The Modern Mentor

By David DeStefano

Mentoring is not a new concept in the fire service. A mentor is a wise and trusted counselor or teacher. Most of us can look back to the start of our careers and identify a crusty old salt who helped mold and shape us early in our careers. Mentoring has always been a somewhat informal arrangement. An experienced firefighter would take a probie under his wing and show him the ropes. Lessons were usually unplanned and based on the incidents of that particular day.

In probie school, members are instructed in the basic firefighter competencies of engine and ladder company operations; in-service training they are trained on the more advanced topics of technical rescue, hazmat, rapid intervention, operations, WMD response, and the many other areas of firefighting expertise. However, when veteran members retire or are promoted “off the line” to staff positions, the tricks of the trade and valuable lessons they learned in the heat of the battle may fall by the wayside. Our challenge is to pass on the veterans’ experience-based knowledge to the newer members more fully outside the structured environment of probie school.

The image of the old salt passing on his experiences in the firehouse kitchen is still valid, but a “notched up” approach will produce well-rounded, better prepared firefighters. The first step in mentoring is to identify the experienced members in your department who are willing and able to meet the challenge. For most departments, mentors should be drawn from the firefighter ranks; officers are already burdened with command duties in the field and company administrative duties when in quarters. Allow firefighters to volunteer for this assignment, instead of appointing them as a general order from headquarters.

Look for members of your more active companies who are well respected by their peers and officers alike. Ideal prospects are members who faithfully attend classes and seminars. These firefighters have already demonstrated a respect for continued learning and will be most likely to enjoy passing on the new techniques and theories they have learned. They are innovative self-starters, always prepared for a job and ready to tinker with or adapt a variety of tools and tactics to achieve success. These firefighters always have the right tool or tactic at the right time. Undoubtedly, when you post a request for help in teaching new members, these firefighters will sign up before the ink on the notice sheet is dry.

Once your mentors have expressed interest, sit down with them to explain your objectives for mentorship. A mentor should impart experience-based knowledge to new members; assist new members in assimilating into the fire service; demonstrate career-long learning in the fire service; and provide a positive role model who is a successful, well-prepared, and knowledgeable firefighter.

As you may expect, getting a group of highly motivated firefighters together to work toward a common goal will produce an animated and useful dialogue. Don’t be afraid to incorporate new ideas into your program, but keep the basic objectives intact.

If possible, a probie should be assigned to a mentor by a training school instructor who knows the new member personally and will hopefully (at least in smaller departments) know a little about the mentor’s personality.

The next logical step is the introduction. Near the end of the training academy, just before graduation, members usually receive company or shift assignments. In volunteer departments, recruits may begin to start riding the apparatus as observers. This is an opportune time to introduce a probie to his mentor over an informal cup of coffee in the firehouse kitchen. Remember, we want to keep a structured but very informal atmosphere between the mentor and his new charge. The lack of military-style atmosphere found in probie school will make it easier to impart the informal stories and lessons of the mentor.

After graduation, assign the probie ride time or a duty assignment on the same company or at least in the same house as his mentor. While on duty together, the seasoned firefighter can explain the intricacies of firehouse life that will help the new firefighter settle into the daily routine, know the particular expectations of the company officer or battalion chief, and understand the nitty-gritty details of what is expected of a probationary member.

This is a great adjustment period in which the relationship between mentor and probie can form. Once the mentor feels comfortable, he will begin sharing his fire service knowledge with ease. Since he is highly motivated, he will take any opportunity to “talk the job” and relate a good lesson. Once in full swing, the mentor will find new opportunities to educate the probie by word and deed. Remember, this new member will retain much more of what he sees than what he hears. When the new firefighter sees his mentor practicing good firefighting habits, these will rub off on him and drill school lessons will be reinforced.

As an innovative firefighter, the mentor will share his little tricks of the trade slowly as his probie develops. From explaining the uses of the personal hardware in his pockets to showing nontraditional uses for common tools, the experienced mentor will show his protégé how these items relate to the particular hazards of their response districts.

After two or three months, the new team should be settled in and comfortable. This is a good benchmark period. The training officer should make it a point to meet with the probationary firefighter and his mentor to discuss progress. The mentor should be in a good position to comment on how well the probationary member has adapted to the fire service. This should be an informal discussion and not a personal review. The new member should also evaluate his own progress by demonstrating the new skills learned or street knowledge gained over the past few months.

At this point, the new member may need to be rotated to another assignment because of personnel requirements. This may prove useful if the department has enough mentors to make a new one available at the probie’s next assignment. This will give him a fresh perspective and the chance to learn from someone with different experiences. It would be ideal to transfer the new member from an engine to ladder company or vice versa. The entire process would continue at a quicker pace now because the probie is more accustomed to firehouse life. After six or eight months, a new informal evaluation meeting would take place.

By this time, the new member will have obtained some fire experience and be able to relate how the shortcuts and street knowledge he has learned from his mentors have helped his performance in the field. Reviewing his personal experience will reinforce the probie’s faith in the mentor system and in the fire service in general.

The probationary period ends after 12 months in most departments. Usually, the newly minted firefighter bids for or is assigned to a spot on a particular shift or company. This is an ideal time to recap the past year of on-the-job learning. Depending on the department’s size and the number of members completing their probation, it may be possible to have a group function with the mentors, probies and training staff. In smaller departments, a special dinner right in the firehouse might be more appropriate. Either way, this is a great venue to reinforce friendships, tell war stories, and reflect on the value of what has been learned and taught.

The training officer should use this opportunity to touch on the program’s goals. Probies should be asked to reflect in a general way on their vision of “the job” 12 months ago, compared to their actual first-year experiences. Undoubtedly the stories of mishaps and mayhem surrounding their first few calls will break up the night. The mentors can then share with the group their sense of the past year, the best knowledge they passed on, or a particularly good job by a new firefighter.

By the end of the night, the probies will have capped off the first year of what will hopefully be a long and fruitful career. The emphasis will be squarely focused on a career of learning with a time to give back when the next generation steps through our door.

David DeStefano, an 18-year veteran of the North Providence (RI) Fire Department, is a lieutenant in Ladder Co. 1. He previously served as a lieutenant in Engine Co. 3 , and a firefighter in Ladder 1 for 13 years. He is an instructor for the Rhode Island Fire Academy, where he teaches various topics including FAST company operations and a ladder company skills program he co-developed.

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