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‘See one, do one, teach one’: Mentorship in the fire service

An experienced mentor can help newer members excel in their chosen career

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An effective mentor can offer newer members advice, instruction and valuable industry experience. It is therefore vital that we focus more attention on these internal relationships.

Photo/Steve Johnson, University of Arizona Health Sciences

When I was in paramedic school, I remember learning the phrase, “See one, do one, teach one” – a maxim of how we learn and teach others. This phrase certainly applies to fire service training as well.

Much of our learning experience during our early days in the fire service happens through a simple demonstration process. Senior firefighters teach new firefighters the craft of forcible entry, ladder placement and hose deployment, to name a few tasks from an inexhaustible list. After all, it’s one thing to watch a YouTube video or read a manual or book; it is quite another to have a senior member actually show you have to do it.

The “See one, do one, teach one” is clearly rooted in our profession – a reflection of mentorship, both formal and informal, and the passing of skills and tradition from one generation to the next.

Mentorship programs are essential in building fire service leaders. An effective mentor can offer newer members advice, instruction and valuable industry experience. It is therefore vital that we focus more attention on these internal relationships.

Mentoring is usually conducted as part of a formal mentorship program. A sufficiently structured program that ensures rookies receive invaluable knowledge and on-the-job training can help create a holistic picture of what the mentee can expect from a career in the fire service.

With this as our backdrop, let’s explore how strong mentorship programs benefit the fire service industry and how to implement a successful program in your organization.

What is succession planning?

Will Kenton (2020) describes succession planning as a strategy used to ensure that leaders transition into different organizational roles without disruption to operations. Through succession planning, also known as replacement planning, organizational managers can change positions through internal promotions when senior managers resign or retire. The outgoing employee is replaced by another employee who will assume the required duties to ensure organizational continuity and success. Succession planning enables employees to be trained to adapt to different departments and fulfill various job functions. It also encourages internal promotion.

Mentorship program basics and benefits

As Paramita Bhattacharya (2020) explains, newer members aren’t the only ones who benefit from mentorship programs. Mentors benefit because the relationship enhances their management and leadership skills. Rookies may be inexperienced, but they can still provide stimulating and thought-provoking discussions, which can lead to new ideas and solutions. Successful mentors can help build trust-based relationships, leading to a symbiotic working relationship and perhaps even friendship.

Both parties involved in mentoring programs must demonstrate certain desirable skills to ensure the mentoring process is a success.

As Erika Andersen (2014) describes, mentors should be able to reflect on past experiences and share relevant advice. This could involve incidents from other stations, departments or states. As a part of this sharing, both parties must exercise discretion. For example, the mentor may reveal personal information to encourage and motivate the newer member. This could be details about a serious fire incident that left the mentor with scars, physically and/or emotional. Ranking officers must be honest about the dangers of the fire service. Sharing personal stories will facilitate an honest dialogue, and the newer member can learn from the mentor’s experiences. Note: While mentors must be honest, it’s also important to have a positive attitude. This will go a long way in encouraging the newer member not to give up when setbacks arise.

As for mentees, they should be hard-working, dedicated and committed to the program, according to Mary Abbajay (2019). They must also commit to achieving the program’s objectives, requesting assistance when needed, and being willing to develop during the mentoring program.

It’s important to note that not all mentorship programs involve active members from the same department. For example, a retiring officer could mentor an up-and-coming officer or a chief could mentor a captain. Both participants can provide each other with valuable input, expanding their knowledge through discussions and completing different station tasks together. This can strengthen the mentoring relationship and aid the mentor in teaching the value of teamwork.

Further, Billy Hayes (2017) points out that a mentor’s job can go far beyond the realm of work. Mentors can build relationships with newer firefighters that enable them to feel safe and secure enough to discuss the challenging events they witness in the line of duty. This connection can help eliminate the feelings of isolation, which, can lead to serious mental health issues. Lines of communication should remain open so newer members feel comfortable expressing their emotions to their mentor.

Keys to successful mentorship programs

If you’re convinced it’s time to develop a mentorship program, Riia O’Donnell (2019) offers several variables to consider and steps to follow.

The first step relates to the people in charge of creating the program. Only qualified and respected personnel should be appointed to manage these programs. Further, senior leaders must ensure that the mentorship program is designed to meet the organization’s objectives. There should also be a chain of command with designated responsibilities assigned to each individual.

Careful screening and selection of candidates should be conducted by senior recruitment personnel to ensure the program’s continuity. Candidates who pose a risk in terms of poor past performance behavior should not be selected due to possible long-term adverse organizational impacts.

Of course, not all leaders can be mentors because there may not be enough positions available, and their personalities need to fit the profile. Mentors must be trained to ensure that they can handle the nature of the program and interact with newer members in an appropriate manner.

Further, Pritika Padhi (2019) offers several key points to a successful program:

  • The program must have defined goals and objectives, developed together by the mentor and mentee.
  • The program should offer a variety of topics for discussion to maintain attraction and focus.
  • The mentor and the mentee should share similar character traits to help encourage the mentee to grow into their role and become stronger versions of themselves.
  • The program must support both mentor and mentee if challenges arise during the process.
  • The program should encourage participants to keep in touch even after the program ends to maintain their bond and continue sharing their experiences.

Evaluating mentorship program success

Padhi (2020) identifies two key factors that can be used to evaluate and determine the success of a mentorship program:

  • First, the program should be run efficiently according to a set plan that allows for deviations. If the program is not running according to plan, corrective action needs to be taken to ensure the set targets are met.
  • Second, the program participants need to provide appropriate feedback so that the program organizers can make changes if necessary. Progress also should be monitored within a Personal Development Plan (PDP). Success can be further measured in terms of mentor retention rates and the program’s sustainability in terms of stakeholder feedback.

Final thoughts

Mentorship programs can provide newer members considerable experience and knowledge to help them grown into their positions and set them on a path of success.

If you’re still not convinced of the power of mentorship programs, consider these facts: 71% of Fortune 500 organizations have implemented formal mentoring programs, and nine out of 10 employees who have been appointed a mentor say they are satisfied with their jobs. Further, 67% of businesses with a mentoring program reported increased productivity levels.

It is clear that mentoring programs play a significant role in employee development. The future of the fire service depends on well-developed, trained and mentored employees carrying the profession forward.

See one, do one, teach one.

Kristopher T. Blume is the fire chief of the Meridian (Idaho) Fire Department. He previously served as a battalion chief with the Tucson (Arizona) Fire Department. With over two decades of fire service experience, Blume is an author, lecturer and independent consultant. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) program and is an instructor at the National Fire Academy. Blume is an alumnus of the University of Arizona and holds several undergraduate and graduate degrees.