Mentoring Upside Down

OVER THE YEARS, THERE HAVE been a variety of articles on the benefits of formal mentoring programs. These articles have done a great job in providing guidance to departments on how to start and maintain a mentoring program. But what about those departments where the “leaders” are not interested in developing a mentoring program or they simply haven’t given it much thought? What do you do when you can’t get anyone to listen? Simple: Turn the process upside down and succeed regardless of the working conditions.

It’s too easy to sit and complain about the department’s lacking a mentoring program. You end up sitting on the tailboard waiting and complaining instead of doing. Why not take control of the situation and choose your own mentors? Change starts as an internal, not external, process. Progress starts with someone serving as the catalyst for change. Why not you?

Some of you have already created your own mentoring programs. You pay attention to what goes on around the department and quietly make mental notes of what to do and, more importantly, what not to do. You watch how your organization responds to different situations on the fireground and back at the firehouse. You notice the leadership styles of your officers and know which ones are the good leaders.


So why do you need a mentoring program? It’s a reasonable question, particularly with some of the fluff programs that come and go. The answer is pretty simple-because it is vital for your safety and survival that you pass on what you have learned to the next generation of firefighters. The information that is so critical to your organizational success is not in your policies or procedures. It is not in the apparatus you ride on or the SCBAs on your back. The real value is in your people and the experiences they have gained during their careers. It’s in the lessons they learned on that fire where they almost didn’t make it out. It’s in the fire service history and culture that tenure helps to develop. That’s what separates the fire service lifestyle from being just another job. Without mining this information, it will walk out the door when that firefighter retires and, most likely, will be lost forever.

It’s easy to miss the benefits of mentoring, because such programs are more of a long-term investment. Sure, there are some short-term rewards, such as the street lessons a seasoned firefighter can share with a new firefighter, but the systemic benefits may take time to fully realize. Where else will you learn about and appreciate how things are done if you don’t learn from those who were there? It is in this long-term investment that you pass on your love for the job and what is important to you as a firefighter. You may not be able to imprint your new firefighters with these values overnight. It will take time for them to learn your values and live them in your organization before the change can be fully realized. So, if you’re not looking at the long-term overall health of your organization, sure, you might miss the value in a mentoring program. Hopefully, everyone at every level of the organization is concerned about the department and its long-term health.

There has been much discussion in the fire service about working across the generations and teaching the “new” batch of firefighters coming through recruit schools and academies. The basic training does a good job of offering the knowledge, skills, and basic abilities for being a firefighter. But, once the new firefighter is assigned, it’s the firefighters in the station who imprint the organizational culture on those firefighters with a stamp that will last their entire careers. This is where organizational culture is developed and sustained, in the initial relationships between the new firefighters and their shift mates.

The challenge with this relationship is that some of the firefighters breaking in this new probie may not realize that they are the mentors. Sure, they know they are breaking in the rookie, but do they fully realize how their interactions with new firefighters will help shape the department for generations to come? Are you concerned with “being cool” for the new rookie, or are you being honest about shaping that person’s career and protecting your own future? And just because you may think you are not formally mentoring at the moment (you may not be aware of it), that doesn’t mean people aren’t watching. You might be simply riding out your time, but you can bet the new guys are paying attention to what you say and, more importantly, what you do. If you’re reading this at the station, I hope you just looked over your shoulder.


The traditional definition of mentorship defines the mentor as an experienced and trusted leader. This creates a mental image of a Yoda-like character schooling the ever-faithful student. Organizationally, mentors are typically thought to be superior to the “mentee” and usually serve in a superior leadership role, but this doesn’t always have to be the case. It has been said that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Eleanor Roosevelt never had mentors, because they never would have limited themselves in this way. Instead, they used the whole world as their teacher.1

There is certainly validity in this perspective. In extreme traditional mentoring situations, it is possible that the mentor’s paradigms can be imprinted on the mentee, limiting that person to a single perspective. More common in the fire service are formal mentoring programs in which recruits are assigned to more senior members to learn the ropes as they come into the organization. Such programs are great and should not be limited to rookies. Everyone in the organization has something to learn, and everyone has something to share. Mentoring programs should be applicable to every level and every position. Do you neglect your senior firefighters and officers by limiting mentoring programs to just the new members?

So let’s break the mold. Let’s turn the concept of formal mentoring on its ear and take ownership of our own futures as students of the fire service. If you have a formal mentoring program in your department, that is great. You are ahead of the game. If not, make your own.


In upside-down mentoring, the learners are in charge. They select their mentors, evaluate what they have to offer, and manage the relationships. In this approach, the mentor may or may not realize his capacity as a teacher. The learners determine if they want to establish such formalities. The learner has two basic approaches to managing the relationship: (1) establishing a formal mentoring relationship and asking the mentor to formally take on that role or (2) simply observing the mentors and making notes of how they work-the mentee makes mental notes of what works for the mentor and what the mentor does well-or just the opposite, noting what doesn’t work well and contemplating what may be a better course of action given that situation. And, the mentee should ask lots of questions!

Some learners may be intimidated to engage a mentor, which is understandable, since some of these old dogs can be a little intimidating. It is best to approach them with some standard questions to help break the ice. A few good starter questions follow:

  • What is the one “career fire” where you didn’t think you were going to make it out?
  • What building in our community worries you the most-the building that, when you hear the address over the radio, you think, “Oh, no”?
  • What is the greatest lesson you learned as a rookie in this department?

These questions will help the conversation get started. The learner can probe the responses even more deeply to learn more about the lessons.


Imagine being a new firefighter in your department. You are awakened in the early morning for a structure fire. You’re on the rig wiping the sleep out of your eyes and getting your act together. As you pull into the neighborhood, you can smell the smoke through the cracked window on the rig. You pull up in front of a two-story Cape Cod with heavy smoke pushing from all sides. As you come out of the seat on the officer’s side of the rig, you see your lieutenant standing at the front of the engine with a woman in her nightgown pounding the lieutenant on the chest. Your officer looks you in the eye with an expression you’ve never seen before and says, “Two kids, second-floor bedroom-GO!”

Before you know it, you and your partner are in the front door and up the stairs. As you climb the stairs, you lose all visibility. At the top of the steps, you orient yourself and proceed on a right-hand search down the hall. Just as you’re approaching the first room, you hear the engine throttle up outside and you feel a sudden blast of heat. Even though you can’t see your hand in front of your face, you sense an ominous push of black smoke toward the floor.

Now, let’s push the pause button! Here we have two firefighters faced with a life-or-death situation. It’s a very good chance that someone is going to die. It might be the two children they are working to rescue, it might be the search crew, or it might be all of them! These two firefighters are forced to make a split-second decision to push down the hall and ditch into a room and shut the door, hopefully buying some time and avoiding the flashover, committing to a way out other than the way they came in. Or they will high-tail it back down the steps and abort the rescue.

That’s what we train for-that moment! The only thing those firefighters have with them is their training; their knowledge of search techniques, building construction, and fire behavior; firefighter survival skills; and, most importantly, the lessons they learned from their fellow firefighters. It’s too late to call a time out and ask questions. There are no do overs. Use mentors to sharpen your skills so you’ll be as ready as you can be. You’ll never completely be ready for that moment. If you think you are, think again, even if you’ve already been there in that hall.

By taking control and learning from the wealth of experience in your firehouses, you are empowered to learn and be prepared for when it’s your turn. This concept is simple, but it is essential to capture the wealth of knowledge that is near being retired from the business. There is no reason to sit and wait to be handed a mentoring program. I don’t know about you; but when it comes to survival on the fireground and the safety of our fellow firefighters, I am not waiting for anyone!


1. Rubin, Harriet, “The Unorthodox Guide to Mentoring,” Fast Company, October 2001,

EDDIE BUCHANAN is operations chief for Hanover (VA) Fire & EMS and the author of Volunteer Training Officer’s Handbook (Fire Engineering, 2003). He serves on the board of directors for the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and on the Technical Committee for Fire Service Training for the National Fire Protection Association. Buchanan is a H.O.T. instructor for FDIC and is the communications coordinator for the Volunteer/Combination Officer’s Section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

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