firefighter mentoring others

Many of us remember the first time we walked into our fire station as a newbie. The excitement (and anxiety) was palpable. In addition to the dozens of questions running through our heads regarding the rewards and dangers of being a first responder, we also wondered: Would we be liked? Accepted? Fit in? Able to “cut it”?

Although I spent 38 years in fire rescue, I still remember the inklings of doubt and concern I had as I walked through the station doors after the chief said, “You’re hired.” After the chief murdered my name and “assigned” a nickname that he could remember, he said, “Here’s Captain Jones – stick to him like glue for the next 40 hours. If you don’t get someone hurt, and don’t seriously hurt yourself next week, you’re in.”

Throughout my journey from firefighter to chief of department, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be helpful to have some sort of guide for those just starting this exciting, but sometimes anxiety-filled chapter in our lives?” Someone with a few years under their belt, who knows how to maneuver the landmines we sometimes encounter in the first year as a firefighter. Hmmm, a mentor…that’s it, we need a mentoring program. When I reached the level within departments whereby I could direct programs to be explored and implemented, I did so at two fire and emergency services agencies in Florida and North Carolina. The following are a few thoughts and suggestions for starting or enhancing a department mentoring program based on the programs developed during my tenure.

Imagine this scenario: Your department is having their monthly mandatory meeting. A new member recognizes you from the interview panel, sheepishly introduces themselves, and says, “I’ve been here a month, why do the guys deliberately exclude me from the morning coffee table discussions?” Or perhaps she confides in you, “I was on a call the other day with station 2 and after taking up lines, instead of a tailboard hot wash like the SOP says, we just headed back to quarters with a stop at the diner to pick up lunch. I want to fit in, but I want to do the right thing too.”

Departments are swimming in SOPs, but they don’t cover everything. Where does the new member go to get answers for a concern or issue that isn’t included in the good book? Their company officer? Maybe. But oftentimes the company officer is ill-equipped to handle the non-operational, personal, or sensitive conundrum that the newest member is attempting to handle while starting his or her new life as a first responder.

This is where the mentor program can make a big difference. It provides new members someone to guide them, answer their questions in a nonjudgmental environment, bring up concerns, and help them acclimate to the department. 

Benefits of a Mentoring Program

A mentoring program aims to add direction and support to newly recruited or promoted individuals by offering advice and guidance to navigate those issues or questions the mentee will have during the first several months of the journey. This is not a replacement for a skills check-off system, manual, or training that departments utilize to ensure the new member can operate all the tools and systems and safely participate in the field.

In short, a well-developed and managed mentorship program based on mutual trust and respect provides the following benefits to the department, crew, and individual:

Key Ingredients of an Effective Mentor

A successful mentor must possess many skills that go above and beyond the typical drill instructor. So, before a department declares that all training officers will now become mentors, stop and reconsider.

As a former chief drill instructor, I am aware of the shortcomings of those who abide by the procedural guidelines associated with effective training. Oftentimes, drill training is a black or white scenario. Either the student did or did not complete the skill assignment. Mentoring often resides in that gray, soft and squishy forest that many veteran firefighters wouldn’t be caught dead walking through. But the truly adventurous ones just might get involved – if recruited properly.

Some of the skills listed below can be found at, which is a good source of information for starting and enhancing your program:

Mentor Responsibilities

The following are some responsibilities the mentor should commit to in order to participate in the program.


Mentee Responsibilities

Interaction between the mentor and mentee is a constant give-and-take process. It’s not always a balanced action due to the nature of the issue(s) at hand, growth of the mentee, and individual challenges the mentor or mentee may be experiencing. So, in addition to the mentor’s responsibilities, the mentee must shoulder some responsibility. Some guiding words for a successful mentee: Commitment. Action. Trust. Honesty.

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Below are some of the responsibilities that the mentee must undertake:

Building or Enhancing a Successful Mentorship Program

Conduct research. The Internet is a great start in researching mentoring programs that currently exist – both in the public and private sectors. Even those related to large corporations may contain features that can be modified to fit your department’s needs. When considering using a public safety department’s model, consider their size, leadership style, community, and culture. Those fitting closer to your department has the best chance of meeting your needs and succeeding.

Start with clear understandings and expectations. When developing the framework, make sure as much information as possible is made available to the mentors and mentee candidates. Programs dealing with personal growth, behavioral support, and the possibility of sensitive issues rely on fully-disclosed programmatic guidelines and structure. Items below address many, but not all aspects:

Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.  Trust and honesty are bedrock foundations of the fire and emergency services. So too, a successful mentorship program must be based on these foundations. Consider the following as important factors in the procedural aspects:

Mentorship programs strengthen the morale and culture of organizations as well as help to ensure the success and positive reputation while establishing a well-rounded, successful member.