The Prevention Evolution: Mentoring transfers knowledge to the next generation

The Prevention Evolution
Mentoring transfers knowledge to the next generation while expanding our perspective
By Jim Crawford

There’s been a lot of talk recently about mentoring in the fire service, and about how those of us who’ve been around for awhile need to bring younger people up to speed so that they can take over.

Most of us can count on someone filling the job when we leave, whether we mentor them or not. In the fire service, that process involves an exam, and we usually have limited influence on who gets selected. But we can still take responsibility for helping to guide the younger people in our departments, whether they assume our jobs directly or take a leadership position elsewhere. I think it’s especially important in prevention because of the complexity of the field and the rapid pace at which changes occur.

Looking Back
At the beginning of my prevention career, I was young, ambitious and I knew a great deal more than some of the people I saw in leadership positions—or so I thought. I could imagine myself doing a better job when I was in their shoes. Some would call that blind ambition, but it wasn’t really blind; I always knew what I wanted to do once I achieved a leadership position. I had plans for “improving” things and a desire to help bring the improvements to fruition. I was sometimes brash. I certainly was not polished. And I was arrogant (and naïve) enough to think that my ideas were right. That said, I was never one to try to get ahead at someone else’s expense. But I was anxious to demonstrate my skills and worthiness.

I needed mentors far more than I thought, and I found them, both in the departments where I worked and through national fire safety efforts in which I’ve been involved since 1981. Some of them took me under their wing despite my rough edges. And sometimes I was self-aware enough to be grateful, even amazed, that they were willing to do so. Gradually, I came to understand the adage about interviewing your younger self for your current job, and realizing that your younger self was not ready for the challenges that job presents.

That aspect of mentoring is fascinating to me. Mentors help us recognize the ambition, the blind spots and the limitations of our youth.

Another Perspective
Becoming a mentor, in turn, provides us an opportunity to reflect on the youth around us, to make allowances for their inexperience and their judgment of us, and to help them develop an appreciation for those who came before them.  
As the ignorance of my youth slipped away and my rough edges got smoothed over by a lot of mistakes of my own, I realized that some of those leaders I considered lacking were in fact better than me in some surprising ways. I began to see the value in what they had done—and became far less judgmental, because I had to admit I was far from perfect and made some really stupid decisions of my own. They weren’t perfect either, but they had a lot to teach me.

In fact, I learned a great deal about the knowledge levels (and skills) required for a complex prevention world—specialized knowledge for construction plan review, fire code adoption and enforcement, public education and marketing, and fire investigations. And perhaps the most important lesson: No one person can know it all.

That realization has influenced my view of mentoring as well. I can more easily see the value of the younger people around me. And I can accept the fact that in many ways they have talents superior to my own. I’m sure some of them are as naïve as I was, but their hearts are sure in the right place. And if they judge me—well, that is the nature of things. The knowledge I have is either worth learning from—or not. That part of the mentoring equation is not decided by me.

For another selfish reason, I think we must look to be mentors. One doesn’t work hard to make things better just to see old problems crop up again after we’re gone. Somewhere, our motivation to “move up the ladder” must transform itself into helping someone else continue climbing. And if we do it well, the reward is not just in gratitude. It’s in the realization that they didn’t have to start at the bottom, and are able to climb even higher than we did because we were willing to help them. It is how we collectively evolve.

A Lifetime of Learning
Many of the young have better talents, are better educated and have much more energy than me as I get older. For those willing to learn, there are many mentors available to serve as good role models. As they mature, perhaps like me they’ll appreciate the fact that we have much to learn from everyone around us. And for those of us who have been around for a while, we can agree to help—and in so doing, recognize that we may have as much to learn as we do to teach.

Jim Crawford recently retired as deputy chief and fire marshal with the Vancouver (Wash.) Fire Department and is chair of the NFPA technical committee on professional qualifications for fire marshals. He has written “Fire Prevention Organization and Management,” published by Brady, and has also written a chapter on fire prevention in “Managing Fire and Rescue Services,” published by the International City/County Managers Association. Crawford is a past president of the International Fire Marshals Association and has served on the NFPA’s Standards Council. He is a member of the IAFC and the Institution of Fire Engineers U.S. Branch.

Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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