Mentoring: Opportunities to Pass Along the Tricks of the Trade

Dec. 3, 2006
We need to create opportunities for our veteran folks to share the hard-earned lessons of their fire service careers.

I must have touched a responsive chord with my recent commentary on the approach to training in the basics of our firefighting world. That commentary led to some interesting e-mail interactions, as well as a number of really neat telephone conversations. These interactions were all pleasing to me in that each was an opportunity to hear what you folks out there across our nation had to say about the state of the world in general and the fire service in particular.

These personal visits with you kind folks usually happen in the same exact way. Someone will send me a particularly interesting e-mail message. Upon reflection I decide that I could reply by e-mail, but that such an endeavor would take far too much time for me, the one two-finger typist, to accomplish. In situations like this I will ask the person who has sent me an interesting e-mail to give me a call at my home.

In that way each of us can listen to the other and bounce ideas back and forth over the phone. Some of my best thinking has been done with a telephone planted in the crook of my neck, a cup of coffee in one hand and a pen scribbling on a note pad in the other. My friends this is a great way to think, act, and meet people. I love these interactions with you kind folks.

Recently one of my regular readers sent me a message which stimulated my creative juices. He sent a really interesting response to the commentary I had written on training. Rather than spend a great deal of time pounding the keys for an e-mail response, I asked him to give me a call.

Over the course of our telephone conversation, Randy Brown of Angola, IN, turned up the temperature a bit and got my creative juices boiling. He and I spoke of our thoughts about training. He mentioned that he felt that the existing NFPA standards were good. He said, however, that they should serve as the jumping off point for further training operations in the fire service.

He felt that in their own way, these standards were a justifiable starting point for a person's journey through the world of the fire service. He and I agreed that the many times the problems we have experiences did not come from the standards themselves, but from the wide range of ways in which the various states in the Union used the standards.

Randy likened the content of NFPA 1001 to the basic training in the military. He spoke of the core foundation in that standard upon which everything should be built. He spoke to the fact that safety, survival, fire suppression, tactics, fire prevention, public education, specialized rescue skills, as well as management and leadership should then be layered over the basic skills provided at the beginning of an individual's career.

He then went on to discuss of the importance of mentoring our new firefighters. He stated that, "mentoring the new firefighter is a team responsibility. Although one-on-one training and direction provide the educational foundation, the team as a whole is responsible to complete each mission."

I agreed with him wholeheartedly. I too believe that mentoring programs should be designed to first assist the new firefighter in mastering the basic core skill knowledge for the job (NFPA 1001). The next step in the mentoring process is how to properly apply what we have mastered. During this step, tricks of the trade will be introduced.

Randy and I agreed that there were those topics that should be taught which are rarely, if ever, found in the textbooks of our field. He and I agreed that these should be called the "tricks of the trade", for want of a better name. I went on to discuss my concerns regarding the loss of tacit knowledge in our field. These would be those tricks of the trade that a person managed to safely accumulate on their journey through the fire service world.

There are generally two overall types of knowledge at work in society at any time. There is the explicit knowledge which is readily available in the texts and training programs of any field. Explicit knowledge is that body of information which has been gathered, sorted, quantified, modified, and catalogued. It is available for all of us to use.

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.

Think of this as a sort of big brother/big sister type of operation. You need to develop mentors with the ability to meet new people, assess their skills and interests, and then develop a productive relationship with that new person. In this way you will be able to grow a whole new crop of firefighters for your department.

This should not be terribly difficult. However, I need to stress that the people in your mentorship program need to be willing volunteers. The last thing that you need is a disgruntled, angry person influencing your new members. Make requests for mentors, not demands.

Once you create this program, keep an eye out for those people who can naturally strike up a conversation with people. Some people are just comfortable in interacting with others. Once you have made a few selections, assess their skill levels and see if they have interest in helping others. You may be surprised at who steps up to the plate on this issue. Some people might not naturally volunteer, but would be pleased to be asked.

Anyway, do not leave the future of your fire department to chance. Decide today that you want to make a positive change in how you shape the development of your new personnel. Let me close with a simple thought. Perhaps you can improve the retention of veterans by creating opportunities for new friendships. I could be wrong, but the successes I have seen with programs like this tells me I am probably right.

Why not take the time to create a mentorship program in your fire department.

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