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:
- Fills in the blanks that SOPs, guidelines, and policies do not or cannot.
- Successful mentees advance quicker than non-mentees.
- Mentees tend to stay with departments longer, thus improving retention and even recruitment rates.
- Enhances soft skills development.
- Assists the individual in attaining their fire service goals faster and more fully.
- Supports the individual during times of doubt or concern.
- Increases morale of the individual, crew, and department.
- Helps the new member refine their focus, such as fire, EMS, prevention, or public information.
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 www.mentorcruise.com, which is a good source of information for starting and enhancing your program:
- First and foremost, the mentor must be an enthusiastic, willing participant.
- Must be an experienced role model.
- Agrees with and espouses the department’s goals.
- Should be well-respected by the department and its members.
- Is willing (and able) to give constructive feedback.
- Is a skilled communicator: both written and verbal.
- Is a good (empathetic) listener.
The following are some responsibilities the mentor should commit to in order to participate in the program.
- Be a positive role model. Those being mentored often look up to those mentoring them, seeking out not only their thoughts on departmental policy, practices, and procedures, but also in life issues. Selecting positive and respected role models for the position(s) is critical to the program’s success and often the mentee’s success.
- Focus mentees to attain milestones in their fire service careers. The mentee may be juggling several challenges simultaneously: EMT school, monthly bills, caring for aging relatives, life in general, and for volunteers, balancing the fire service with work and home responsibilities. Assisting the mentee in clarifying, realigning, or untangling the myriad of those vying for his or her time helps quiet the stressors screaming at them.
- Act as guideposts or navigational advisors. Mentors are not supervisors, but act as GPS units to show the mentee the one, or in some cases, alternative ways to arrive at the destination or goal. Some may compare this to a coach who analyzes the player’s skills and helps them to improve upon them. An effective mentor often combines several skills and techniques to encourage and guide.
- Provide constructiveThe mentor must be able to observe/actively listen, analyze, determine solutions or possibilities, and then constructively feed back to the mentee. Sometimes this process can be as simple as a short sounding board session whereby the mentee proposes a question or problem accompanied by a solution or list of possible solutions. The mentor must recognize this as the mentee’s attempt to show progress or growth.
- Timely and consistent follow-up. Consistency ensures the forward progress of the individual’s growth. This is achieved by regularly-scheduled sessions to maintain forward progress.
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.
Below are some of the responsibilities that the mentee must undertake:
- Accept feedback. It should be an integral requirement that the mentee understand their responsibility related to their acceptance to be guided (mentored). Openly presented, discussed, and accepted responsibilities for both participants is critical in an effective mentoring effort.
- Be an active listener.Some mentees may look upon the program as just another box checked in their personnel jacket and walk in with an attitude not conducive to success. Prior to acceptance in the program, the prospective mentee may be challenged in a brief acceptance session (role play) to test their willingness and ability to actively listen.
- Maintain consistency and progress. It must be discussed and accepted up front that the work oftentimes will be 50-50 on both participant’s side. But there are times when the workload is shifted more to the mentee. In some mentor/mentee programs the mentee is encouraged to seek alternative solutions to problem solving. If this model works for the department’s culture, then it may be explored.
- Seek feedback. Asking for follow-up is the sign of a positive interaction that mentors appreciate and value. Mentees who go above and beyond that which is expected (within the confines of the program) are more likely to progress at an accelerated rate.
- Respect the mentor’s time. Some departments have enough personnel to provide one-for-one programs, which allows the mentor to devote their time to an individual mentee. However, most programs require a mentor to manage several mentees. Regardless of the program’s makeup, the mentee should be respectful of the mentor’s time.
- Ending the mentor-mentee relationship. Once the mentee has reached either the established goal or endpoint, stop. That should be done via procedure rather than just saying, “Okay, we’re good, see ya’!” Perhaps a small ceremony or a certificate taking note of the achievement. Certainly, a communiqué to the chief and other leadership that “Firefighter Schmultz has met all the requirements and responsibilities of the XYX Fire Department’s Mentorship Program and should be congratulated.” A caveat is to maintain some type of relationship allowing the mentee to seek their mentor’s advice or counsel if occasionally the need arises.
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:
- Clearly defined program goals
- Participant expectations, requirements, goals, and expected outcomes
- Establish session agenda and format
- Neutral party reporting access for misunderstandings or complaints
- Build in extension capabilities, reporting timelines, and structure
- Agreements for participants to sign
- Scheduled reporting format for mentee’s supervisor
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:
- Equally-balanced active listening. Both the mentor and mentee should participate in this important aspect of fully preparing the new member for life in the fire service. Engaging questions and focused answers help to keep sessions in focus.
- Established communication format and platform. This will typically mimic the department’s communication system(s) whether via email, direct messaging, or similar process. The key take away is that a robust, secure, written communication process is necessary to ensure the trustworthiness of the program, maintain security of sensitive information and discussions, and provide avenues to review interaction after the fact should personnel complaints or challenges arise.
- Timely, appropriate feedback. A written document based on the established program format must be provided to the mentee at regular intervals. Establishing a practice giving timely, specific feedback further establishes a level of trust. Feedback sessions must be designed as a two-way communication link allowing the mentee to ask for clarifications and explain their “side” of the story, thus allowing both to experience equal engagement.
- Celebrating milestones and victories. Fire and emergency services departments regularly celebrate successes in various ways. Most often certificates of achievement are given during award ceremonies, all-hands recognition announcements are sent via email, or sometimes spirits are lifted when the senior officer brings the accomplishments of a member to the crew’s attention. Whatever the methods utilized by the agency, milestones of achievement should be communicated along with announcements for program graduation.
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.