Mentoring Fire Departments

I would like to address a possible method for improving the performance or general state of being for some Fire Departments that may find themselves with very serious problems that have caused morale to degenerate. That is, the idea of "Mentoring" the Fire Department. A Fire Department that needs mentoring is usually a department that, in effect, needs to rebuild itself.

Mentoring is a function that goes beyond hiring consultants or other professionals to conduct studies to point out anomalies and recommend remedies for the Fire Department. A mentor is someone who must boost the morale of the firefighters and use this new found energy as a major resource to revitalize the department.

The need for a mentor is most prominent in developing nations and to a lesser degree in industrialized countries. In the "Third World," firefighters are faced with the same types of emergencies as anywhere else, however they lack uniforms, equipment or training and morale is virtually non existent. In the Western World there are Fire Departments that may have suffered a severe crisis, years of mismanagement or internal politics which have caused morale to deteriorate.

I have had the privilege of serving in the capacity of a mentor in reorganizing Fire Departments in many countries. While I was not hired as a "Mentor" I realized that to be effectively successful I needed to be and do more than just provide technical assistance to the fire service in reconstructing an organization. In fact, there were other people who were engaged in similar activities but I noticed they were not achieving much success. In some cases they actually generated disdain by the firefighters they were sent to help. This, I believe, was due to the fact that these individuals were seen as imported technocrats and were therefore extraneous to the Fire Department as an organization and to the firefighters as individuals. Those who are involved in helping Fire Departments rebound must work from the inside out. They must be mentors to the Fire Department in the true sense of the word.

The definitions of a mentor are various. A mentor can be considered an advisor or counselor. He could be, to a certain extent, an instructor, trainer or teacher. However, my experiences have taught me that a successful mentor is somewhat all of the above in addition to being a competent guide and a skillful coach. He must also be dynamic, practical and accessible.

My approach has always been to serve as a mentor more in the capacity of a coach than a teacher. A coach is considered as integral to the team, while a teacher is seen more as predicating from a pedestal. By being one who is part the team, if I'm successful, they're successful and if I fail, we all fail.

My greatest success and greatest challenge was rebuilding the fire service in Kosovo. It was here that I realized that my work had served more as mentoring rather than providing technical/professional assistance.

In June 1999, in the aftermath of the conflict which brought about the retreat of the Yugoslav Army from the Serbian province of Kosovo, the United Nations assumed the task of politically administrating the territory. All of the responsibilities of government were now handled by the U.N. and were carried out by functionaries from around the world. I was appointed the United Nations Fire Chief for Kosovo.

My duties as U.N. Fire Chief, in addition to commanding and administering the Fire Department, were to reorganize the entire service. The problems I faced were most complex and my daily decisions often translated into side effects of international politics. Kosovo is inhabitated by 1.8 million people that occupy 10,800 square kilometers. To help me rebuild this service I had put together an international team of firefighters that eventually represented 10 countries on 3 continents.

When I arrived in Kosovo's capital, Pristina, I had 285 individuals, most of whom had no training, no uniforms and very little turnout gear - gloves were considered a luxury. These men occupied 14 shacks with no heat that served as firehouses and operated 15 vehicles that somewhat functioned and for which there were no spare parts. In addition, the department was comprised of roughly 75% ethnic Albanians and 25% Serbs who have little regard for each other. The Albanians had not fought fires in 10 years since Slobodan Milosevic's oppression of Albanians forbade them to work in the public sector. In June of '99 they returned to take possession of the firehouses along with almost everything else in Kosovo.

I was initially seen as someone who could bring them lots of new equipment, new uniforms and fat paychecks. The only thing I promised them was a lot of hard work. I explained to the Kosovars from the beginning that I would always tell them the way it was and not fill them with empty promises which sounded nice. Unfortunately, the way it was, was quite bleak. I was always very firm with my firefighters. I demanded discipline and fairness and did not tolerate any form of ethnic discrimination. This held true for the Kosovars as well as for my U.N. firefighters.

While I couldn't give them a fat paycheck, I did contest the U.N. administration's policy on wages and was able to obtain the highest salaries for public employees for firefighters - $100 a month. The uniforms I did eventually obtain for them were the same as what my U.N. firefighters wore. In this way we were perceived as their peers rather than being superior or occupiers.

In many Serbian neighborhoods the U.N. was often viewed as an occupying force. The general feeling was the U.N. was favoring the Albanians. It was not safe for many U.N. staff to enter some Serbian areas, however U.N. firefighters were well received for the most part. Except on one occasion, when my vehicle was attacked and pelted with rocks, bottles and cobblestones during a protest as I responded to a fire in a factory shutdown by the U.N. for health reasons.

I also made it a point to socialize with the Kosovars and expected the same from the other U.N. firefighters. This socializing served to eradicate the sense of distance that was often perceived of many international staff sent to Kosovo to rebuild the province. Many "internationals" rarely frequented the Kosovars and therefore were never really accepted by the local population.

Being accessible also proved to be a positive influence in boosting morale. In the "bad old days", under the communist regime, it was almost impossible for anyone to have access to a high ranking public official. However, I established a policy, whereby any firefighter - regardless of rank - could come and see me without an appointment and would be received on every Monday. While I could not satisfy half of their requests, I was there to listen and give advice. Most of the requests were to solve the firefighters' personal problems. I was asked to: get them passports, find them housing, represent them in court, provide a job for their family members and retrieve weapons that had been confiscated by the U.N. Police, to mention a few.

I also made them understand that I would not tolerate any form of ethnic hatred and organized many meetings between Serbs and Albanians. The security situation made it impossible for them to work together in the same firehouse, so there were separate facilities. However, they did work together at fires and emergencies and were often attacked by the local inhabitants who didn't want Serbs and Albanians working together. So firefighters usually had to be escorted by U.N. Police in areas where I had a multi-ethnic situation. Occasionally, the Serbs and Albanians spoke on the phone with each other - not within range of anyone who could be listening - and clandestinely visited one another. Often these meetings were facilitated by using U.N. Fire Rescue vehicles.

To handle fires in one Serb enclave in the town of Orohovac we transformed an old Swiss Army ambulance into an engine. It was Albanian firefighter mechanics who built the engine for their Serbian colleagues. In May of 2001 I was able to take a team of 3 Albanians and 2 Serbs to the World Extrication Championships in South Africa.

These multi-ethnic accomplishments were monumental in a place like Kosovo. In fact, other than the fire service, Serbs and Albanians did not actually work, collaborate or socialize with each other.

The fact that I was able to keep morale high in a place where, for the most part, it is non existent and where nothing works - including electricity and running water - was a major accomplishment. It is for this reason that anything less than a mentor would not have been able to rebuild and lead a Fire Service in a place with so many serious problems.

In industrialized countries the individual can be from within the Department itself or from the Fire Service of the same country. Often it is the newly appointed Fire Chief in a Department plagued with problems that can be most successful in serving in this capacity. In the Third World the individual charged with mentoring the Fire Department must be brought in from elsewhere. No matter where a mentor would serve as the best solution in rebuilding a Fire Department, an individual that is a firefighter will be more successful in this role than someone who has never fought fires.

Mentoring a Fire Department can be as tough of a task in underdeveloped nations as in industrialized nations. In the Third World a foreign firefighter that comes to help is initially looked up to. However, the enthusiasm for the foreigner will tarnish quickly if he has problems in putting himself on the same level as the firefighters he is there to assist. Also, material resources may be close to non existent and the level of education of the firefighters may be very low with a very high illiteracy rate.

In the more well to do nations cynicism, internal politics, the general financial well being of the firefighters and the department - which may foment indifference, make it hard to erase many existing problems. This is true whether the new Chief comes from within the ranks or is hired externally.

While a Chief coming from within the Department is more intimate with the problems he may also be less objective and subject to conditioning by the political atmosphere that exists, to which he may even be a part of. An externally hired commander can be more objective but can be seen as an outsider who is meddling. It will take longer in this case for the new Chief to determine the "good guys" from the "bad guys" and to gain the trust of the firefighters.

In any case, to be successful in rebuilding an organization such as a Fire Department one must have a very clear and realistic vision of where the department should eventually be, what image it should project and what it will take to get there in a determined period of time. This timetable should serve more as a general guide rather than a precise schedule.

What is most important in formulating this vision is a complete understanding of the limits of the resources that are available - both human and material. What has helped me tremendously in formulating a vision that was attainable has been to make maximum use of what is available and not to exceed the limits or over estimate the value of existing resources. It makes no sense to procure new resources to solve a problem when the existing resources are not being taken advantage of to the fullest.

Only when we have that vision can we then begin to formulate solutions. The solutions must be both simple and practical. If not, they are not the right solutions or the vision we have formulated is beyond our capabilities and therefore unachievable.

A big part of being successful as a mentor is the impression we make in presenting ourselves and those who collaborate with us. We must be as professional in our appearance as we are in our performance. By setting this example we purvey the image that goes along with what the Department hopes to be. This includes the proper wearing of the uniform, being well groomed and physically fit. Setting a positive aesthetic example and being fair to all will serve as the indicator to the level of discipline that is eventually expected. In order to achieve our objectives we must make a radical change in the demeanor of the firefighters. A essential ingredient necessary for reaching this goal is discipline.

I attribute my accomplishments in reorganizing and rebuilding fire departments by being on the bench with the team, by setting a positive, professional example and maintaining a very high ideal that is attainable with the resources available.

By not merely providing a technical assistance program or giving firefighters empty promises of new equipment impossible to acquire or maintain, or trying to mimic Western Fire Department methods not applicable locally, it was possible to generate enthusiasm, instill discipline, provide hope and give these very poor firefighters a sense of identity and dignity they had never known before.

After 26 months, I left Kosovo with having put together a multi-ethnic Fire Department of over 500 uniformed and trained firefighters, manning 75 pieces of equipment out of 22 firehouses.