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By:  Mark vonAppen 

Working a shift trade on a company that you are not totally familiar with poses some interesting and potentially hand-tying problems.  It also presents an opportunity for growth.

As things were winding down at our last structure fire, a light rain began to fall as the home owner approached me and put his hand on my shoulder.  His home gutted, the teary-eyed father said, "Thank you for risking your lives to search my home.  My son (12) rides his bike over from his mom's house sometimes and lets himself in when I'm gone.  I come home and he is taking a nap in his room.  When you asked if the house was empty I wasn't totally sure."


Twenty minutes earlier, smoke billowed from the house as I stood in the street after completing a hasty 360 lap, juggling between speaking with the frantic homeowner, and giving arrival assignments.  My crew du jour (engineer and firefighter) hustled to my side, laboring under the burden of their structure gear and tools.  I asked the homeowner, "Is everyone out of the house?"

After a pause, he answered, "Yes, I think so."

I went through my mental checklist: 

  • What is the situation?
  • What can I realistically accomplish with my crew and our tools right now (Rescue company with no water)?
  • What is our responsibility; does it change given the arrival order?
  • Is an "all clear" from the occupant sufficient; what are the consequences if we do not search?
  • Can I turn this crew loose to function on their own?
  • What is the back up plan (audible) if the original plan doesn't work? 

My crew purposefully donned their masks in anticipation of getting the green light to initiate a search of the burning home.  I turned to my engineer as the first due engine roared past and said, "As soon as the engine gets boots on the ground, I want you guys ready to search.  I have to stay here.  Can you get it done?  I need to know right now."

"Yeah, we're ready.  We'll get it done."

As the Incident Commander, I was forced to stay outside and send my crew into the building to search without me.  The Battalion Chief was across town and delayed by flooding from the biblical amount of rain we had received over the course of the week. Just like the captain's simulator exam, there was no one to pass command to - I was it.  The crew, long ago prepared by their regular company officer, gave me the thumbs-up and disappeared into the smoke to conduct the search. 

At that point, my mind was a jumble of uncertainty.  There were many unknowns that I had to trust would turn out in our favor, that the crew in my charge was able and up to the assigned task – my misgivings should not be mistaken for mistrust.  I know with certainty what my regular crew is capable of, I know their strengths, weaknesses, and they know exactly what I expect of them.  We have an established standard of performance.  I had no defined point of reference for this crew, I knew them, and I knew their captain, which eased my fear of the unknown if only slightly.

Moments later, their radio traffic crackled, "Rescue 2 entering Charlie side for primary, PAR 2, full air." A few uneasy minutes later, as the flames were snuffed, "Rescue 2, side alpha, PAR 2, 1/2 air.  Primary complete, all clear."

"View every situation as a potential threat.  Examine every opportunity to perform with a critical eye."

What if the crew hadn't been ready; and stood there frozen on the front lawn when given the order to search? Fortunately for everyone, my crew-for-the-day had been paying attention throughout their careers and recognized the importance of being ready to perform without their officer shepherding them along.  As leaders, we must train our people to view every situation as a potential threat and to examine every opportunity to perform with a critical eye, so that they will be ready.  We must prepare them for any contingency so that when a critical situation presents, they will act decisively and not flinch in the face of adversity.

Everyone has to be all-in-all-the-time because it all counts. The time to prepare for your opportunity is in the days, weeks, months, and years before it happens.  You have to prepare your people with a sense of urgency, not a sense of crisis.  When we are called upon to act, we must be able to do so with conviction, and at full speed.

Mentoring, whether formal or informal, is critical to developing the future of the fire service.  Every one of us at some point in our career will have a chance to make a difference.  It might occur during a search, on the nozzle, or on a medical call.  We cannot determine when that time will come, only that it will.  We must prepare for that moment with the attitude that it is a certainty, not just a possibility. 

We never know when we will be the next man up.

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Comment by Kevin Dippolito on March 4, 2014 at 3:01pm

Mark, well said and so very true; "all-in-all-the-time".

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