Webster’s defines a mentor as “a wise and trusted counselor or teacher; an influential senior sponsor or supporter.” 

Fire departments and labor organizations have used mentoring programs with varying levels of success. Most have good intentions, but crumble with the lack of follow-through. A positive mentor-mentee experience can lead to accelerated wisdom and maturity, along with a life-long relationship. Perhaps a better way to describe mentoring is “coming alongside another person and investing in their life.” Often, the informal mentoring far exceeds the effectiveness of a formalized program within an organization. 

Most of us have relationships in our lives that, if analyzed, could be defined as mentoring. The uncle that teaches you how to fish or the older sibling that teaches you how to play basketball are examples of true mentoring. In our profession, it typically pairs a young firefighter with a seasoned veteran. Every facet of the job is covered, from crawling down a dark, smoke-filled hallway in search of the seat of the fire to the proper wrist motion in gargling a toilet. If the relationship “clicks,” it goes beyond the nuts and bolts of job performance and delves into personal aspects of the career: things like dealing with the work schedule, maintaining a healthy home life, the importance of supporting the union. 

Mentoring cannot succeed if the cadre of senior, wise and knowledgeable members doesn’t see the value. If their attitude is “the rookies won’t listen to me anyway,” or “my badge doesn’t say babysitter on it,” then the opportunities will dry up. Everyone loses when this happens. Conversely, if the mentee’s attitude is “I’ve got this thing wired, Pops,” the relationship will quickly dissolve and there is no transfer of valuable knowledge.  Again, no winners here.

For firefighters still getting started in your fire service career, it is important to remember that “there is nothing new under the sun.” If you’re open and interested in learning from the past, a mentor will gladly share how a specific situation was handled, along with what went well and the “I’ll never do it that way again!” Sometimes the mentee will need to weather the third retelling of a story, but the results will be worth the time invested. 

As for the grizzled veterans, don’t let your institutional memory fade. Whether mentoring the next generation of union leadership or just helping members deal with a crusty captain, you have a wealth of knowledge that will help those following in your footsteps.

 In my career, as both a firefighter and union leader, mentors greatly enhanced my growth. Actively involve yourself in being part of a mentorship. 

It’s well worth the time invested!