Mentoring: Opportunities to Pass Along the Tricks of the Trade

We need to create opportunities for our veteran folks to share the hard-earned lessons of their fire service careers.

Then there is the tacit knowledge which exists in the heads of the people who learned it by experiencing the living of life. Another name for tacit knowledge might be experience. It is much easier to get the explicit knowledge out to the world, because it is there, in the books and on the DVD's, CD, and videotapes for whole world to see.

It is more difficult to acquire and distribute the tacit knowledge available from our senior members. I say this for one simple reason. Far too many places lack a mechanism for mining and gathering this critical component within the knowledge base of the fire service. People leave our agencies and we never ask them if there is anything they would like to share.

We need to create opportunities for our veteran folks to share the hard-earned lessons of their fire service careers. Bear in mind that I am referring to the generic concept of career. I am paying no consideration to the career (paid) service versus the volunteer fire service issues so prevalent these days in our fire service society.

How often have you heard the sayings about how as one door closes in your life, another opens? This is one of the classic examples of how opportunities present themselves to you in life. I am suggesting that a door lies open just ahead of each one of us. We can step through it into a world of caring and sharing, or we can be selfish and keep all that we know to ourselves. You can guess which approach I am supporting here.

Sadly, far too many people in the fire service have the habit of going up to these newly-opened doors and slamming them shut. They do this in order to keep the warmth of their existing lives inside of the box of comfort wherein they operate. Fear of change stifles many things. The sharing of knowledge is usually seen as one of these dreaded changes.

So it is with many critical opportunities which present themselves to us in our lives. We ignore some of these opportunities because we perceive that they will upset the comfortable balance of our lives. It is critical to point out that each new member who enters your fire department is an open door to the future. We ignore them at our own peril.

Each new person who enters your fire department presents you with a unique opportunity to share what you know. While it makes sense for each of you to share what you know, it makes better sense to create an actual program to mentor each new member of your department. In this way, a wider use of the available tacit knowledge can be made.

Randy Brown mentioned something that I thought was very insightful. He mentioned that while sharing the tricks of the trade with our new members was important, he felt that it was more important to insure that these folks have had a thorough course of training in the explicit knowledge taught within our fire training academies and recruit schools. People must know the textbook method, he said, before they can be considered ready to hear the collective wisdom of the ages.

This makes sense. Usually tricks of the trade are short cuts which we have found to work. They are ways of doing things which we have discovered over the years. Sometimes things happen accidentally and work. In other cases we screw up and things work. In other cases these things are a derivative method or an alteration of an approved way of doing things. All become part of who we are and what we do. Heck, some of them even approach the status of "we've always done it that way."

However, Randy and I are of the opinion that you should not begin to confuse your new people by conducting a wholesale introduction of these tricks of the trade too soon. Were we to provide each new person with a mentor, that mentor could monitor the progress of the new individual. These mentors could then develop a certain level of sensitivity for the way in which their charge was developing. Then when it was appropriate, they could inject some tacit knowledge into the mentor relationship.

Each new person in your department will develop at their own pace. This is a simple fact of human nature. That is why your mentor program needs to provide training for the mentors. This training should create an awareness of their role and provide them with interpersonal relationship skills as well as the communications skills necessary to share what they know.