So I Am Ready


by Mark vonAppen, Captain
Palo Alto Fire Department

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.

Mark-vonAppenI 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 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 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.

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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.

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.

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Mark’s loving family

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.

About the Author: 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. Visit Mark’s website, FULLY INVOLVED

Read Mark’s other article: Daddy’s Girl