Leadership

The Lasting Effects of Mentors

VOLUNTEERS CORNER ❘ By TIMOTHY PILLSWORTH

In any business, it is important to have a mentor—someone who will give you guidance; direction; hope; correction; and, when needed, a “kick in the butt.” Although some may call themselves mentors or sign a form and be “assigned” as one, this is not the way it is done. Many companies, organizations, and fields have mentoring programs of some type. Typically, they will help the new employee learn the ropes and what is required of the job. Although mentoring in the business world can be and mostly is an assigned duty, the fire service is much different. Becoming a mentor is not something for which you can be picked or chosen—it just happens.

This past year, within one week’s time, I lost two friends, both mentors. These losses took some time to sink in. I really did not know and understand what they had done for me until I was forced to take the time to figure it out. Although they were mentors at different times and organizations during my life, nonetheless, they helped mold me as well as many others.

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My Scout Mentor

As an adult leader in the Boy Scouts for the past 10 years, I have just now realized that what I had learned years ago relates to today. As a Boy Scout in the early to mid-80s, we had a young adult (early 20s) leader, Dana Smith, within our troop. Dana never achieved Eagle Scout but had a love for the outdoors and supporting youth and Scouting in general. Dana was that one “adult” leader who was not fully an adult but also not a youth, either. He could relate to both sides, which made him the most important link in our troop’s chain. I do not remember any specific piece of advice, saying, action, or event that made Dana a mentor, and this is what makes him a true mentor. There was nothing planned, scheduled, or required; it just happened. I can remember talking to him on camping trips and at meetings about, well, life.

In your early teens, life can be difficult. School, friends, sports, girls, family issues—I must have talked to him about one, if not all, of those at one point or another. He made me laugh and gave me direction, but I did not realize the true effect of what he had been able to do until much later in life.

At our troop meeting following Dana’s passing, I gave the “Scoutmaster’s Minute” (given at the end of a meeting or an event where the Scoutmaster or other adult leader offers wisdom, guidance, advice, and so on) to the troop at the end of the meeting, as is normal. It can be something based on a day in history, a news event, a past trip—anything.

That meeting minute was on Dana and mentors. It was very simple: Your greatest mentors are the ones you think of when you are older, when you have a decision to make, realizing that your choices are being guided by someone who may not be there at the moment, using their guidance from the past. I told the scouts that I hope, later in life, when they are adults with children of their own and become involved in scouting, another youth organization, or just life in general, that they will look back on their time in our troop and feel that one of their leaders truly mentored them. The effect that a person can have on you may very well take years or, in some cases, even decades to truly take hold. One of my proudest moments as a Boy Scouts leader was when I told Dana that my older son earned his Eagle. His reply: “He had a great Scout leader and parents.”

My Fire Mentor

The first mentor of mine who passed away that week, Perry Finkle, was my first chief. I started out in a small department in upstate New York with all the desire in the world to be a firefighter. That desire and boundless energy were directed into learning the skills, taking classes, and observing at alarms large and small. Finkle was not large in stature but was large as a leader. Years before he was chief, he served this country in Vietnam, which, in the end, cost him his life; he eventually developed Agent Orange-related cancer. He was a fighter.

It does not matter if you are a chief of a large or small fire department—you are a chief. And, being a chief of volunteers is an even greater challenge. This has been discussed at length in the past, so a little research will show the challenges.

Being a Mentor Without a Program

Mentoring, formal and informal, exists in the fire service. In many paid departments, formal mentoring programs are more prevalent than on the volunteer side. In volunteer departments, your time is extremely limited, so concentrated on the required training or, in some cases, fundraising activities that do not allow for the time required to create a formal mentoring program. Setting up, managing, and reviewing the outcomes of a formal mentoring program take time; for far too many volunteer departments, this time does not exist. So, ask yourself, do you need a formal program? The answer is “maybe.” Sure, a true formal mentor program can do a tremendous amount of good for any department, but if you do not have one, you still can be a mentor.

How can you be a mentor? It’s easy. When the new member climbs in the jumpseat for a run to a “smells and bells” call, show him what the thermal imaging camera (TIC) can do as you perform your 360° walk-around, checking the building smoke heads, spotting the ballasts or roof drains within a wall, and talking about building construction. This might not really mean much at that moment, but when you have a smoke condition and the new firefighter locates the hot ballast because of what you demonstrated, you just mentored someone.

At many alarms, “fine” or “soft” skills can make the entire operation a success. The soft skills are typically not taught in formal classes but are learned more on the job. Most of the time, these soft skills come from the senior members more than the officers.

Mentoring is not and should not be firematic in nature all the time; in many cases, it is just as important when it is not. We have all noticed a young firefighter who cannot “get it together.” Maybe he’s not right for the job or has family, job, or girlfriend issues. When the three “points of life”—family, work, personal—are not working, this firefighter’s firehouse life is not going to work.1 Sometimes, opening an ear, not passing judgment, and offering honest advice will get him on track.

Many times, the informal mentor can have a long-lasting effect on the member’s life. Those talks must happen organically and, for the most part, be in private. By private, I don’t mean behind closed doors and away from everyone. It can be standing around, waiting for your evolution at a drill, while completing a truck and equipment check, or just when you’re out and about. Those 10 to 15 minutes can and will make a big difference.

Formal Mentors

Now, if your department is fortunate enough with staffing and has the time to create and run a formal mentoring program, take it seriously; whoever is managing the program needs to be smart in gathering the mentors. Several people will volunteer to become mentors; unfortunately, they may not be the best choices. Although you don’t want to say no to anyone volunteering to help, it is more important to get the right fit, so the level of tact must be there.

A formal mentor needs to have a level of experience within the fire service—more than just a few years. Some of the best members to choose for this responsibility are past officers with many years in the department. The knowledge they need to transfer takes time to earn (there is a reason the word “earn” is used to describe experience). Earned means doing more than just learning from a book or class. Hands-on learning will collect those soft skills, which can be the best experience to hand down.

Next you have a choice: Do you assign a mentor or let the member choose his own mentor? By assigning a mentor, there is an assumption that the two individuals will have a relationship, much like dating. Sometimes, the “setup” dates work great; I was set up at some level and have been married for more than 20 years. Or, sometimes, they can be a train wreck. So, closely monitor the relationship. If it is not working, make adjustments.

The Three Skills

Break the program into three skills: Hard, soft, and personal.

Hard skills. The hard skills are taught in the formal classes and drills—how to stretch a line, throw a ladder, complete a search, and so on. This is the first step at the firehouse. The hard skills allow the firefighter to ride the equipment. Once the firefighter learns some level of hard skills, introduce the soft skills.

Soft skills. Soft skills are the ones that get paid forward in a mentor-style relationship and can turn any member into a valuable firefighter. This may occur during small company-level drills, where you can teach “tricks” with the TIC, the finer points of extraction, new ways to stretch a line, and so on. A mentor can also give pointers during each alarm. Soft skills should not come from just one person (the mentor) all the time; if there is a good learning point on an alarm or drill, make the point to the member yourself.

Personal skills. Personal skills are the most difficult and life altering. This means having an open ear and offering honest advice. This is also where age, life experiences, and time help. Between our late teens and early 20s, we thought we knew everything. Yes, we had our “stuff” together—until “it” happened. What was “it”? Think back to this time, and you will find your “it” moment—one of the three points of life outside the firehouse (family, school, work). You need someone to listen to you, maybe offer some advice; this is where the mentor is most important. He is not your boss, parent, teacher, or significant other, so he will give you an unbiased answer. However, he is a little older, so he has been through that part of life. Although we are not thinking about “talking someone off the ledge,” the advice we give or open ear we lend can have an extremely large effect on someone.

The importance of mentoring—formal and informal—cannot be counted out in a fire department. Look at both types of mentoring as a daily function that runs constantly. All senior firefighters should know and understand that they are the future mentors of their department. To the young and up-and-coming firefighters: Accept the guidance; be open to new, different, experienced ideas; and help in becoming the “old member” on the line.

Reference

Pillsworth T. “Climbing the Ladder: From Officer to Chief.” Fire Engineering, September 2011.


TIMOTHY PILLSWORTH has been active in the volunteer fire service since 1986. He is a firefighter/EMT with the Washingtonville (NY) Fire Department and is a former chief and life member of the Winona Lake (NY) Engine Company. Pillsworth has presented at FDIC International and at other local and regional conferences on engine company operations and leadership in the volunteer fire service. He authored and coauthored many articles on personal protective equipment (PPE), volunteerism, engine company operations, attack system flow testing, and volunteer fire department management and planning. Pillsworth is the author of the PPE chapter in Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II and is a project engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.