Mentorship is key to building strong, resilient firefighters

A building construction analogy underscores how connections make the entire team stronger


In their first days in the fire service, new firefighters are just a bunch of parts and pieces (skills and experiences). Those parts and pieces may not be connected and may even work against each other at times.

As firefighters advance through the training academy, they are introduced to the basics of the job. Now those parts and pieces start to come together to form something bigger.

Imagine these parts and pieces connecting to build a truss. Is that enough? I would say no. We need to build something even strong, and mentorship is the key.

A mentor is always aware and looking for teachable moments. Even mistakes can provide a lesson. How you adapt, overcome and better prepare for the next opportunity will have greater influence than the mistake ever could have.
A mentor is always aware and looking for teachable moments. Even mistakes can provide a lesson. How you adapt, overcome and better prepare for the next opportunity will have greater influence than the mistake ever could have. (Photo/Getty Images)

Strengthening the truss – the team

A truss is designed to be light and efficient, and, despite having few interconnected parts, it can be very strong. That strength is derived from a shared effort by all parts of the truss. It may even survive a failure of one or several parts without catastrophic failure. However, that is dependent on the loads placed on it and the strength of adjacent trusses. A beam (or heavy timber), on the other hand, is heavy. It has a lot of extra material that, even if removed, may not compromise the integrity of the beam.

You might be thinking: “I thought this was an article on mentorship. If I wanted a lesson on building construction, I would consult Frank Brannigan.” See the bigger connection here. We are building a truss and, eventually, a beam, out of the parts and pieces of our new firefighters.

The chords of our new truss consist of the department mission and values on the top and its people on the bottom. This is what bears the load. The webs are made up of the skills and abilities, attitude and overall wellness of the individuals, plus the department policies and procedures needed to support the mission. This is a good, strong base.

Under normal conditions, this truss will hold the load. But what happens in a crisis? What happens to the firefighters when something unexpected happens? Is the truss we built strong enough to withstand the load when some of its parts are damaged or missing? Wouldn’t a beam be better? Remember, a beam can give away some of its material without compromising its strength.

Keep in mind that none of this is meant to imply that the training our new firefighters receive in the academy is not adequate. It takes time to build an adequate beam. Old-growth lumber can be hundreds of years old. A truss is more efficient because it requires less material (i.e., training for our new firefighters) and time to build. A truss is the base from which we draw strength. Over time, the truss can grow into a beam. This is where mentorship takes over.

The mentorship connection

I asked National Fire Academy managing officer graduates and students to define mentorship. The most common single-word responses included “guiding,” “leading” and “developing” – more simply, “building.”

One dictionary definition for “build” is “to develop according to a systematic plan, by a definite process, or on a particular base.” When it is done right, isn’t that exactly what mentorship is?

We start with a base – the truss (our new firefighter) – and add girth to the chords and webbing until it becomes a beam through a systematic process. I believe we are all doing this. Some are better than others, for sure. And some may not even be aware that they’re doing it, simply because they do not fully understand what being a mentor really looks like. So I guess the question is, “What should mentorship look like?”

The look of mentorship

Just like most things worth doing, mentorship is simple but not easy. It takes time and a lot of commitment. And sometimes, it means putting the needs of another person above your own. It means always being aware and looking for opportunities to build, to guide, to develop and to lead. In a word, mentorship is sacrifice. It can involve explaining something as important as what to bring into a medical call or something as silly as what recliner is off limits. The goal is to both set expectations and, when accompanied by a reason why, add a layer to the truss.

Mentorship is a big task. As a mentor, you are always being watched. Your attitude and demeanor are infectious. Your every action has influence. I think this is why many shy away. Perhaps it’s because people don’t feel confident themselves or they are afraid that they will make a mistake. Understandable. Who wants to look foolish in front of anyone, especially someone who is there to learn from us? But remember, a mentor is always aware and looking for teachable moments. Even mistakes can provide a lesson. How you adapt, overcome and better prepare for the next opportunity will have greater influence than the mistake ever could have.

So, what does mentorship look like? What things are we doing every day to mentor the next generation of firefighters? One way is to ensure mentees understand all those little things about firefighter life that they don’t learn in the academy – a list of “Firefighter 3” tips and tricks. It is not all inclusive, and I challenge you to find ways for you to add to this list and make it your own.

One final note: Growth happens on a continuum. Our position on the continuum is dynamic, not static. That means there are always opportunities to mentor and be mentored. Although this discussion focused on new firefighters, mentorship is not limited to them. Continue to build yourself into your potential and remember to look around for others to build up along the way.

About the Author

Ben Willey entered the fire service in 2003 and has served as both a volunteer and career firefighter. He currently serves as a captain of training for the Fargo (ND) Fire Department. Willey is a co-founder of the Firefighter 3 Project, a mentorship initiative that aims to help the next generation of firefighters learn the firefighter life skills needed to be successful in the fire service.

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