Who's Mentoring the Kids?

By Tom LaBelle

For those who have committed my biography to memory — other than my mom I'm not sure anyone has — my full time job is that of Executive Director of the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs. Although this job definitely deals with fire and emergency services issues, we also deal with the issues facing many human resource intense organizations across this county.

I recently had the chance to spend some time with some non-fire service folks. By the way, if you don't spend some time outside the fire service, start doing so. It's not only a good way to get some ideas from outside the box, its good to just get away from time to time. These individuals I was meeting with deal with volunteers and paid staff from across the Northeast. Each group was talking about issues of leadership, participation, esprit de corps, and the future of their organizations — none was talking about it in a positive light!

As the conversation moved forward it became clear that many were missing the same thing: Generation X. Now I won't bash any generation, and certainly not Generation X, after all I'm and "X-er" and look how great I turned out! But as I look around, I notice the same thing. Even if X-ers are in a department, they tend not to participate at a very high level. The lack of leadership presence between the Boomers and the generations following the X-ers is noticeable in most organizations, even beyond the fire service.

Now the statements above aren't earth shattering and you've likely read similar statements before. The point of these articles is supposed to be about safety. As usual I've come the long way around to that central point of safety. The question becomes, if we as X-ers had fire service mentors to teach us how not to trip over our own feet, who is going to help Generation Y, those born from the 1970s to the 1990s?

If we were lucky enough — and most of us were — we had some senior member (old timer, senior guy, etc.) who took us aside during drills or calls and helped us figure things out. They kept us out of the officers' hair, were able to answer most of our questions, and keep us pointed in the right direction. These same individuals kept an extra eye on us during our first interior attacks, or serious traffic accidents. In the corporate world, that person is called a mentor. They helped us learn how to work within the organization and taught us a lot of what you won't find in a book. They helped keep us safe

The level of frustration that more senior members of our departments often feel toward Generation Y is palpable. Many are willing to mentor, but have already done so many times already. The knowledge and support they wish to share now may be far above what the Generation Y members are ready to receive. It seems clear that we can no longer simply hope that mentoring will occur, we must make efforts as individuals and organizations to help ensure that new members have access to mentoring.

This type of semi-official training and assistance is likely even more important in today's age of fewer structure fires. The opportunities to practice, in real time, what we've learned at any level are very limited. Using every opportunity as a teachable moment with the assistance of mentors has long proven an incredibly helpful way to ensure folks maintain what they were already taught while picking up the nuances of our individual departments.

I think many in my generation are reluctant to stick their necks out when it comes to mentoring. But we don't really have a choice. Being a mentor is the price you pay for having had a mentor.

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