it work before, the body knows. Unconsciously, we ask ourselves, ‘How have I done this before?’ The model under which we operate, unlike the real environment, is stable.”

    Helvin had established an emotional bookmark based on successful actions under similar circumstances. For a bedroom fire on the second floor of a single-family residence, the plan was straightforward. One hoseline would be sufficient—a simple hose stretch up the stairway to the fire room, a quick and easy knockdown, no problem. He had taken comparable action at fires just like this one, and everything had gone according to plan. The fire was extinguished, no one got hurt, and they were back in quarters by lunchtime. “The annoying thing about plans is how rare it is for everything to go just right,” Gonzales says. Problems arise when reality does not match the plan. The picture of this fire was incomplete; Helvin had seen only three sides of the house as he approached, a misstep that almost cost him dearly. The fire was actually beneath them, in the kitchen, and was smoldering angrily, waiting for a breath of air.

    In an attempt to create better visibility upstairs, Helvin opened windows on the second floor. As E15 made it to the master bedroom, at the rear of the house (C side), the search for fire and life continued with no indication that there was anything out of the routine. Soon after, a firefighter walking the perimeter of the house opened an unlocked sliding door on the first floor, B side. Another firefighter began breaking windows and a sliding door with a 2 × 4 as he walked around the outside of the house on the D and C sides. The smoldering kitchen fire on the first floor exploded back to life as it received the oxygen it needed. Flashover occurred, sending a violent flame front throughout the entire first floor, causing the firefighters’ hoseline to burn through.

    The first indication that something was wrong was the hoseline’s going flat. Helvin was met with a tidal wave of heat at the entrance to the master bedroom, then chaos. The fire crew upstairs was caught in a chimney without the protection of water or an immediately available safe exit. Helvin heard shouting, as the other firefighters were scrambling down the hallway toward him in an attempt to escape the instantaneous onslaught of heat. Helvin did as he was trained to do when he perceived that he and his crew were in a situation that was rapidly turning lethal: He immediately gathered and pointed them toward the direction of the staircase, their only known means of escape.

    All four firefighters were stacked one on top of the other at the crest of the stairs as they attempted to make their way out. E15’s backup firefighter and E18’s nozzle firefighter fumbled blindly down the stairs and into the teeth of the fire, eventually escaping through the front door. E15’s nozzle firefighter was driven back up the stairs by extreme heat and was forced to dive out of a window at the top of the stairs. When it came time for Helvin, who was last in line, to descend the staircase, the heat was so intense, the insult to his senses so severe, that he was forced to retreat deeper into the structure. Confusion and fear began to overwhelm him. He was unsure of what had become of his crew, and the shape of his environment had become intolerable.

    Denial

    Helvin thought he had failed his crew by placing them in danger and then sending them down the stairs into the fiery tempest beneath them, possibly to their deaths. Early in his entrapment, Helvin tells of being incredulous that he was unable to find his way out of a bedroom in a single-family residence. He also recalls being angry at his own arrogance. He was confident as he read articles about firefighters being trapped and killed in residential fires that it could never happen to him. Yet, there he was, staring death in the face in a seemingly nonthreatening structure.

    Firefighters have trouble perceiving that a fire in a single-family home is a threat to their safety. As firefighters, we have experienced environments that seem much more intimidating than a fire contained to a suburban dwelling. Homes are associated with family, shelter, and security. To the firefighter’s subconscious, the residential fire is a benign event. House fires are supposedly bread-and-butter operations—easy fires. “This is it. I am going to die in a residential fire. This can’t be happening.” The fact of the matter is that more firefighters are killed in residential structure fires than any other type of fire. It makes sense; residential fires are the most common type of fire firefighters encounter in the United States.

    His mind began to sort through the possibilities: Escape by the hallway to the stairs? It’s too hot, not an option. Find a window and jump out. He had, after all, opened windows in that very room. Can’t find the windows. Now what? The fear and painful stimulus began to eat into Helvin’s ability to think clearly. Fear can lead us to do things we know are wrong. Helvin’s nozzle firefighter dived head first out of a second-story window. Helvin was prepared to do the same. “I was prepared to be a quadriplegic. I didn’t care what happened at that point. I was getting out. It was that bad in there,” he said of his experience. Helvin’s thoughts went from articles he had read the previous morning on firefighters dying under these same circumstances and then to his family—his wife, their young son and daughter. Helvin knew what he was supposed to do: call a Mayday, turn on his personal alert safety system (PASS) device and flashlight, seek safe egress, or seek refuge and await rescue. He was intelligent and was well-trained. He had received training on Mayday procedures. Why had the training not provided the correct response immediately?

    The problem is that our training practices cannot simulate the high energy levels that exist on the fireground when the environment is extremely hostile and dynamic. Training scenarios are safe and predictable, not chaotic. Our experiences in training are at low-energy levels, and there are no consequences for making the wrong move. “Fire destroys that which feeds it.” (Simone Weil). The environment in which we must operate, and survive, is a high-energy environment that is unyielding and indifferent to our plight. When you add to the equation emotion, which has priority over rational thought, it is almost impossible to sort through it all. Our emotional response will overrule our ability to think in a rational manner. Cognition, the ability to think things through, is at once cast aside in favor of an emotional response. Knowing what we are supposed to do is no match for the power of our emotions.

    Count Your Blessings

    Survivors often report finding the resolve to carry on by making their survival about someone else. Thoughts of loved ones give the mind a place to go that is separate from the pain being encountered at the time. In Helvin’s case, many thoughts flashed through his mind during his fight for survival, but he ultimately settled on thoughts of his family. Even as he felt as though the skin on his neck, ears, and hands was melting from his body, his mind for the moment had taken him somewhere else. His thoughts were of his growing old together with his wife, his son’s playing baseball, and walking his daughter down the aisle some day. The thought of not being present for these events began to stir another powerful emotional response. Helvin’s fear turned to anger, anger at his predicament and how it was going to affect his ability to be with those most important to him. Helvin took this anger and used it to bring the correct action into focus.

    Acceptance

    Acceptance is one of the pivotal stages of the survival process. At one point, Helvin was in so much pain, and his situation was so dire, that he considered what his options would be if his air ran out. Acceptance is the point at which survivors begin to turn the corner. No longer victims, they accept their environment and their circumstances and begin to formulate a plan. He made up his mind that when his air ran out, he would remove his mask and take a deep breath of superheated gases. Doing so would surely kill him instantly, as the superheated air would sear his lungs, causing sudden pulmonary edema; at that hopeless moment, this seemed a better alternative to him than being burned alive. “If I was still trapped and my air ran out, I was going to take my mask off and take a deep breath. I wasn’t going to hang around and burn to death. Taking my mask off would be the last option,” Helvin said. Norman Maclean, author of Young Men in Fire, describes dying in a fire as dying multiple deaths: “First the failure of your legs as you run, then the searing of your lungs, and finally the burning of your body.”

    Helvin had accepted his situation, given up his fear of dying, and faced the reality that his fate might be to die in a structure fire. This illustrates the power of emotion. He knew that the only things keeping him alive were his SCBA and his bunker gear (structural firefighting clothing), yet he had to struggle with the unreasonable impulse to remove the one thing that was protecting his airway. He was beginning to take control by choosing to go out on his own terms; he was going to choose how to die that day. The environment would not dictate the conditions of his demise.

    Others, when placed in similar situations, were later found dead with their masks removed. SCUBA divers have removed their regulators while underwater because of claustrophobia. Even though the SCUBA divers knew it was the wrong thing to do, their emotional response sealed their fate. Helvin was able to seize control of his emotions and use his ability to reason and get him past his illogical urge. The worst-case scenario had been addressed. Next, he made the decision to make another attempt at escaping by the hallway, the only true way he knew to get out. Helvin said, “I knew I was going to take a hit.” At best, he would get burned; at worst, he would die. Regardless of the outcome, Helvin was determined to take action.

    Anger

    “Survivors aren’t fearless. They use fear. They turn it into anger and focus,” Gonzales points out. He explains: “Only 10 percent to 20 percent of people can stay calm and think in the midst of a survival emergency. They are the ones who can perceive their situation clearly. They can plan and take correct action, which are key elements of survival. Confronted with a changing environment, they rapidly adapt.” Helvin was scared to death; he will freely admit to that, but he channeled that fear into anger. As Helvin sorted through his emotions—fear; denial; bargaining; acceptance; and, finally, anger—he, like other survivors, was able to take his fear and harness it.

    He used anger to find the strength within himself to take action and formulate a plan. Helvin summoned the fortitude to pick himself up and fight his way down the hallway—now an uncontrolled inferno—to the stairs, tumbling down the stairs and over the banister and finally landing in a heap on the first floor. A flash of daylight through the vortex of flame helped filter his disorientation. The plan was immediately clear: Move quickly toward daylight and safety.

    Helvin experienced many of the critical steps in the survival process. He was conscious of his environment, accepting of it, and turned fear into anger and focus. He formulated a plan and acted on it, taking correct action. He did what was necessary and never gave up. Helvin crawled through the flames and out the B side of the structure, turned, and ran along the B side to the C side, not stopping until he crashed through the neighbor’s fence, where crews operating in the backyard discovered him. Jeff Helvin is a survivor in the truest sense. He was able to rein in his emotions, remain calm, think clearly, and act decisively.

    FOCUS

    We can learn many things from Helvin’s and other survivors’ experiences. First, we must always gather as much information as possible about the situation into which we are stepping. The importance of the 360° lap cannot be overemphasized. “Every time you step into the river, it is a different river,” Gonzales notes. There is no such thing as a routine structure fire; every incident to which we respond has its own exclusive and vexing set of circumstances. Complacency is the foundation of disaster. Time is certainly of the essence on the fireground, but not at the expense of safety. Critical elements of size-up were not carried out at Stilt Court, and the results were nearly catastrophic. Prior positive experiences, and even our own eyes, can deceive us, giving us a false sense of confidence that our actions will be correct, that everything will work out according to plan. Fire departments must begin the process of slowing down the culture in an effort to achieve safer operations by forcing crews to perform better fire reconnaissance prior to committing to a course of action.

    We should understand that we will respond emotionally, powerfully so, when our lives are threatened. Emotions will drive us toward action, sometimes seemingly irrational action. Knowing this, we must be able to sort though our emotional responses and find the ability to think clearly and stay calm. “Sometimes (bad things) just happen,” cautions Gonzales. “There are things that happen that are simply out of your control; so you had better know how you are going to react to them. If we have had the right experiences, it will instantly direct correct action.” Taking pause, if it is possible, to collect yourself before lurching into action may aid you in making the correct choice. The approach Gonzales recommends is as follows: “Recognize that an emotional response is taking place. Read reality and perceive circumstances correctly. Override or modulate the automatic reaction if it is an inappropriate one. Select the correct course of action.”

    The fire service should commit to continuing realistic scenario-based training. The military has known for years that survival has its roots in sound policy and training procedures. That is the reason the military trains in basic skills to the point of exhaustion. In military aviation, when presented with an in-flight emergency, pilots are instructed to maintain control, analyze the situation, take proper action, and land as soon as conditions permit. When trainees are pushed to the limits of their abilities, they can sort through the stresses to which they are exposed and act in a manner that helps them to complete their assignment safely and to survive the perils of the system in which they are expected to function. Intense training practices are intended to develop emotional attachments to the situations encountered. These are known as secondary emotions. Primary emotions are those with which we are born, such as the drive for food. Secondary emotions are emotional responses attached to an event or developed through experience. Secondary emotional attachments, once they are established, can be just as powerful in influencing behavior as primary emotions.

    We must be able to adapt. Procedure, training, and planning are certainly important, but a rigid adherence to a plan that is not befitting the changing conditions can be suicidal. Those who survive in high-octane environments are those who can anticipate changes in the environment and adapt accordingly. Controlling our emotions, staying calm, and being able to plan and adapt are extremely important in the survival process. Equally important is believing that you are going to get out alive and have the courage to never give up. Fire Order 6 of the Standard Fire Orders states: “Be alert, stay calm, think clearly, act decisively.” That sums up the survival process succinctly.

    Finally, we ought to recognize the need for a shift in our approach to safety and the haste and audacity with which the fire service often launches its members into action. Many positive parallels can be drawn between military and fire service traditions, but there is a dark side to some of our training practices and traditional values, an attitude that has infected the cultures of the military and the fire service. These sentiments are those that convey that somehow it is acceptable, even glorious, to die in the service of others and that a call for help is a sign of weakness. “Emotional bookmarks that have been established label rescue as bad and self-sufficiency, and even pain, as good,” Gonzales observes. “No matter how threatening the environment, soldiers are taught that it is better to die than to fail, death before dishonor. The training works.”

    Like the military, the culture that has been created in the fire service works also. Every year, we lay to rest an average of 100 firefighters. “I will call for help with my last dying breath.” Such a statement is hubris. This reckless abandon toward our well-being must end. Once again, refer to the Standard Fire Orders, Fire Order 10: “Fight fire aggressively, having provided for safety first.” A better way to make that statement would be, “Provide for safety first, then fight fire aggressively.” Safety should never be an afterthought; call for help as soon as it is necessary.

    WISDOM

    Today, Jeff Helvin makes the rounds to some of the major and not so major fire conventions across the country, telling his story in the hope that sharing his terrible experience might make a difference in someone’s life. Since that day in the Natomas neighborhood of north Sacramento, a few things have changed for Helvin. He has recovered from his physical injuries and is back answering the call at one of the busier houses in the SFD. Though the injuries he sustained to his body have healed, the emotional scars that he bears persist, although they are not readily apparent.

    •••

    At the time I met Jeff Helvin, it had been 18 months since Stilt Court. The power of the emotional experience lingered. He was still visibly moved as he recounted the incident. “It only takes one fire to change your life forever,” Helvin said. The audience was apprehensive, wondering collectively, “Do I have what it takes to survive?”

    Helvin choked back emotion as he spoke about his arrival at UC Davis Medical Center, his first conversation with his wife, the sea of blue uniforms at the emergency room as his brother firefighters flocked to the hospital to hold vigil, and seeing his crew members as they were treated for their injuries. He still carries the burden of their suffering with him, even now. He feels that he let his crew down by placing them in the precarious position from which they so narrowly escaped. Helvin accepts full responsibility for what happened that day and thinks about how different things might have been if he had just slowed down a little. Helvin noted: “When I was in my interview with the chief before I was promoted to captain, the chief told me, ‘Your most important job is to keep your crew safe.’ I didn’t do that.”

    Helvin says he views his SCBA and radio differently today. He practices calling a Mayday every time he does a daily safety check on his SCBA. He stresses the importance of a 360° lap to incident safety. Historically, safety advances in the fire service have been paid for with firefighters’ lives. Theodore Lee Jarboe, a former chief and author, notes: “There is no greater influence for change in the Fire Service than the line-of-duty death of a firefighter. Yet, there is no greater tragedy than that of a fallen firefighter whose death prompted the passage of a safety policy that may have prevented his or her death.”

    PLAN

    In 2009, another survivor, Captain Chesley Sullenberger, the now-celebrated pilot who landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River, saving the lives of more than 150 passengers and crew, survived by keeping his cool. A catastrophic bird strike that destroyed both engines of his aircraft 90 seconds after takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia Airport necessitated an emergency water landing. Sullenberger is a product of military fighter jet training and a fastidious planner. He had implemented his own emergency landing procedures for that airspace many times in his mind while flying over the New York metropolitan area. He is a true student of his profession and found value in the experiences of those who preceded him.

    Meditation, preparation, and teamwork were the catalysts of the positive outcome on the Hudson River. There may have been a bit of luck involved, too. Sullenberger had a plan well before “The Miracle on the Hudson,” but “Miracle on the Hudson” makes for better headlines than “Planned Event on the Hudson.” Sullenberger tells of learning the magnitude of the commander’s responsibility to his duty at an early age:

    He later writes: “With the lives of hundreds of passengers in our care, the stakes are high. That is why, long before Flight 1549, I read about and learned from the experience of others. It matters.”

    Bibliography

    Gonzales, Laurence. Deep Survival: Who lives, who dies, and why? Miraculous stories of survival and sudden death.W.W. Norton and Company, 2004.

    Personal interview, 2010, Jeff Helvin. “His Own Words,” Sacramento City (CA) Fire Department. Jeff Helvin provided information for this article to ensure its accuracy.

    Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth. On death and dying. Scribner, 1969.

    Sullenberger, Chesley. Highest Duty: My search for what really matters.Harper Paperbacks, 2009.

    MARK vonAPPEN, a member of the Palo Alto (CA) Fire Department since 1998, is assigned to the Training Division and is a firefighter on the ladder company. 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. He has been involved in training and public speaking since 2003 and is lead instructor for “Read and React: Calling the Mayday,” featured in the California State Training Officers Symposium Fresno in 2009/2010 and at the TAK Response Conference in September 2010.

    Rescue at 55th Way

    November 15, 2011 12:10 PM by Mark vonAppen

    On December 6th 2010 the crew of Long Beach (CA) Fire Department (LBFD) Engine 11 successfully rescued a 2 year-old boy from a structure fire. The little boy, Justin Aruomah had been left alone at night for hours by his mother. During the firefight and accompanying search for the trapped toddler, firefighter Charles Hakopian fell through the floor in a bedroom on the second floor while knocking down fire in the first of 2 bedrooms that were burning. Firefighter Hakopian, despite falling through the floor and being ensnared up to his chest, was able to promptly pull himself out and continue the search. After he and his partners knocked down the fire in the second bedroom, Hakopian discovered the boy, who was in respiratory arrest, and carried him to safety.

    In this story we will learn of the actions of Engine 11’s crew, get a personal perspective from firefighter Hakopian, and we will gain insight as to what made this story one of a successful rescue, rather than a Mayday situation that ended with a firefighter being injured and the tragic death of a child in a residential fire. As with any rescue situation, circumstance played a major role in the accomplishments of the crews at this incident. So too did the crews ability to think on their feet. The story of 55th Way should serve as a reminder of how any story, whether uplifting or heartrending, contains many layers and is perilously close to being other than it is.

    Engine 11-

    A heavy morning mist hangs on East Market St. as Engine 11 slows and stops in front of Station 11, firefighter Charles Hakopian steps off the left side of the engine into the darkness and the dank early morning air. He slams the door behind him and walks into the squad bay out of the dark. The bay is empty except for Truck 11, Rescue 11 is on its way to Long Beach Memorial Medical Center on an emergency medical service (EMS) run. Engine and Rescue 11 had been running hard all day and the beating continued into the early morning hours- neither crew has seen their bunks for most of the night.

    Engine 11 groans as the engineer presses the accelerator swinging the engine in an arc across East Market to get in position to back the rig into the bay. Charles takes his position on the right side of the bay next to the bright yellow line on the floor that was the landmark the engineer used to back the hulking apparatus into the station. The electronic beep-beep of the backup alarm resounds in the cinder block maw of the fire station as does the discord of the air brake system as engine 11 is backed up, with its motor purring at idle, the brakes pushed and released to control the speed of the backing.

    Charles places the boot of the suction hose over the exhaust pipe of the engine and pushes the button to inflate the bladder. Known as a Plymo-Vent System, it is used to limit the amount of diesel soot that enters the station and more importantly, the firefighters lungs. Seeing that the boot and hose are firmly in place- he begins to roll his turnout pants down around his boots. The parking brake on the engine pops and hisses signaling that the engine has come to rest. He grasps the handrail on the side of the engine and removes his bunker boots and pants- the motor rumbles to a stop.

    The bay door is still open and the cold, damp air has displaced the warmth of the squad bay. Even in Long Beach, California it can get chilly in December at 1 o’clock in the morning. Charles hustles over to the apparatus bay door in his tee shirt, shorts, and stocking feet- he pushes the close button on the automatic door. The door rattles, clicks, and squeaks as it’s many sections protest having been awakened at such a perverse hour of the morning. It crashes closed and the bay again becomes quiet. He and his fellow firefighter, Carsten Sorensen restock the medical gear to be ready for the next run.

    The crew shuffles off to the dorm. They have a collective feeling that trying to get some rest was going to be futile- it seems as though it was going to be one of those nights. Charles collapses into his rack and quickly falls into an exhausted sleep.

    ---

    Twenty minutes later, a few miles away the residents of an apartment complex are awakened by the piercing shriek of a smoke detector and shouts of “Fire!"

    The phones in the Long Beach Fire Department dispatch center begin to ring.

    Long Beach Fire Dispatch-

    Dispatcher: Long Beach Fire Department paramedics.

    Indiscernible shouting from the caller can be heard.

    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: Oh my God, the house is on fire. It’s a new born- a newborn!

    Dispatcher: Which apartment is it?

    Caller (shouting to another resident): What apartment number is it? Apartment number 9*…

    Dispatcher: Apartment number 9?

    Caller: Yes.

    Dispatcher: Tell everyone to get out of the building. We’re on our way.

    -Alert tones-

    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.

    *Callers erroneously identified the apartment as number 9. Subsequent callers correctly reported the apartment as number 5. The correct address was given to the units at the time of dispatch.

    The dispatch-

    Ascending peals of electronic alarm tones echo throughout the station, fluorescent lights flicker awake. The clangor jolts the crew from their half slumber. Charles felt as though he had been asleep only minutes- he looks at the digital clock next to his bunk- it reads 0130. He rolls from warmth of his berth and starts for the squad bay.

    The ethereal voice of a female dispatcher rings all through the station:

    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.

    Back to the squad bay, 10 firefighters pull on their bunker boots and pants, don their turnout coats in unison and then take their assigned seats on one of the 3 rigs in the bay. The bay doors for all three units assigned to Station 11- Engine 11, Rescue 11, and Truck 11- moan, screech, and rattle open once more.

    In less than a minute all three rigs roar from their bays making a right on East Market Street and are en route to the apartment fire reported on East 55th Way. Engine 11 leads with its federal siren wailing as it makes off into the wet darkness. As the rigs disappear into the night, the dispatch center updates the responding units that they have received multiple calls confirming the fire- many of the callers report that there is someone trapped upstairs.

    It is 2 miles from Station 11 to East 55th way- a mostly straight shot that the three units can cover in a hurry at that time of the morning as almost no one is on the road. The lights of fast food restaurants illuminate the corners of E. Market and Atlantic Avenue as the three units pass through the intersection. As they continue along E. Market leaving Orange Avenue behind, the lights of the business district fade as East Market turns residential. The apartment complex on 55th Way is at the outer edge of Station 11’s response area- it’s one of the longest runs they can make in their first-due district. Engine 11 makes the first of 2 left turns, its motor growling as the automatic transmission down shifts the engineer accelerating out of the turn- the first left is onto North Paramount Boulevard where a 24 hour convenience store dots the bend, then 3 blocks to another left on East 55th Way. The task force makes excellent time- the first due companies arrive in just under 3 and a half minutes. The public housing complex comes into view on the driver’s side of E11.

    Engine 11 at the scene-

    Engine 11 slows and passes the apartment building to give the captain a three- sided view and leave room for the ladder truck. As the engine slows in preparation to stop Charles has one hand on the door handle, the other on the release for his seat belt and one foot in the step well. The captain evaluates the building and transmits his size up on the tactical channel.

    Engine 11 is on scene- 2- story garden style apartment building with light smoke showing from the second floor. We'll be pulling a line.

    Charles announces over the headset that he will pull the line because the fire building is on his side. This was not normally his assigned task- pulling the line and operating the nozzle was the job of the number 1 firefighter- Carsten, the number 1 firefighter sits behind the captain. Charles, riding in the number 3 position was responsible for wrapping the hydrant to establish a water supply, assisting with maneuvering the attack hose line and performing an initial search for fire victims. Engine 11 decides to “tank it” meaning the captain chose to work with water from the booster tank due to the report of a rescue- water supply would be passed to the second due engine.

    The maxi brake pops and the apparatus bucks to a stop- Charles steps off the driver’s side of the engine and begins his mental size up of the structure; he notes lazy white smoke rising from a second story window and eaves. The smoke is not under pressure indicating that the fire has not yet gained momentum. He fastens the waist strap on his self- contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and readies himself to pull the hose line. “It looked like a nothing fire.” Hakopian said in an interview. “It looked like someone had left something cooking on the stove too long.”

    There are a dozen or more people gathered in the courtyard.

    Doesn’t look like much. Probably a pot on the stove…

    A panic-stricken woman in a night- gown who shouts at Charles that there is a child trapped upstairs in the burning apartment interrupts his inner monologue.

    She tugs at his arm and speaks with terror as she reports that a young boy was upstairs in the apartment. Charles tells the engineer to have Carsten pull the hose line- he was going in to start the search.

    Okay, okay. We’ll get him.

    The crowd of a dozen or so mills about in the courtyard as Charles hustles through the crush to the apartment door. They point to the second story window where sluggish gray- white smoke issues. In the wet night air smoke drapes the courtyard like a shroud, an acrid smell suspended within, a west wind stirs the smoke only a little.

    The door to the apartment is open wide- the boy’s mother had returned home and opened the door, noticed smoke and began screaming hysterically. Later, residents of the complex had tried to rescue the little boy and were driven back by smoke and fire. Charles pauses at the entry point and peers through the open door, neither smoke nor fire is evident. He pushes inside and clears the first floor.

    Inside-

    Seeing that the first floor is free from hazard Charles scans up stairs and notes languid, muddy smoke backing down the stairwell. The smoke has banked down close to waist level on the second floor.

    He forges up the stairs taking care to stay low out of the smoke- Charles notices a marked change in heat conditions as he moves between atmospheres- from the cool of the first floor to the hellish surroundings of the second. He crests the stairs- visibility is clear beneath the smoke- Charles is able to chart the lay out of the second floor. He now can see fire emanating from two bedrooms.

    Charles enters a state of hyper-focus as his adrenal gland dumps catecholamines into his system in response to the threat his body senses. Catecholamines are “fight or flight” hormones released by the adrenal gland in response to stress. These hormones- epinephrine, norepinepherine, and dopamine- cause an increase in heart rate, a corresponding increase in blood pressure, the pupils to dialate, and shunting of blood to the major muscle groups needed in a fight. The chemicals cause vision to narrow in order to focus on the danger, and hearing to become selective. Light still hits his retinas sending images to his brain and his ears still hear but his mind casts aside information that it regards irrelevant to the survival mission.

    In this condition, Charles sees the environment with particular clarity and detail. Here the world has a weird, hushed tranquility- the top of the stairs is exceptionally quiet, the only sounds are the crack and pop of the fire while the contents of the apartment warp and twist as the fire devours them.

    From his vantage point he can see fire undulating from both bedrooms across the ceiling into the hallway. The fire cascades mesmerizingly- resembling a luminous orange inverted waterfall, it is at once striking and also pitiless to that in its path. Its wicked allure belies a vicious nature. Charles is momentarily hypnotized by the fire’s brilliant display.

    He can go no further- his advance cut off by the fire. At the top of the stairs Charles puts his SCBA mask on. Fastening his chin- strap he looks about for his captain and nozzle man- time is of the essence- he knows how quickly a fire left unchecked can progress. Charles clicks his mask- mounted regulator in place, takes a deep breath, holds it for a moment, exhales slowly, and waits for his crew. He repeats the breathing procedure as he watches and waits. Charles employs this controlled breathing technique to slow his heart rate. Intuitively he recognizes that he must keep his emotions in check. A tiny snap of fear will give him an edge in this fight- too much will be counterproductive.

    Breathe in, hold it, and let it out.

    Though he couldn’t see his nozzle man before he sprinted up the stairs Charles knew Carsten would be only seconds after him. He is an efficient and capable firefighter- training and fighting fire together had proven this out. Charles would recon the second floor while visibility was still good and Carsten would be right behind him with the hose line to protect the search. Charles waits at the top stairs for what seems like an eternity. In reality it is only seconds, when Carsten enters the apartment through the front door. He sees Charles above him on the stairs motioning for him to pass the hose line up the stairs.

    Carsten hands the line to Charles and withdraws to the first floor to put on his mask. Charles takes the hose and nozzle and aims it toward the ceiling that is awash with fire. Fire continues to flow like a molten torrent across the ceiling from the near bedroom and into the second- crouching low, Charles dispenses water from the adjustable nozzle in short, controlled bursts on a narrow stream setting. With each quick blast from the nozzle the fire recoils deeper into the first bedroom.

    Charles is careful not to open the nozzle on a wide fog pattern as this will pressurize the fire compartment and upset the thermal balance, leading to temperatures at the floor level exceeding those at the ceiling for a short period of time- driving heat and fire gas brutally downward, all but eliminating the possibility of survival for anyone who may be trapped.

    Fully opening the nozzle on a 30-degree fog pattern would cause an instantaneous, volatile conversion of water into steam- the rapidly expanding steam cloud will effectively poach anyone without the benefit of structural turnout gear and SCBA. Conditions at floor level will 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 can keep it that way. Armed with this knowledge, Charles jabs at the fire and drives it back into its corner.

    The floor collapses-

    The heat and fire conditions permit Charles to advance in a low squat as he pushes toward the first bedroom- penciling the fire as he advances. As he enters the first bedroom his feet are cut from beneath him. His left foot penetrates the floor first- his body weight causes more of the floor to fail. He instinctively spreads out in an attempt to catch himself when his body recognizes it is falling. He extends his arms and legs outward as though he is a cat trying to avoid being immersed in a bucket of water. In an instant Charles falls through the floor up to his chest and is resting on his elbows. He concludes that he has two basic options, he can try to free himself by pushing up from the hole in the floor, or if the floor continues to crumble from beneath him as he fights he can plunge the remaining 4 feet and land in a heap on the first 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.”

    As chance would have it Charles was in the right position when the small section of floor disintegrated beneath him. Had he been crawling head- first, instead of crouching- a fall of greater than 10 feet onto his head or back would have resulted in serious injury. Charles is able to look between his body and the floor joists and can see light coming from the first floor. “I knew something was wrong when I could see the first floor between my legs.” He kicks his legs and pushes himself up with his arms- his feet find a first floor wall and in seconds he is able to push and kick himself free of the hole.

    Carsten clicks his regulator in place and is at the threshold as Charles springs from the hole.

    Charles shouts to him from inside the bedroom.

    Watch out- I just went through the floor.

    Carsten has no idea what had just taken place- he was on the first floor putting on his mask when his partner crashed through the second floor. Charles was up and out of the hole before anyone could notice. Carsten is incredulous- he wasn’t sure whether Charles had simply fallen or was entangled in wires that had dropped from the ceiling.

    What happened?

    Carsten scans the floor with the Thermal Imaging Camera (TIC) and can clearly see the hole in the floor between him and his partner. The camera displays the infrared spectrum that is invisible to the human eye- building an image based on heat. Through the eye of the TIC areas of heat are displayed as white and areas of cold are black- a gray scale is in between. The camera creates an almost ghost- like image of the invisible light world that it can distinguish through its core- processing unit, allowing the firefighters to literally see through smoke. Carsten sees the black outline of a hole in the floor- it is a stark contrast to the floors structural members that show up as a white, radiant halo around the black opening.

    “As I looked through the TIC I could clearly see the outline of the hole- it was still burning,” Sorensen said. He scans the bedroom from the hallway- beyond the hole he can see Charles near the bed as he rummages through the room, scouring it urgently for the little boy. “As I looked through the TIC I could see him in the bedroom. I didn’t see him go down. I could see the hose line down in the hole.” Charles completes his tactile search of the room satisfied that no one is inside. He exits the room and meets Carsten in the hallway.

    Another firefighter now joins them in the passageway- a firefighter from Engine 12 (E12) has come up stairs to join the fray. He nudges past Charles and Carsten blasts the fire now seething from the second bedroom with the 1¾ hose line he carries. He utilizes the same suppression technique mentioned earlier to maintain the delicate thermal balance. Carsten holds at the first doorway with the TIC to monitor fire conditions, and protect the search- ensuring another firefighter does not go through the floor.

    The fire in the second bedroom hisses disapprovingly and withdraws as the E12 firefighter prods it. Surprisingly, heat conditions in the hallway are tolerable- in a small space such as this heat development would normally be extremely rapid. The window had failed in the second bedroom- allowing for the release of heat, carrying it away from the firefighters and Justin. The combination of the open front door and the window shattering- allowing the heat to escape- contributed greatly to Justin’s chances of survival.

    The rescue-

    Charles shoves past the E12 nozzle man who turns the hose line to the fire coming from the closet. He has only a moment to distinguish the room’s layout before the room goes black. The fire and water combination will produce a steam cloud that will rob the firefighters of their sight. A closet is to his right; a bed in the center of the room and a window is to his left. Charles crashes 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, his focus turns to the bed- he searches atop it- Charles finds the bed empty. He makes his way to the foot of the bed and continues his search on the bed’s left side- nearest the window. The smoke and steam lift momentarily- Charles looks down and his heart leaps as he sees the shape of a young child’s hand. The child is laying face down and motionless on the floor.

    Charles scoops the boy into his arms- cradling him gently and pulling him close to his body in an effort to shield him from the heat. Heartbreakingly, the little boy does not stir when he is picked up. Charles can feel heat from the little boy through his thick firefighting gloves. Hakopian said in an interview, “I didn’t try to check for breathing or a pulse- I knew I just needed to get him to fresh air as fast as I could. He was hot to the touch- he had been in there cooking for a while. As I carried him out he didn’t move at all- I thought he was gone.”

    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 rages 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 is overcome by smoke but is relatively unburned. Charles starts for the front door with the child in his arms. As he exits the bedroom he hears the Truck Company (T11) on the roof- the throaty snarl of their Stihl chainsaw operating at full rpm as the crew tears the roof open above his head.

    "The bed was between him and the fire…the floor was hot but it was cooler than up on the bed so it was the best place for him to be," Hakopian said.

    Outside-

    Rescue 11 (R11) and Engine 9 (E9) are assigned to medical group and have their medical equipment and a gurney ready to accept the toddler as Charles rushes from the apartment. Charles hands Justin’s lifeless body to Joyce Vanderweide, a R11 paramedic. She places the child’s wilted body on the bed. Vanderweide and her partner, Mark Miller, immediately begin resuscitation efforts. Vanderweide said she and Miller were about to start CPR when she touched Justin's chest and felt his heart was still beating. "The amazing thing," said Vanderweide. "Justin was so hot when Charles handed him to us...he was much hotter than a 105- degree fever."

    The four firefighters from E9 descend upon the little boy’s body and support the resuscitation attempts. The medics follow a well- rehearsed script as they work to bring the little boy back to life. The emotion of the situation is not lost on any of the firefighters, now emotions must be cast aside if Justin was to have any chance.

    Charles steps away from the melee surrounding the child and removes his helmet and mask. His hands shake as the catecholamine release surges through his body. The slamming of his heart fills his ears- his heart rate has soared into the 150’s. He feels clumsy as his body experiences the natural fight or flee response- fine motor skills have all but left him for the moment. He inhales profoundly as he tires to regain his breath and slow his heart rate. Charles watches for any sign of life from the little boy as the medics continue to treat the child according to protocol. The boy shows no signs of life- Charles feels heaviness in his chest as he observes the medics administering treatment. Hakopian said, “I thought we were too late. I didn’t think he would make it.”

    Until now Charles 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. Charles couldn’t develop emotional attachments to the situation as it evolved, emotion would cloud his judgments- possibly causing him to hesitate at the moment of truth. Until now he had only thought about the rescue in detached terms- he was searching for a victim, not a little boy. That victim now had a face and the tiny features of a 2 year- old child. As the chemical release in his system is metabolized, catecholamines have a half-life of a few minutes when circulating in the blood, Charles senses the emotion of the circumstances- they begin to weigh on him. The little boy is not responding to treatment.

    "It was kind of a blur," Hakopian said. "It was very emotional."

    The crowd gathered in the courtyard is now kept at a distance by police officers. They had watched the entire event unfold before their eyes; some had even tried to rescue Justin before the arrival of the fire department. They were emotionally involved. They knew the little boy who played in the courtyard, his shouts and laughter filled it during the day as he played and rode his tri-cycle. The group had looked on helpless 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 alternating from hope to despair, then hope again as a firefighter emerged from the burning building with little Justin. The normal childhood effervescence that Justin displayed wasn’t there. He didn’t cry in fear or struggle with the medics the way a child his age should when scared out of his mind and longing for his mother. The little boy could not have looked worse. All vestiges of life have left him.

    Unified in concern, they each wear a look of anguish on their face as they collectively pray and try to will little Justin back to life.

    The group of firefighters and paramedics that surround the gurney start as one toward the rescue. The gurney is loaded in the back- Miller and Vanderwiede accompany the little boy in the patient compartment, the back doors slam shut and the rig sets off for Long Beach Memorial with its precious cargo. R11 speeds into the night, its siren growing distant as it recedes into the night.

    As R11 brings Justin to Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, Miller and Vanderwiede are able to start his breathing again.

    ---

    Justin’s mother was arrested that night and charged with felony child abuse and neglect.

    The 2-year-old 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. Justin was listed in critical condition upon his arrival at Long Beach Memorial Hospital. After a few days in critical condition he made what doctors called a “miraculous recovery.” Today, he is alive and well thanks to the strong work of the Long Beach Fire Department.

    "If I could take one thing away from out training that was invaluable it is that we are always taught to think on our feet. We always hear in the Long Beach Fire Department , 'We are not going to teach you to be robot,'" Hakopian said.

    "Whenever it's a kid it always kind of tugs at your heart strings little bit more," said Vanderweide. "We really look forward to the positive results like we experienced with Justin. We were all lucky to be a part of it."

    Service versus Effort

    November 11, 2011 9:10 PM by Mark vonAppen
    An Open Letter to the Citizens of the Community: Top Service? Yes Sir, Yes Ma’am…
    Level of service is not the same as level of effort.
    Let it be clear.
    With the potential reallocation of fire resources the citizens of this nation can still expect to receive top service from people who care but don’t be surprised if it takes a little longer to get it to your living room. It is simple math- fewer resources responding from further away means it takes us longer to get there. This is due not to an apathetic group of firefighters- we still care deeply for the public we serve and for the great and noble profession we represent.
    These are statements of fact and are not subject to interpretation.
    It’s about the reputation of quality organizations, with superior employees that have been devalued and denigrated by those seeking to bring down a proud and storied service.
    It’s about truth and ethics.
    Stop by a firehouse and have a talk with the crews. You’ll find a group of people who are active, caring members of a community in which they often cannot afford to live. These public servants help make your community the safe and desirable place that it is- and part of why you pay so much for the home that you live in.
    The entire nation is suffering financially- we accept this reality and are on board attempting to share the burden of the budget crisis with other public service agencies. Your public servants will still answer the call for service and deliver an outstanding product but to understand our frustration you must know that our angst is only partially due to the fact that we must tighten our belts.
    The consternation stems too from the fact that our profession is being vilified to further an agenda. If we must give up pay and benefits like everyone else in America that’s ok.
    We get it.
    Our aggravation has roots in the fact that we might not be able to serve our customers to the level in which we- firefighters and citizens alike- have both grown accustomed to.
    We feel much better hearing, “You got here so fast,” rather than, “What took you so long?”
    We think the citizens feel the same way.
    Firefighters will not be tardy in arriving to the scene of your emergency because they are dragging their feet getting out of the station when the bell hits. There will be no work slow down when it comes to emergency response. I don’t know any of my brothers and sisters who will compromise their principals by not hustling to the fire engine when the bell strikes. Our commitment to the community and to each other runs too deep. Frustration arises when city officials prey on this commitment- continually taking away funding for training, personnel, and equipment- expecting the same outstanding product but not wanting to support it.
    In order to be ready to serve our communities in the most combat effective manner many of us must train on our days off at our own expense. We are the ones at the gym, in the classroom, studying our every weakness. We sit around and think about them, we plot and plan on ways to improve. We attend to every detail. We work on our weaknesses and overcome them- to better serve the community.
    Those of us that make the commitment do so willingly recognizing that the cities we work for are often willing to accept a lowest common denominator when it comes to a level of preparation to deliver service. We will not tolerate this. Easy, funny, cheap isn’t good enough when the moment of truth arrives.
    We never know when that moment is going to come.
    Mayors and other government officials have very thoughtful and kind words they use to describe firefighters. In seemingly heart-felt speeches they refer to firefighters as heroes. They seem quite sincere in their view of our profession. We are humbled and flattered by these generous words.
    We are not heroes.
    We aren’t villains either.
    These terms make every one of us uncomfortable.
    We are heroes no more than the police officer that puts on their shield every day and goes about their duties- standing between the bad guys and the average law-abiding citizen. We- like peace officers- are guardians of the community. Our greatest act of bravery took place when we accepted the honor and responsibility of protecting the citizens of each and every community we serve.
    The current leadership in the highest levels of local and federal government doesn’t make any public employees feel of much value. Make no mistake- our morale nation- wide is as low as it can be.
    Customer service works both ways.
    Think of it like this:
    More expensive paint covers better than cheap paint. Expensive cars have a better and quieter rides than entry-level cars. Good carpentry costs money. In communities where a premium is not placed on emergency services the rate of survival for cardiac events is lower and fire loss is greater. Crime rates increase when you take police officers off the street.
    It’s pretty simple to understand.
    Longer response times and reduced response capabilities can be directly attributed to government officials that truly do not understand the mission of the fire service. They do not care to understand how we deliver quality customer service to the citizens that the city has an obligation to protect by providing a robust emergency service.
    The cuts have not all come to fruition but they are forecast.
    Victory is achieved through overwhelming the enemy with a disproportionate amount of force. That enemy may be a fire or an emergency medical call. This is why we arrive at the emergency scene with the numbers that we do. If those numbers are not available the problem compounds so long as the clock ticks.
    It’s about math.
    Fire doubles in size for every minute that it is unrestrained, more brain cells and heart muscle die for every minute either goes without oxygen. This means that in certain circumstances there might be more casualties than we as a service provider or you, the customer are willing accept- be they civilian, or firefighter. Nothing is worse than knowing we could have made a difference but we couldn’t get there in time due to a lack of resources.
    It’s not about scare tactics; as some of the more vocal opponents of the fire service would have you believe.
    It's about math.
    Our job is to be ready. If the citizens of the community choose to have fewer resources available to respond to emergencies then our job is to do the best with what we are given. When there is an emergency we are the ones who show up say, “Stand behind me. We are here to make the bad stuff go away- we are here to make you safe. How can we help you?”
    This we will continue to do without question- it is our oath.
    To accomplish our goals it might take longer and there might be a real consequence on the unfortunate occasion that due to reorganization we cannot get to those who call us for help in a timely manner. Most people will not be touched or affected by scaled back emergency services. They might hear about a child drowning, a person choking, or a house burning down and chalk it up to rotten luck.
    Too bad for them.
    I’m glad it wasn’t me.
    We as rescue professionals know the difference a minute or two can make. We have been there often enough to know the sick feeling of arriving precious minutes too late. Anyone who tells you that seconds don’t count or that 5 people on a medical call is too many isn’t telling the truth.
    It’s about math.
    Visit your neighborhood firehouse and ask a firefighter why 5 of them show up on a medical call to support a person whose heart isn’t beating. You might find that 5 aren’t enough. If we’re not out of the station on an emergency call, training ourselves to answer the next call, or performing life safety inspections we are more than happy to talk to you honestly about all of the services we provide.
    We’d rather talk service than money.
    How many guardians do you want to show up when you call?
    Ultimately, the decision is yours. True, government officials are appointed to make decisions on your behalf. Are these decisions always based on solid information and a concrete understanding of what the scaling back of vital services means to your standard of care?
    Paul Combs
    Don’t be so sure.
    We hope and pray that you never need us but rest secure with the knowledge that we will never let you down willingly. If we fall short in delivering service it will be because we were not afforded the resources to accomplish our number one priority- your safety.
    It will not be from a lack of effort.
    Level of effort and level of service are different things.