I would like to start my journey by stating how honored I am to have been asked by Jason Moore to contribute to Fire Officer Mentor. I am in very good company. Jason asked me a few months ago to start contributing but it has taken me a while to start for several reasons. The first reason was I wanted to finish my bachelors degree program, which I have. The second reason was I was not really sure what I could contribute, as our profession seems to be saturated with subject matter experts. Since I am not an expert at anything, and did want to come across as one, I decided to just simply put my mentoring experiences as a mentor (and a “mentoree”) on paper.
Throughout my 30+ years in the fire service I have been fortunate enough to be part of organizations that placed value in training, education, and mentoring. This journey started in January 1976 as a volunteer at the Silver Hill VFD, Silver Hill, Maryland. After getting voted in as a member I had to complete some training on “layout” before I could even step foot on the back step. The requirements increased if I wanted to ride other positions. The mentoring that took place was designed to make sure I could meet the demands of a busy, urban volunteer fire department on the outskirts of our nations capital. Today that mentoring would be called hazing. I do not regret one minute of the “mentoring” I received at Silver Hill VFD. It built character, physical and mental toughness, and provided lessons I have used throughout my career.
In 1982 I was very fortunate enough to be hired by Fairfax County (Virginia) Fire and Rescue. During my 26 years with Fairfax County the mentoring was much more formal compared to Silver Hill. As I progressed through the ranks from firefighter to battalion chief it seems as if I had someone there every step of the way. There was Edson Dewhurst when I was a rookie. Steve Rhea when I was a HazMat Technician, John Gleske when I was a lieutenant, Jim Swiggett when I was a captain, and Jeff Coffman when I finally made BC. It would be nearly impossible to list all of those that have helped me along the way, and many do not even realize they were mentoring me. My point here is I did not get where I did without the help from others.
While employed with Fairfax County, education was required to move up in rank. Again, I was fortunate enough to be part of an organization that valued education. Throughout my career I earned my Bachelors Degree, Associates Degree, Fire Officer III, attend a Frontline Leadership Program, and attend the University of North Carolina (Charlotte) Fire and Rescue Management Institute, just to name a few. I have attended numerous seminars to hear all of the fire service “greats” speak about customer service, ownership, and mentoring. I have tried my best to emulate, practice, duplicate, apply, etc. all that I have been taught over the years. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.
During my career I have had highs and lows, just as we all have. Without going into detail, which is not important for this article, I suffered what I would call a severe blow to my professional esteem and overall self-worth. Throughout my life and career I have tried to help as many people as I could. I was never perfect, but I tried to lead by example. Rarely would I turn anyone down. I tried to provide training and educational opportunities to anyone I worked with. I tried hard to do the right thing (not popular, but right) most of the time. I looked back at all the training, education, seminars, and mentoring to try to make sense of this devastating blow. Nowhere could I find answers to help me understand what I did wrong, how things went wrong, and what I could do to fix it. My self-esteem was gone. My confidence was gone. I was gone. Slowly I regained some composure. But the leadership skills, the mentoring skills, and the confidence were still off in the distance. I wondered if I would ever get back to “normal”. Would I ever be able to project the confidence needed to be a positive mentor again?
Just a few days ago I got the answer I was looking for. I didn’t find the answer in a textbook. It wasn’t contained in any of the seminar material I still had. None of my past mentors called with any solutions. The answer was under the roof of my home. The answer to the question that has been nagging me, would I ever have the confidence to be a positive mentor again, didn’t come from a wise old firefighter, it came from my 14 year-old daughter. My daughter had to write a paper about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. She could have simply typed simple descriptions of the needs, used examples of famous people who have displayed meeting the needs, or even used herself as an example. She didn’t, she used me as her example. She listed “always made the right choice”, “winning in life”, and “realizing he could be all that he could”. My daughter stated that I have reached the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, self-actualization! Even though I was at what seemed to be my lowest point professionally, she saw it differently.
The reality of it is I never stopped mentoring. I allowed others to cloud my vision. I allowed others to take my confidence. I allowed others to steal my self-worth. Apparently all of the training and education did pay off. During my daughters 14 years on the planet I have displayed a positive mentoring sprit the whole time.
My message here is simple. First of all you are always being watched, even if you don’t think so. You don’t have to be perfect but doing the right thing (not popular) is real close to being perfect. Doing the right thing won’t make-up for mistakes, but it softens the blow a bit. Secondly, mentoring starts with the person you look at in the mirror every morning and has an impact on everyone you come in contact with, not just the new guy at the station. Helping someone load groceries into their car may be the moment that impacts the teenager who is watching from across the street.
Lastly, there is no on-off switch on mentoring. Try to make your actions count because you never stop mentoring even if you think you do.