Blowin’ Smoke with Mark vonAppen

This week’s Blowin’ Smoke article features Captain Mark vonAppen.

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.  Mark has been published in Fire Engineering Magazine, Fire Service Warrior, and is the creator of the fire service leadership blog FULLY INVOLVED.  He is an instructor for the Santa Clara County Joint Fire Academy, a recruit Instructor for Palo Alto Fire, an academy instructor at Evergreen Community College, and a member of the “Nobody Gets Left Behind” training group.

How many years have you served in the fire service?

I have been in the fire service since 1998.  I work full-time for the City of Palo Alto Fire Department in Northern California.

Why did you join the fire service?

I joined the fire service because my grandfather was a firefighter for the City of Eugene, OR when I was young.  Like many youngsters, I was fascinated by everything that surrounded the fire service, the excitement, the big red engines.  It was when I got older that I recognized the service component, the team aspect, and just how rewarding a career the fire service can be.

Is there any distinct way that you have tried to make a difference?

The difference that I have tried to make in the fire service involves positive change.  I subscribe the notion that many of us in the fire service do,  “Leave the job better than when you got there.”  I believe firmly that we do this through positive team building and realistic goal setting.  The motto in our firehouse is, “Treat people right, give all out effort, and have an all in attitude.”


Have you accomplished any specific personal goals during your career?

In my career I have been fortunate to be surrounded by some very talented people who have given me the opportunity to contribute to some very important programs that were created in the State of California.  I was a part of a cadre of instructors that helped establish the CA Rapid Intervention and Survival manuals.  I played a supporting role, but it was great to see everyone’s hard work realized with the implementation of the training on a statewide level.

What is the biggest change that you have witnessed since joining the fire service?

The biggest change I have seen in the fire service in my time involves the quality of training that is available to the modern firefighter.  While nothing can replace high quality, hands on training, the amount of information that is immediately available makes us much more aware of what is going on in the fire service in the United States and the world.

What do you believe is the biggest challenge that the fire service faces today?

I believe the biggest challenge the fire service faces is the ability to stay relevant in the age of productivity.  We will continue to face staffing and budget challenges in the years to come.  We are constantly scrutinized as an industry because we do not turn out a product that can be measured in dollars and cents.  Our job is to be prepared for whatever comes our way.  We must find a way to show the public that our product is readiness, and that you cannot put a price tag on being prepared.

What is the best firehouse prank that you might have “allegedly” been involved in throughout your career?

No comment.

During your many years on the job, how were you able to push through the darkest of times?

During some tough times on the job, I have been able to push through with the help of my family, both at home and at work.  My wife and kids give me a lot of support.  As firefighters, we show extraordinary compassion for not only the public that we serve, but for one another.  I am continually amazed and humbled by the excellent people that surround me.

If you could provide some of the younger generation of firefighters with a few “words of wisdom,” what would they be?

We are really young as a profession right now, many of our skilled craftsmen have moved on.

Be a mentor.

We must remember that the new people are always watching us and will mirror what they see, both good and bad. Remember too, that we are aggregate beings comprised of everything and everyone we have ever known and experienced.  Pieces of our every contact in a lifetime of contacts have molded and shaped us into who we are today. Today’s interactions change who we will be tomorrow.  We are resultant of a lifetime’s worth of input from all we have observed, both positive and negative.

If you can look down the line at all of the people who came through your firehouse that went on to become successful, charismatic, and understanding leaders then you can be proud of the rich heritage you helped to create.

We would like to thank Captain vonAppen for taking the time to be featured in this week’s Blowin’ Smoke article. If you know anyone who may be interested in telling their story, email us at Be sure to check us out on Facebook here.