Mentoring Advances the Quality of Future Fire Service Leaders

Mentoring Advances the Quality of Future Fire Service Leaders
Seasoned fire officials can help prepare next generation’s leaders for excellence
By Kenneth Morgan

With varying missions, a constantly changing environment and decreasing revenue sources that hamper an increasing service demand, anyone in the fire service today knows our occupation is in constant fluctuation. The core of our occupation—firefighting—occurs less frequently, but when we do respond to fires, they’re more intense and more toxic than they used to be, and they spread faster due to the hydrocarbon-based products that fuel them. Add lightweight construction and you have a recipe for disaster.

Firefighters are getting less hands-on experience these days, making mentoring even more important for preparing the next generation of leaders. Photo

When you combine the fact that firefighters today have fewer opportunities to gain experience in our core mission with the fact that less experienced entry-level firefighters have different expectations, demands and abilities, it’s easy to identify a rapidly growing void in ensuring the effectiveness of our future leaders.

You might ask, aren’t our hiring and promotional systems intended to develop the best firefighters into officers? It’s true that the evaluation techniques used by most departments—including written tests, assessment centers, oral boards and job simulations—appraise personnel well, but they can’t evaluate a person’s ability or performance in real time or provide the knowledge that comes with years of experience. There’s a fundamental difference between training and developing personnel in task-related competencies.  

That’s where current fire service officers come in. We can assist in shaping and preparing the new generation of firefighters by having a positive influence on their attitudes and transferring our knowledge and experience to them. Seasoned firefighters and officers have a wealth of information, experience and abilities that, if not tapped, will be lost and unrecoverable. This experience is not restricted to our core mission, but encompasses the way we deal with personnel and cultural issues and the way we make critical decisions.

And this isn’t just a matter of having good officers in the fire service. Most fundamentally, it’s an issue of life and death. The firefighter injury and death rate remains steady despite a reduction in fire activity. Although there are several possible reasons for this, one theory suggests that the lack of experience in company officers is inhibiting the ability to recognize danger and react appropriately. Mentoring can provide tools to address this issue.

What is Mentoring?
Mentoring is a process of transferring organizational knowledge and experience to the organization’s junior members who may not have the opportunity to gain that experience. There are two general categories of mentoring: informal and formal. Informal mentoring occurs when a subordinate chooses a superior that has experience or knowledge the subordinate wishes to acquire. Formal mentoring programs assign a subordinate to a trained superior for the transfer of specific information. Although formal mentoring is accepted in private organizations, it sees limited use in the fire service.

The majority of mentoring that occurs today is of the informal nature. Informal mentoring has been in the fire service for years, and some departments recognize and support it as a valuable part of career development. In this regard, a prospective candidate identifies an individual (often a senior officer) that they trust to have the correct knowledge and skills to assist with the preparation for a position or promotion. They develop a cooperative, informal relationship of information transfer and skill refinement that develops the candidate’s attributes.

The problem with informal mentoring: It’s an individually selective process that has limited organizational benefit. Peer (lateral) mentoring is the most common informal  method, in which the mentoring relationship involves two officers of the same rank or a senior and junior officer. The individuals often benefit from this relationship, but the organization on the whole can still lack a robust leadership development program. Further, because peer mentoring is most successful in organizations that have flatter hierarchies and are more participative, it may not be appropriate for all fire departments.
Formal mentoring programs, on the other hand, ensure that all personnel have the opportunity to benefit. Further, formal programs make certain that the information transferred is adaptable to the organization as a whole, not just the individual.

What Makes a Good Mentor?
Those who teach or demonstrate a mastery of their occupations draw protégés who want to advance in their careers. A successful mentor is a guide, coach and teacher, as well as an advisor who provides options for challenges at hand. Mentoring is an ongoing process. The department's mentors should be senior officers who volunteer as mentors and are not in the protégé’s direct chain of command.

A major factor in effective mentoring is the mentor’s ability. Mentors must have qualities beyond experience, such as skill, motivation, communication, respect, proper attitude, motivation, loyalty, accomplishments and effective organizational values. They must be willing to allow protégés to experience failure, and help them understand the reasons why they failed—in other words, the mentor doesn’t manipulate you to succeed, they allow you to develop by experience under a watchful eye.

Further, it may help to think of mentoring not as a relationship between two individuals, but between the protégé and a network of available peers, each of whom has an interest in peer development. Because this network will represent a variety of career paths, interests and expertise, it can be a valuable sounding board for the protégés developmental issues, assisting them in setting career development goals. These leaders can also provide feedback on the protégé’s leadership style.

The advantage to mentoring is that all of this feedback is provided in real time, rather than waiting for a promotional exam to trigger the evaluation and feedback. Promotional assessments assume that the candidates have specific skills, abilities and experience; mentoring allows leaders to identify deficiencies in protégés’ abilities, and address them accordingly before the promotional assessment.

Why Establish a Mentoring Relationship?
Departments have many assets, the most important of which is personnel. Personnel require large investments in time and expense to ensure capable functionality. Developing this asset into a productive group is essential to mission function and safety. Mentoring complements performance and provides a conduit to integrate new employees and new officers.

Students in officer development classes often indicate their greatest fear of promotion is lack of officer training. A good mentoring program allows them to experience failure, because the mentor doesn’t judge them, but rather helps them understand why they failed. It also allows protégés to discover their strengths and weaknesses, and to make the right choices, even if the right choices aren’t popular.

Rookie officers may find that the books from which they learn and prepare for promotional exams have too much information and confuse them. Some information may not work in real situations within their region or jurisdictions. Whether in the form of job shadowing or acting within the trained capacity, mentoring is the answer. A protégé’s job ability, confidence and satisfaction increase with a good mentoring program, but we should take care not to detract from the process by evaluating protégés for the purpose of transferring our personal values. Mentors should not have hidden agendas. The idea is to guide the new officer in the right direction.  

Kenneth Morgan is a 27-year veteran of the fire service and has spent the last 23 years with the Clark County (Nev.) Fire Department. He is currently the deputy chief of operations, overseeing 650 personnel assigned to three battalions. Morgan, a Fire Officer VI and a CFO designate, has a master’s degree in Public Administration and has completed the EFO program; he is currently pursuing a doctoral degree.

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

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