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By: Mark vonAppen

Come with me to the land of make-believe.  Once upon a time, I thought I was a pretty good firefighter.  I could pull pre-connected hose line, tie a few knots, and strap my SCBA to my body in well under one minute. I felt confident in my ability to perform any one of the myriad of tricks I had learned in the academy and during my 16-month probationary period.  Success was all but assured, or so it seemed.  

Throw my pack?  Gold star.

Stretch a line to the tower?  
Gold star.

Tie a bowline?  
Gold star. 

All of the boxes were checked.  Employee meets the minimum standard.  Check.  You really tried, and you're a super-nice guy; you get another gold star.  And on, and on.  If I was a child, mommy and daddy's refrigerator would be festooned with all of the gold starred-smiley faced-rubber stamped reports of august progress I had received.  The 10-page performance evaluation that my company officer spent 5 minutes preparing cemented my mediocrity.  Meets, meets, meets, meets, meets.

My boots shined, my uniform pressed, I knew exactly how little was expected of me and nothing more.  I was glad handed into thinking I was great, and I excelled (if that is possible) at the minimum standard, all I had ever been expected to achieve.  I had become the one-trick-pony poster child.  I knew one way to do things, and one way only.  I had unknowingly accepted the notion that meeting the minimum standard was acceptable.  I was wooed into the divine trance that the department would teach me everything I needed to know in order to succeed, a fallacy that we wrap ourselves in prior to being born-again-hard into the fire service.

"Employee meets the minimum standard" means you suck.

My excuse for not knowing how to do something was the popular, "Well, nobody showed me how to do it so it must not be that important."  Like many in society, I shrugged off the magnitude of my responsibility and placed the blame squarely on the world for not preparing me to be great.  It is an ideal that I truly detest these days, the notion that success can be achieved by simply showing up.  I'm a firefighter, therefore I deserve greatness.   It should come to me whether I earn it or not.


Was I ready?  I thought so.  Was I really ready?  I would find out sooner or later.


My second coming in the fire service occurred as I began to venture outside the cozy confines of the city in which I work.  I learned that there was a fire argot that I did not understand,  how difficult (sometimes impossible) it can be to rescue our own, that air consumption rates are not what they teach in the academy, and most humbling of all, that I was ill-prepared to function in a real-deal-no-gold-star-for-showing-up-unforgiving-real-life-you-die-if-you-lose-scenario.

As I started the journey - when my eyes, mind, and heart opened - I felt that I had a lot to learn and that the job is more difficult physically and mentally than anything I had ever experienced.  I learned that what we are expected to do never fits in a box that can be checked, and that we do not always succeed.  It was a slap to the face of my complacency, all of it scared the Hell out of me. 

We are doing our brothers and sisters, and ourselves, a disservice if we do not plan for contingency upon contingency.  Our job is a constant game of speed chess where we must continually ask, "What is the next move?"  In order to grow, you must push yourself and others beyond their established safety zones.  Commitment is rare these days.  It cannot be forced upon people, it can only be suggested.  They have to truly want, and commit to change for it to happen.  Don't wait for change to come to you, be change.  Start with your house.

Excellence is your responsibility.  Own it.


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Comment by Frank Ricci on September 25, 2013 at 2:09pm

Well Said, Merit Matters! 

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